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.