To Dream, Perchance to Cry

I think it’s a good thing to take a look at why you write. If you’re writing because you must, because you feel driven and have a deep desire to reach an audience and have a readership that loves your books, it’s good to step back and examine your motivation.

If your desire is to entertain, motivate, inspire, move, elicit a certain reaction, or push an agenda, then it’s important to understand why this is important to you.

Why? Because once you understand your need to write and what is driving it, you can honestly and practically both assess and plan how you will handle your writing life.

For, I’m talking about writing as a life—for those who write because they have to. Not the person who gets one great idea and throws together what they feel will be a big best seller to cash out, but the person who is deluged with words, ideas, stories, characters, premises. For such people, writing is life. A life without writing would be barren and miserable.

 When the Dream Doesn’t Materialize

Some people who need to express themselves in their writing find a fulfilling outlet through journaling, or writing a column in the local paper, or posting regularly to a blog. For them, this satisfies their need to communicate through the written word.

But there are tens of thousands of writers who aspire to write a best-selling novel, who yearn for acceptance, recognition, fame, fans, large advances, huge sales. They may deny they want most or all of these things, but deep inside, this is their greatest dream—to be riding the crest at the top of the NY Times best-seller list and selling more than a million copies worldwide.

Is it wrong to want that? Of course not. But like wanting anything that is difficult to attain—the question is, how obsessed with this dream are you? What will happen if you don’t attain it? Will you be satisfied ever with less, and what does that place look like for you? (If you didn’t read my last post on the obsessive author, check it out!)

You see, I believe the problem most authors have (and this applies to numerous multipublished authors who have enjoyed good sales of their novels) is they have a standard or measure of success that they’ve set on the finish line and they’re running toward that, eyes focused on that alone, and until they get “there,” they can’t really feel any deep or lasting satisfaction, sense of fulfillment or accomplishment, or self-worth. I have seen countless authors bemoan their career, their failure to get big sales or the best book contract, and sink hard into depression and cry for days—myself included.

 Postpartum Depression

In fact, to be honest, I have often gone into a kind of mourning period right after I complete a novel, a dark depression that lingers sometimes for a week. And even after I pull out of it, it simmers under the surface, building and souring year after year as I wait for that novel to sell, added to all the other novels I have written that still haven’t sold.

As sick as it sounds, I have sometimes thought of my completed novels as stillborn babies. I spent so many months growing, nurturing, slaving over this beautiful project that completely engaged and enwrapped my heart, only to see it sit completed on my computer screen with almost no hope that it will live. My mourning is very similar to mourning a death, for I know the odds of that book getting picked up by a big publisher and marketed to become a runaway best seller (which, of course, is what I absolutely believe it deserves) is close to impossible.

Yet my story is not unusual. In fact, many authors dive into writing a novel with a wing and a prayer, hoping that against all the odds, this book will break out and become the stuff of legends. And so much of their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth are riding on this improbable success. Why do we torture ourselves this way? Why can’t we help dreaming and wishing and hoping; why do we ignore the facts? Why do we waste years of our lives riding on this hope and why is it so important to us?

I hope these thoughts resonate with you. Not that I hope you are suffering in this way. but if you have moments like this, I want to encourage you, because I think there are ways we can readjust our thinking and truly find joy in whatever place we’re in, as far as our career goes. So check back next week for more thoughts on surviving and thriving in your writing life!

Watch this short clip on famous failures and maybe you’ll want to “join the club.”

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  1. This is so true, and I’ve experienced the same feelings in past years. Because I was convinced at the time that going the traditional route with my writing was the only way, I subjected myself to rejection and frustration. I allowed the industry to beat me down, but the rejection and frustration made me stronger. I made up my mind to take control of my writing career. I self-published directly through Kindle and Nook and realized that there was an audience from my writing.

    Now I thank God daily for the letters I receive from readers telling me how much they enjoy my books. I may not be selling millions of books, but the thousands I am selling mean success to me.

    We can have a successful writing career when we stop believing that there is only one acceptable way to get there.

  2. What a great post. I’ve almost finished my first book and I know that I’m delaying the publish bit for the reasons you describe around post partum depression. I do need to let it go and release it. I do wonder though what I will replace it with. I’m sure I’ll think of something. Thank you for your words – they reasonate!

    1. lol – I’m dragging my heels on the publishing side as well, finding all sorts of reasons to delay jumping in at the deep end. Glad to know I’m not alone!

