Book Talk: SOME NERVE, by Patty Chang Anker

SOME NERVE by Patty Chang Anker

Riverhead (October 2013), hardcover (ISBN 1594486050 / 9781594486050)
Nonfiction (memoir/self-help), 368 pages
Source: ARC from publisher
Reason for reading: Personal

I don’t usually quote more than the opening passage when I write about books here, but Patty Chang Anker captured something that smacked me in the face on page 161 (ARC) of Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave (emphasis added):

“The girls and I have something in common. We’ve been told all our lives that we’re smart…(T)here are two problems with this. One is that, if you actually are smart in some areas (which most people are), and things come easily to you there, you don’t get in the habit of working hard to figure things out. The second is that if you really are gifted in *every* area (and no one I know is), being told you’re smart makes looking or feeling dumb intolerable. We’re not supposed to fail. If we fail, it’s the activity that’s dumb, not us. Of course, underneath it all is the ever-present fear that we’re not really smart or capable at all, but we have to keep the world believing we are.

Physical and emotional traumas are commonly accepted as underlying roots of crippling fears, but “Impostor Syndrome”? Fear of screwups that could undermine your entire self-image? If I wrote in books, this bit would be highlighted with “story of my life” written in the margin alongside it. I’ve been working on changing that story since I officially entered “midlife” a decade ago. That was Anker’s milestone as well, and Some Nerve–a book born on her blog Facing Forty Upside Down–talks about how she, and others, changed their stories by doing what they feared.

As the mother of two young daughters, Anker realized that she didn’t want to be a “do as I say, not as I do” parent, and that she’d have a lot more credibility getting her kids to try intimidating new things if she was willing to as well. She wanted the girls to learn to swim, but she’d need to overcome her own fear of water in order to join them (and not be deterred by the broken foot she suffered during a trip to the beach with a friend); she took lessons in diving and surfing. A lifelong city girl, she learned to ride a bicycle so she could help teach her daughters how to do the same.

As she began facing her fears, and writing about her experiences while doing it, Anker came into contact with people who could help–and with people who wanted help to do what she was doing. Anker’s biggest fears concerned activities requiring physical skill, and while she didn’t experience some other common fears–such as flying, heights, and public speaking–she believed that they could be addressed with a similar combination of coaching, instruction, exposure, and gradual experience doing the scary thing. In moving from blog to book, Anker expanded her scope beyond her own efforts to include the stories of others who wanted to get out of their narrow, uncomfortable “comfort zones,” and were willing to share the process of doing so.

Some Nerve is a hard-to-pigeonhole book, and I think that may work to its advantage. As an account of one woman’s efforts to become a braver, better role model for her children by learning to do things that scared her, it’s memoir in subject and form. As an account of the specific steps that she, and others, took to overcome their particular fears, it’s inspirational and encouraging in the manner of self-help books, but because it takes a storytelling rather than instructive approach, it avoids “how-to” territory. Anker’s earnest, conversational style and good humor made it easy for me to connect with her as a reader, and she came across as someone I’d like to know better as a person. I hope she’ll continue talking about this–I’ve managed to conquer my own fear of highway driving, but I’m still apprehensive about plenty of other things, and I could certainly use the support.

Rating: 3.75 / 5

Book description, via the publisher’s website:
Patty Chang Anker grew up eager to please and afraid to fail. But after thirty-nine years, she decided it was time to stop being a chicken. 

Motivated initially to become a better role model for her two young daughters, she vowed to face the fears that had taken root like weeds, choking the fun and spontaneity out of life. She learned to dive into a swimming pool, ride a bike, do a handstand, and surf. As she shared her experiences, she discovered that most people suffer from their own secret terrors—of driving, flying, heights, public speaking, and more. It became her mission to help others do what they thought they couldn’t, and to feel for themselves the powerful sense of being alive that is the true reward of becoming brave.

Inspired and inspiring, Some Nerve draws on Anker’s interviews with teachers, therapists, coaches, and clergy to impart both practical advice and profound wisdom. Through her own journey and the stories of dozens of others who have triumphed over common fears, she conveys with humor and infectious exhilaration the most vital lesson of all: Fear isn’t an end point, but the point of entry to a life of incomparable joy.

Opening lines:
“I’m in a bathing suit, and people are laughing. Oh, this can’t be good.

“The sun was a spotlight on the diving board. It must be 20 degrees hotter up here, I thought. My forehead was sweaty, and, come to think of it, so was everything else. 

“I bent over. The image of Tiffany Chin skating her 1987 U.S. Nationals long program with a wedgie in her blue Lycra costume flitted through my head. I dug my toes into the nubby wet board and tried to get a grip on my own situation.

Do I have a wedgie? I don’t think so.”

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