At a publishing event this past fall, a literary agent told me about his recent trip to Copenhagen and visiting one of Denmark’s most famous churches, called Church of Our Saviour. An amazing city view lies at the top, if you can get there, but it’s not for the weak-kneed. The route consists of 400 winding steps to the pinnacle, with the last 150 spiraling outside the spire.
You read that right—outside the spire. This means that your final ascent, which is about 27 stories above street level, is considerably less safe than the first 250 steps you take.
Climbing to the top of Our Saviour sounds a lot like being an artist, writer—or any human being who wants to do something. We start at the bottom, slowly chugging upward, unable to see where we’re going, or what to expect as we twist to the next level. There may be people supporting you in the beginning—friends, peers, colleagues—but they may also fall away, returning to the safety of the bottom level when it becomes too difficult to keep going.
But you continue. Maybe resting along the way, taking a moment to catch your breath, but continuing nevertheless.
And when you’re close to the top, the stakes get higher. Like the spire of Our Saviour, the challenge grows. Fear grows. Not only are you more exposed, but your work is exposed to more people as well, inviting judgment and rejection. This is where you can return to the bottom, running away even though you’re close to the top. Or stay and tough it out. You suddenly have a view of what’s above and decide maybe that’s far enough, especially if you’ve experienced some success. It’s easy to get distracted and complacent, to admire what’s around you instead of pushing past the panic that accompanies the treacherous climb ahead.
The final choice, of course, is to surge forward, to throw caution to the wind and decide you’ve come too far, overcome too much to stop there, just below where you want to be. This isn’t the easy choice. The climb only becomes more difficult, the opinions of others sharpen to a serrated edge. And if you’re taking a leap of faith, the level of rejection grows higher. In the time it took you to ascend the first 250 steps might equal the time it takes you to climb the final third to the top.
All creative people, whatever your medium, will experience this, and if you’re determined to meet your goals, then you’ll probably be outside the spire many times.
If this is your choice, welcome to the party! There are many of us here with you, shivering against the elements, our knees knocking together in fear, hoping we don’t chicken out. You’re in good company. Because the only people who make it to the top are those who try.