  3. Good post. It was my belief I was the only person who had ‘postpartum depression’ after a book was finished, after months of being up close and personal with my characters and their situations. Good to know I am not alone:-)
    The film clip was an excellent reminder.

  4. Yep, thanx for another inspiring post. As my stories have morphed into several books, all of which are in phases of rewrite, I haven’t yet experienced the postpartum depression, because the other stories are piled up waiting for their turn on the screen. But I do wonder what it will be like if they are published and set in stone…the journey continues.

  5. Perchance that to be or not to be is the question, the answer must be that in not being one is. The Human being the verb rather than the noun

    The Zen doctrine of No Mind??

  6. Thank you! Your words once again hit home for me. You have encouraged me to bravely let go of my novel and allow the process to evolve it to a better story. Does it get easier the second time around?

    1. Yes, it does! At least the writing does. As far as keeping joy despite not seeing “results” in world terms(sales, contracts, etc.), I think we all struggle with finding that balance between wanting just to write and wanting to have a reach (to an audience).

  7. I would encourage every writer to find like-minded authors in person or on-line as a support and critique network. I’ve found this to be immeasurably helpful in getting my work together for a publisher (which I did find ) and for the important aspect of honest, but caring criticism. Writing on an island might work for a while, but we all need support at times.

  8. Resonate indeed! I totally get that — writer blues. It’s a battle every time, all the time, but you’re right that pulling that out and shining light on it goes a long way to finding workable ways to manage this life, to stay productive and positive. Thanks for writing!

  9. Thanks for an encouraging and informative post. I am a soul who must write — the thoughts, images and words are in my head all the time. Currently, I’m finding great satisfaction through my blog and meanwhile drafting a memoir. Whether it is ever published or not, the memoir will be a gratifying project leading to much healing and catharsis for me personally. What other reasons do I need after reading your intuitive and compelling post.

  10. This post should be repeated for every aspiring, non-published writer. The still born reference is very fitting. I’ve been grieving since Christmas, when I got my first novel back from my editor. Thanks.

  11. Thank you! You’ve helped me see why I’m still pursuing traditional publishing. Acceptance… not so much the big sales.

  12. This does resonate so deeply in me. I have been working on my first novel for three years now. I am struggling to finish it, and now that I’ve read this post I think I might be struggling to finish it because then it will be over…the thinking and nourishing of the story. When I finish reading a great book or series, I can feel a little depressed. After all, I’m saying goodbye to characters that have become dear to me. There is a small death involved. I’m sure it will be far worse with my own character…Thanks for explaining me to me!

    1. It’s my experience that many writers new to the publishing process are delusional. It’s common for an aspiring writer who hasn’t tested the market to have dreams of a BIG publishing deal replete with a 6-figure advance, publicist, book tour, and a movie deal. I’m not sure why, because it is the exception rather than the rule. But the dreaming typically comes to a screeching halt when that writer submits her work and gets these responses from agents and/or publishers: “doesn’t fit our list,” “didn’t pull me in,” “isn’t fresh,” “didn’t fall in love with the voice,” “not for me; send me your next novel.” The delusions come crashing down, the the writer re-evaluates and her expectations are more aligned with reality.

      The sea change that’s occurring in the publishing industry may make publishing dreams more possible. With self-publishing, writers can cut out the publishing henchmen and seek an audience for their work. Whether and how they’ll find one are big question marks. But at least writers can move their work from the hard drive of their computers to an arena in which they might just find readers–good news for writers and readers alike.

  13. Great post and thank you. It rang so many bells for me and reminded me that the postpartum depression of writing one stillborn novel actually kept me “stuck” and not trying again for years. Powerful stuff.

    But that is no longer the case. I wrote another bottom-drawer novel last year – but that’s got all the “my terrible past” stuff out of the way, despatched the villains in my life and now I can move on with the new novel I’m planning and outlining now (character-led, not author-led!) Hurrah. There was a point, a meaning, to those stillborn babies 🙂 I have learned from them and they have made me treasure these new ideas that have a fair chance of being sent “out there” and having a life.

    Love blogs like yours. Both helpful and encouraging.

