Finding Your Footing as the Ground Shifts Beneath You

There’s a moment for many writers when a tectonic shift occurs in their writing process, one that may not even be all that noticeable on the surface, but sends out powerful waves across the landscape of their writing life. I’ve seen this happen with dozens of my editing clients as they near either the completion of writing their book or upon finalizing a rewrite and seeing “the end” near in sight for that particular project. This shift manifests in various ways, but the early signs start with questions about “what to do, now that I’m done.”

 An Incursion of Unwanted Emotion

Most writers write in the hopes that they will sell their book, connect with a readership, and make money from the sales. Their priorities may not be in that order, but it’s usually the goal when writing a novel or nonfiction manuscript that it get “out in the world” of readers. And that’s expected and reasonable. So, here’s what tends to happen—especially with an author completing her first book. The engulfing joy of writing and expressing creativity and voicing ideas now becomes infiltrated with a subtle, growing anxiety. Soon to join that is a cocktail mix of emotions: trepidation, fear, self-doubt, worry, despair, frustration. Whether these come flooding into the writer’s mind and heart full force or just niggle at the back of her mind—they come.

Now that the intensity of the writing journey is over for the moment and the writer has breathing room, and can step back and look at her accomplishments, often any feelings of significance, achievement, or success are squelched before they can nurture the artist in the way they should. We should be able to step back when done creating a work of art—be it a novel, a song, or a painting—and spend some time in that special place of accomplishment. But this rarely occurs for the writer.

 Feel the Earth Move under Your Feet

How much of this is self-imposed and how much is society-imposed is not something I can answer. However, I do believe we as artists need to be aware of this shift and understand that we can actively change how we respond. Why should we? Because if we think back to why we create in the first place, we will usually agree that we do so because of the fulfilling and satisfying experience expressing creativity gives us. There is no deeper joy to an artist than to create, to immerse herself in the creative experience, and then to step back and look at what has been created. That stepping back moment is a precious one, and unfortunately it often gets trampled on by the anxiety of “what comes next.”

I believe if we pay attention to this shift and “feel the earth moving” underneath us, drawing us away from the joy of writing and into the morass of anxiety over whether or not our book will be published, we can steady ourselves and roll with the earth (I live near San Francisco, so the earthquake motif is a natural one for me to default to—pun intended).

 Beating Ourselves Up over Perceived Failure

Think about this: Some people aspire to reach the top of Mt. Everest. They may spend years of their life training, saving money, and obsessing over this goal to stand at the top of the world. I’ve watched (a bit obsessed myself) from the comfort of my couch these intrepid folks risking their lives to reach this pinnacle. Much of their success will depend upon their skill and training. But there’s no accounting for a freak storm that might come along and take them down. Just read Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air if you want to see how bad luck can cancel out all the odds in your favor of succeeding. I am intrigued by these climbers who, upon having to quit for one serious reason or another just short of reaching their coveted goal, fall into deep depression, and their evident sense of total failure and worthlessness is plain for all to see. How can these people put so much of their heart and joy into the need to get to the top? Can’t they be satisfied with having made it to 27,000 feet instead of 29,000? They have still climbed higher than almost all the humans who have ever lived on earth—isn’t that good enough? But it’s not. They torture themselves over their failure, which to them is absolute and unforgivable.

Many writers do the equivalent in regard to their writing. If they don’t sell millions, make some best-seller list, become a household name like Stephen King, they are miserable. In fact, it’s worse than that. For some, if they can’t get a book contract, or earn more than their advance, they feel the same way. What used to be a joyous experience (writing) has now become a burden and a source of great pain. I see it all around me—even in writers I would define as quite successful by the world’s standards. But, to them, that success is just not good enough, and they feel that “failure” means they are a failure. In effect, they have lost their way through the bucolic land of creativity and are wandering in despair in the gloomy marshes of self-doubt and the need for success.

