Booting Away the Fear

Julia Dudley-Kramer

Bullied as a kid, mocked for being smart, I grew up shy, not wanting to attract attention, happiest on my own. I loved becoming a novelist, writing at home, occasionally doing a bookstore reading, where maybe two people showed up, one wanting a warm place to sleep, the other guzzling the free wine.

But five years ago, my new publisher, Algonquin, told me my ninth novel was already in its sixth printing before publication. To help promote it, I had to tour 40 cities and speak to large audiences.

I was terrified. How was I going to do this and not pass out?

“What you need is a talisman,” a friend told me. “A way to fake it until you make it.”

I liked the idea, but I wasn’t sure what to adopt as my talisman. Maybe it should just be words, a mantra I could repeat over and over, something like I can do this. But every time I said the mantra, I heard a stronger voice telling me, No, you can’t.

I rifled through eBay, trying to find something that someone confidant and spirited would wear, something that would make others look at me and think, Well, now, that’s a kick-ass woman who has something to say. Let’s all pay special attention to her.

And then I saw them. Ten-dollar, bright-red short cowboy boots. I never wore anything but sneakers, and I never wore any color that wasn’t black. Still, I bid on them, and two hours later they were mine.

When they arrived, they looked ridiculous, as bright as tomatoes, as pointed as exclamation marks. What was I thinking? But when I put them on, for a moment I felt different. More powerful. More free and easy.

The first time I had to speak, in front of 150 librarians, I wore the boots. I was so nervous beforehand. My editor later told me she noticed my trembling and thought, “Oh my, this isn’t going to work.” But when I walked to the podium, someone called out, “Rad boots!” and I felt myself grow feisty. In those boots, I wasn’t a terrified author who felt on the brink of failure. I was a woman who kept a tiger cub for a pet, who line-danced until 3 a.m., and I began, confidently, to talk.

I clung to those boots my whole tour, taking on the persona of the woman who might wear them. I boldly told really personal stories, and the audiences clapped. I went out for dinner with people, and the boots eroded my shyness. To my astonishment, the crowds grew right along with my confidence. A month later, to celebrate, I bought two more pairs of boots, one in purple and one in turquoise.

The boots began to have a fan club. They were celebrities! People showed up for my events wearing their own cowboy boots, wanting our boots to be photographed together.

One day, I saw a pair of embroidered Old Gringo cowboy boots. They were $600. The old me would have sighed and let it go. But the new me called up the manufacturer and offered to write ad copy in exchange for the boots. A week later, I was wearing them.

I was convinced my boots made me a lucky person. I wore them through a blizzard in Chicago, through a tornado in the Deep South and on a day an ice storm shut down the city of Boston. I stayed calm, able to handle anything.

To my amazement, I became a New York Times best-selling author and sold my next novel. I knew that I had done this, not my boots. When I began to realize the boots weren’t that comfortable, I stopped wearing them. I still had crowds at events. I still had laughter and applause. I had practiced being confident for so long, I’d actually become the person I set out to be.

Here’s a secret. Sometimes, when I pass my closet and see my boots in all their glory, I feel them whispering to me, reminding me: Imagine what could happen, who you could be. And then be it.

Caroline Leavitt is the author of “Pictures of You” and “Is This Tomorrow.” Her most recent book, “Cruel Beautiful World” (Algonquin, 2016), was an Indie Next pick, and a Best Book of the Year according to Blogcritics and the Pulpwood Queens. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.

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