  14. This is more like it. Looking at what it might take to be your own writer – thanks for taking this approach to sharing your ideas about writing and ‘what it’s like’ from the emotional level. There’s a lot of repetitive ‘how to’ stuff and ‘state of the biz’ stuff… but for a lot of us we write to find our true writer. For some maybe they aren’t looking for that as you’ve pointed out. Here’s what I think of in this regard: ‘Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.’ Cyril Connolly

  15. Thanks for your words of inspiration. I think recent times have gotten me down: continued unemployment, sick parent, what little books sales I had ten years ago are now practically gone… I originally began fiction writing because I loved sharing stories and creating characters and zany situations, but now it’s become a “must” to create a best-seller because we don’t have much bread on the table. Poverty really zaps the writer’s joy, and without joy, the stories that I’d rather be writing don’t get shared and I feel even more depressed. To get back to that original motivation of why you have to write (and not let present circumstances get you down) is the real challenge.

  16. Your article certainly spoke to me today. I recently self-published in December and was beginning to go down the path you describe. I am frustrated and don’t really know where to go from here. However, I wrote a book that for those who read it, it seems to be well received. I need to focus on those that have read and whose lives have been touched by what I have to say. I don’t need to focus on the things that haven’t happened; rather I need to be thankful for what has! Great words of encouragement. May you be blessed today!

  17. I couldn’t agree more. My debut novel came out this January and I keep wondering when more people are going to write reviews, what should I do to help? Is there anything I can do? Is it a failure? It’s so easy to despair when things don’t go as envisioned. Your post really resonated with me today especially the video you found. Thanks for sharing.

    1. There is a plethora out there of book reviewers–tons of book bloggers and sites all dedicated to reviewing. One afternoon I flipped through #bookbloggers hash tag and contacted a few and they all asked for my book to review. It takes time (my goal is to hire someone ten hours a week to do this contacting and sending my books out or epub or mobi files to reviewers), but you can get reviews. I’m slowly getting reviews on all my novels out there, and I’m always grateful to readers when they tell me they loved my book, and I then ask if they would be so kind as to post a review for me. They almost always do. Some don’t think to do that.

  18. Thanks! This post means a lot to me, which I know because now I’m kind of bawling. I’ve published small things, but this is the first chapter book, and I really know that I’m scared to death to actually publish it when it is ready, because I want it to be alive. It is fully alive in my head right now, and all my characters have life. But – if I publish it with the goal of sharing it with other people, and only a few people know of it, it would feel to me like my characters aren’t fully alive. I’m feeling guilty about it already, preemptively, because it’s for children, and I know that children’s stories don’t sell huge amounts, so what am I doing to my characters, relegating them to a half-life? When they are perfectly happy in my head? Are they the ones that want to come out or am I making them? I don’t want to feel like I’ve killed them.

  19. The fear of failure is overwhelming every time you put yourself out there. When you pour your broken heart and scraped-thin soul into your work, it’s only human to hope for some kind of success. Still, I have to agree, most writers experience the depression at some point. I’m not so much depressed right now as I am overwhelmed with the process. I finished my debut novel, it’s due for release by Satya House in October. I’ve got a great publicist, and although the stars, moon, and the planets are lined up, I know there are no guarantees. I’ve worked myself to a nub, and yet I know there are no guarantees. So why do it? Because I can’t see myself doing anything else. Because if I’m not writing, I’m thinking about it. Writing is something one never retires from. It’s the third beat in my heart. You do it and hope for the best, but it really doesn’t matter in the end. You just keep on writing. And cry a little in the meantime.

  20. It’s something I had perhaps never consciously and proactively articulated to myself – why I write. And yet, when someone else points out why it’s worthwhile to do so, it seems very logical and even obvious; like many great truths. Because a destination may sometimes be more important than the journey, but can other destinations than the one you envisaged be rewarding too?

    And when you think about it, it can be applied to many facets of life, not just writing. Why do we do other things that are driven by passion – work, outside interests, relationships? And how can we get the best out of them and live them well when we feel there are setbacks or if things don’t turn out exactly as we hoped? In other words, how can we live well with what we attain, not just with what we don’t.

    Valuable food for thought, I’d say. And not just for writing.

  21. You ask an important question, one that, as writers, we should stay tuned to.

    I began writing at an early age, but it took me until old age to understand what I really wanted to say.

    Thanks for a great post and reminder.

    Rahma Krambo | Author
    Guardian Cats and the Lost Books of Alexandria

  22. So needed to hear this today…you must’ve read my mail Susanne:-) I write because I have to. I am a have a driving need to inspire, entertain and most of all give people hope. For me, I guess that comes thru stories that move people. Despite down days(which I have regularly), I do enjoy the journey 🙂 Really loved the video !