 Step Back and Admire the View

I would be lying if I said I haven’t wandered off the path into said marsh more than once. I think all artists do from time to time. However, if this process of surfacing from the joy of being creative into the marsh of despair and anxiety over a lack of “success” is repeated many times over, year after year, it can destroy our spirit. There are numbers of climbers who never quite made it to the top of Everest. Years later they still feel like failures in life. You’d think with the kind of panoramic perspective they’re used to having at the top of a mountain they could don a healthy perspective about their life and their significance. For that’s what it’s really all about—learning how to find significance in the journey of creativity without it being dependent on the tangible societal measures of success.

My advice, then, as a writer who’s been on this journey to publication and success for twenty-five years, is to step back and get a perspective on how obsessed you might be with “success” and instead find significance in what you create. Remind yourself that the joy of the process is valid and vindicating in its own right. The more you can shift your perspective, the less the ground will shift under you.

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  1. Just right! ‘The joy of the process is valid and vindicating in its own right.’ Gratitude in each moment. But so hard to keep in mind as each day presents new challenges. A timely reminder as I near completion of my novel. Thanks!

  2. The revelation in unique.
    As I have understood from your musings, the joy of creating should surpass other considerations.
    I always feel that once such joy of creating a good piece of work is internalized,the fountain of creativity is bound to be intensified.
    Thank you for providing me with such valid insights.

  3. This post spoke to me for a number of reason. 1) As a new writer and older to boot, I often find myself wondering if I’ll be good enough. I don’t get down, just wish I’d started this journey earlier, as many encouraged me to do. 2) All the how-tos to get noticed can be over-whelmning and sometimes I think people lost in all the secondary social media stuff. 3) For me, I don’t know that my first (half way through) will ever get published. That would be great, for sure. But, that’s not why I wrote it. I had a story to tell. also, I guess for me, I wanted to leave something for my children & grandchildren to be proud of. A legacy. Come to find out, I already have. I think maybe your readers need reminding that our words aren’t lost. We may not become the next J.K.Rowling or Stephen King, but as we blog or get published in magazines, etc. Our words live on. I discovered the truth of this when I google my name and found an article I’d written some 23 yrs ago. It ran in a professional journal and since is still being resourced and used in its entirety in training manuals, all the way to California. My post about it is here.

    I’ve always believed words are powerful and make a difference in people’s lives. Now, I know for sure. Since then, I’ve relaxed into writing and concentrated on the joy. Thank you for your encouraging words.

  4. This is a nice post, Susanne, (with thoughtful responses). It reminded me of hearing once that, as people reach the very end of their lives, their chief regrets turn out to be the risks they did not take. Success seems to matter less than knowing that one was at least willing to try.

  5. I’m so glad I visited your blog after becoming your “follower” on Twitter. This is just what I need as I send out queries to agents for the first of four completed (though never completely revised) novels. I’m going for 100 rejections for starters and need to keep reminding myself why I write. It’s like breathing. Not a choice, but a necessity. Thank you. I’m adding you to my blogroll. And I will be back.

  6. Hi Susanne,

    This is the best blog I have read all week because I am at this point now with my second book. Although I am very happy to have completed my novel and achieved my goal, I am also a little lost because writing is the thing I love to do the most. All I want to do now is get stuck in with my third book but I can’t because I need to get my second book ready to go online.

  7. Thank you for this. When I completed my novel I thought that once I’d found an agent or a publisher, all would be well and I could relax. Well, now it is being published and my new worry is that no one will buy it. It is time to step back and just enjoy the fulfillment of a life-long dream and think about sales down the road.

  8. I write because I love to, and I always will. It’s the calm centre I return to when everything else seems to be going to H E double-hockey-stick in a handbag 🙂 Though I haven’t had major success or failure yet, I hope to hold onto that serenity.
    I’ll let you know how it goes when I do reach one of those earth-shaking moments 🙂
    Live, do, create, be!
    Yours in writing,

  9. I have just emerged from the cavern of self doubt. It was cold and damp, and frightening. I’m in the light now. The sun on my face comforts me. I never want to go into the darkness again. Thanks for letting me know I am not alone in such responses to the completion of a novel.

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