I’m delighted to share filmmaker Gretchen Stoeltje’s experience with the I Welcome Change Post-it Note Challenge. Gretchen has used her Post-it Note Mantra to tackle those things that so many of us secretly struggle with: courage and confidence. She’s been facing her fears head-on, diving deep into the heart of them instead of hiding from them, and as a result her life is changing. I’m so inspired, and I think you will be too . . .
I WELCOME CONFIDENCE – ER, WAIT, I MEAN COURAGE!
By Gretchen Stoeltje
It’s been almost 13 years since I was thrown from the horse I love best: filmmaking. Nothing really dramatic happened – it’s just hard. I wasn’t making enough to live on and could not see how to make it work. At the time, it felt like failure, and the little confidence I had drained away with the last of my funds. So after finishing my third film, I took a different path: I invested heavily in higher education and landed a straight job. I have stability now, and a healthy supply of good stories from the trenches of state government. But it’s not me. It’s time for a big change.
I have been laying the foundation for that big change for over a year now, but it still had not happened. So when Kee Kee first sent her invitation out to a group of women to gather together during happy hour for the I Welcome Change Post-it Note Challenge, I thought the obvious thing for me to welcome into my life would be confidence. I’ve got warehouses full of ideas, designs, dreams, and plans, a fine body of work, and plenty of energy and contacts to help me get from A to B. In short supply, though, is the confidence to mobilize any of those assets. Who knows why I have so little – I think my brother got my entire family’s share. Whatever the reason, when faced with challenge, inspiration, ambition, desire, the first thing I feel is a baseball-bat-to-the-gut, skin-peeled-off-exposed-nerves, cortisol-fueled panic that sucks nearly all thought from my head and joy from my heart. I have learned to recover, but the recovery time itself feels too costly. In the meantime, dreams feel as though they are slipping away, and, too busy recovering from that panic, I can’t find the tenacity to hang on to them.
So, as I sat with my cocktail at the table with all the women participating in the I Welcome Change Post-it Note Challenge, I initially thought confidence must be the secret ingredient and should be the change I should choose to welcome as my Post-it Note Mantra. But instead, I chose courage, for a couple of reasons. First, I simply could not face a bunch of fascinating (no doubt also fabulous and confident!) women, and announce that I had no confidence. Surely I’d never be invited back! (I wish I could say I was kidding here but that really was the first thought that crossed my mind). And then, just before the gathering, a sleek, little, green-eyed, black cat came to me in a dream and said “Go find your courage medicine.” So that got me to thinking … maybe courage is more transformative and more powerful than confidence. For me, trying to become more confident feels something like denial about a fundamental part of my nature. And while I do believe that we have the capacity to rewire ourselves, what I thought might help me more in the meantime is to ask for something that would help me be brave, accept this debilitating imperfection, and move forward anyway. I think learning to take action and risk before I feel perfect might in itself cure my perfectionism, might turn cowardice to boldness, might alchemically produce confidence in the end because of trying and succeeding, or trying and failing and surviving anyway. So hoping for a little alchemy, I welcomed “courage” on my Post-It Notes.
After that, every few days I chose to do something in my professional life that a confident person would do. A challenge would present itself, to which my first response would be: Nah, not today. But then I’d catch sight of my cheerful, star-shaped post-it notes reminding me to welcome courage into my life, and I’d slow down and ask: Wait, what would a brave girl do? Who cares if you fail? Will you survive anyway? I didn’t run into any burning buildings, but I did begin to make small decisions that built up a subtly influential new thinking pattern: Sure. Why not? Go ahead. I found myself pitching projects, making phone calls, forcing myself to accept scary but exciting opportunities.
And six weeks later, I sat down with a screenplay that has been rattling around in my head and started putting it down on paper – literally. With post-it notes, to boot! And I am having so much fun!! I don’t have endless days, I don’t have screenwriting software, I don’t even have a real work space where I can spread out and see all my scenes and characters and events in one big picture and start moving them around. But I do have nights and weekends and a roll of butcher paper that I can unroll on the dining room table when I’m ready to work, and roll up again when I am done. And I have a million stories.
This was not the change I expected, or thought I was entitled to pursue. What I should focus on is a new J-O-B, I had thought. I should spend my time looking for a better paying gig, something that would take strategic advantage of knowledge of policy and my years in state government. And even though all the artists and visionaries of my generation warned against the slow, pasty death walk of a straight job with benefits and a retirement plan, I’m not so young and immortal as I used to be. I’ve learned the value of money, and access to my doctor. So I assumed the change would be a “legitimate” new Day Job.
But right now it isn’t. Choosing to spend my own time on art instead of a “responsible” career move is not an easy choice. It takes – yes – courage to overcome the judgment. Guilt creeps in: not looking at job postings? Wasting that law degree? Not leveraging my policy expertise? Then there is the discouraging fact that writing, like anything else, is real work that is hard to do well when squeezed into small blocks of time at nights and on weekends. When too much time passes between those nights and weekends, I lose touch with that joy and flow. In order not to lose hope, I have to, (yes again!) welcome courage so I can happily make this risky choice.
I have not been so happy in many years. I feel like I have finally learned to enjoy this process and give shape to all the wonderful, sad, silly and remarkable things that I’ve been lucky enough to witness and feel. I won’t pretend that outcome no longer matters. I want to finish this screenplay and make the film. And I want to do that again and again. But sitting in front of my butcher paper timeline, rearranging plot points and character arcs, watching scenes play out in my head, listening to characters talk to each other the way people really talk, I feel more whole and more myself than I have in many years. I am back on the horse I love best. Wherever it takes me – and I know it will be somewhere good – I love the ride.
Thank you Kee Kee. You are some kind of magic.
Post script: Weirdly, as I finish this essay, my current job is shifting in a way I never thought possible. I have worked towards this change for some time now, but had all but given up until Kee Kee challenged me to welcome whatever I needed to welcome. So even though I’ve envisioned this for a while, what’s happening now is a slow motion and direct reaction to projects pitched and phone calls I made after I met Kee Kee and accepted her challenge. I repeat: thank you!!
Gretchen Stoeltje lives in Austin, TX. Curious, empathic, and wry, Gretchen’s films strive to recast women in their own images, from West Texas rattlesnake queen to post-cold war, mail order bride to turn of the century Every Teen, in hopes that we may all become the heroines of our own stories. Visit her website www.gretchenstoeltje.com, and watch her sizzle reel below.