  23. Thank you for this post. I am driven to write because I have a story inside me and it will not let me rest until it is on paper. I love my characters like they were my own kids and they deserve to live – somehow. I will try the traditional route first but failing that, I know I can self publish. It’s very liberating. If traditional publishing was the only way – I might not finish out of fear of working as hard as I do on this book and knowing that my chances were slim to none. Nowadays, if there is a desire, there is a way. 🙂

  24. This is the post that I needed to read; not only today, but at this very moment. Thank you so much for writing these words of encouragement and wisdom.

  25. A great post and so true. Writing is very close to the soul and spirit of serious writers. I think the best thing to do is to have the next project on the back burner and bring it to the front burner as soon as you finish your current book.
    And for good or bad, the new publishing model allows one to go directly to the reader. No one has to wait on a blessing from the agent and publishing oracles. They will come to you after you’re successful.

  26. The ‘high standard’ thing I undersand, but not the ‘postpartum depression’ part. I don’t write to sell; I write to write (though selling would be nice). Instead of giving birth I think of it as climbing a mountain, and there are always more mountains.

    1. Brian, I’m glad you don’t suffer that depression. Many writers I know do. Especially those of us who pour so much of our passion and soul into the book we are writing, feeling a strong need to share a theme and these characters with readers. I never feel like my writing a novel is like a climb. It is always a deep excavation into my own heart, and I touch on things about myself I may not have known or didn’t want to look at. Each novel is always a learning experience for me–and mostly about myself more than about writing.

  27. Oy!

    Yeah, I’ve just finished my first novel ever (Yay!) And suddenly feel depressed. So depressed that I can’t even start work on the sequel. I guess because I know this book is a tough sell as it doesn’t fit anywhere really and before I invest time and effort in the sequel I want to get this out. Add to this, this book has been under construction off and on with my friend (sort of co-plotter/author) and I for more than ten years.

    On one hand I know the odds of rejection are high. On the other I get crabby if I don’t write. It’s like watching tv for me, I just write the show down.

    I also feel depressed I think because of delusions of grandeur that “it’s writing novels for a career or nothing.” The thought of another 30 years (i’m30something) in a 9-5 corporate environment makes me want to cry.

    Ya’ll probly feel similarly, but man, I just don’t know where to go from here.

    1. I completely understand; that’s why I wrote that post and often write about the struggle being an author. That’s why I started this blog–to encourage writers with ways to thrive and not get discouraged. I’ve had some great posts since the launch in January–you might want to go back and read all the ones in this category (Writing for Life) that deal with success and the need to write. I hope they will help you. The writing life is a lifelong challenge, but if we feel led to write, we can’t not write, so we have to learn to find joy along the way. Thankfully, we can now upload eBooks and self-publish. Some of my books just won’t fit in with traditional publishers and I have cried over them too. BUt now I”m getting lots of readers and reviewers and people writing saying they love thse books, and that’s why I write. I would encourage you to read the post on Standing on the Mountain of Success.

  28. I write because I have to.
    I see that the highway to writing is, learn to write, write, publish, become a best seller and celebrity.
    I don’t really care about that. The odds of ‘bottling lightning (a phrase I read this morning, not mine) are low.
    Many people want their voices to be heard. That’s a reason to write or to tweet.
    But no matter what a person accomplishes, there’s always another step up.
    A best selling author gets their book made into a movie. There is no end to the possibilities. Next one wants a classic that’s remembered for generations.
    I am satisified if I write a story I’m pleased with.
    I will be satisfied if I self pub a story I’m pleased with.
    The reality of life is that sometimes, most times, creators are not recognized in their lifetime.
    Good to keep in mind.

  29. This certainly does resonate.
    I have to write. Writing is who I am. But I write to be read and there are times, yesterday being one, when I receive a rejection and I want to curl up into a little hole.
    They are like babies. Babies no one wants to look at. Like babies who have two heads or small tails that agents and publishers wrinkle their noses at.
    I am new to blogging, which I have found I love. I chat and people come and read. They read my blog and read my fiction and I feel I am meeting people on the same wavelength.
    But there is that little walnut hard piece in the centre of me that wants publication, has wanted it since I was a small child and knew what a book was.
    I think this post sums up all that writing is about.

  30. Thank you so much for this post. It’s something I definitely needed right now. I am in an interesting situation with work and some personal projects that don’t seem to be turning out as I hoped. But, it’s okay to fail. But it’s not okay to give up. Keep trying. What really matters is that I love what I’m doing.

  31. Beautiful post! Thanks for the words and honesty.
    I finished my 1st book in August and have battled almost everyday with ‘what now’ how do I get it to the right readers. I’m doing some research and I believe I will find the direction. There are so many writers and so many books. The competition is vast.
    You are an accomplished author; a good author and yet you want an expanded readership; which you should.
    If we; if you, feel strongly enough about our work, your work, then we want readers, because there is a message in our work and a reason why we write. Those who pursue the best seller for the sake of the fame can have it.
    Those who want readers to move them, affect them, change them; I think those are the writers who probably feel the strongest about wanting a larger readership. But…I think The Lord has assured me, and I hope you too, that he will expand and grow the reader base. You are so far ahead of me, please forgive my boldness in speaking bluntly but I am encouraged by your work and I hope to encourage you as you have encouraged others!
    Many blessings to you! and may your fan base grow that the passion you have might inspire so many others.
    Thanks for the great post

  32. Susanne,

    This sense of loss as you summit is not JUST a writing depression. I’m a cancer survivor who set out to ride a bicycle across America in the summer of 2010. Accomplishing that goal, a goal I carried for twenty years, was amazing and depressing. The depression was made deeper and darker by the need to return to chemo within weeks of return. Chemotherapy is depressing (lol).

    Your writing coaching is NOT depressing, but helpful, kind and insightful. Little did I know when I wanted to run and hide my first day in English at Choate that writing would be how I make a living. I write about marketing, but without the ability to tell stories I would be sick and unemployed and that would truly suck (lol).

    Thanks for sharing your time and talent so freely. Anytime you need SEO, SEM or Ecommerce advice you have a source who owes you more than he can repay.



    Martin Smith
    Director Marketing
    Atlantic BT

  33. I really enjoyed this, especially the FAIL video. Most of the time I appreciate and understand the criticism in rejection letters, but I have a few that are real head-scratchers that I’ll keep on file for when those books are published!

    It’s so true, if you haven’t failed, you haven’t lived. I wish this was passed onto children more. Seems these days no one wants to do anything to make a kid feel badly. This includes giving a trophy to every kid who just shows up, regardless of effort. We need to change this attitude so our children feel motivated to work harder, to try and to take risks!

  34. We have a friend who is a coach/consultant and he said to me a while ago, ‘What will success look like?’ and I had to really had to consider what was the real motivation behind my writing novels. I had to admit that to some extent, selling a good number of books is important to me, but that is not the only indicator of success. As Lori, says in her comment above – I know that the story has touched lives and that is important too. It doesn’t stop me wanting it to be a best seller though and I don’t think that’s wrong.

  35. I appreciated the transparency of this post.

    I’m discouraged every week when I check my sales figures, but I press on because as you note, “A life without writing would be barren and miserable.”

  36. I long about decided I wasn’t going to write what publishers desired. I actually never wrote to get a book published (though I am a published author). I don’t think one had to overanalyze why one writes. Yes, some want fame and fortune. They might cater to current trends instead of writing what they truly want to put on paper. I never gave a damn what a publisher desired. I write because I am driven to write. I love to create my characters. And, unlike Lakin, when I’ve finished a novel it’s not abandoned until it may see publication. For weeks after a finish a novel I continue to let an unwritten story play out in my head. I have a need to keep my characters alive, at least until that time when I want to start on another project whether it be a new novel or a short story. Those who write to see their work published and possibly be a break-out hit are doomed, for the most part, to both failure and dissatisfaction with their work. There are any number of authors who didn’t achieve financial success until after they died. They were ahead of their time. They refused to write what the masses (or publishers) demanded at the time. But, their books somehow resonated with an audience years, even decades after the books were originally published. So, for me, I’d rather write what I want and enjoy the satisfaction of a tale well-told with characters I treasure and never achieve fame and fortune than to write to achieve rewards now even if they find their book unsatisfying.

  37. This is one of those blog posts I could have written–that’s how much it resonated with me. Good on you, and good on all of us who write because we must, and who will keep writing no matter the reviews, returns and reader responses. I for one am honored to be getting paid to do what I love (and it’s beside the point that the amount I’m getting paid is somewhat less than remarkable lol). Thank you, and be well!

  38. I agree; there’s nothing wrong with having great dreams, but it always comes with great disappointments, and that makes it easier to fall for despondency than perseverance. So before we get carried away and be obsessed with those dreams, it’s best to know why, really, we want to write. Purity of purpose in writers is important because writing is an art. It requires substance and essence, and if the writer’s vision is clouded with those dreams, the products may turn out corrupted, sounding pompous or dry or fake. And it’s going to be like useless cycle of trying hard then failing, mainly because the writer’s too pressured to get those dreams.

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