The Ongoing Angst of Successful Writers – Conclusions

I’ve really enjoyed the recent run of guest posts from six of Australia’s most successful genre writers. Here I’ll try to collate the overlapping themes from those posts into one place (and have links to all the posts in one place too.) First and foremost, I’d like to thank the six respondents for giving their time and honesty to the idea. So here are the links to each individual post, with my heartfelt thanks:

Kaaron Warren

Jo Anderton

Angela Slatter

Lisa L Hannett

Trudi Canavan

Margo Lanagan

I expected considerable consensus from all of these talented writers to most of the questions. It’s pretty obvious the questions were loaded to that end, but that was because I’ve regularly seen those kind of comments from writers of all styles and all levels of success. But let’s go through each of the three questions and see what the key themes were.

1. What do you still fear as a writer, when it comes to putting your work out there? What fills you with doubt and angst?

This is the question that I knew would draw the most consensus. The over-riding responses were of “imposter syndrome” – that dark and quiet thought that no matter how much success you see, at some point everyone is going to realise you’re a hack, or that one day everyone will point and laugh because they’ve all been having you along all this time. It’s simply the fear of not being good enough, contrary to all the available evidence. Or there’s been some terrible mistake.

Kaaron said: I’m still sure that one day someone will say, “You do realise it’s all been an elaborate joke we’ve played on you? You’re a crap writer and no one has ever liked anything you’ve ever written.” Trudi said: “one day I’ll discover that every person who liked and bought my books was just being polite” although she also pointed out: “but I can laugh it off.” That’ll happen when you’ve sold as many books as Trudi has!

In terms of being good enough, Jo said: “I fear being ignored, but I fear attention too. Silence is disheartening, but when people do sit up and take notice I’m terrified they’ll hate the story, tell everyone they know, and then laugh at me. Loudly.” Angela said: “you’ve lavished all your love, attention and care on it, that you’ve flensed and polished it until it looks like a slightly evil supermodel, but that when it’s out in the public gaze someone will find a fault you didn’t see.”

Lisa used a quote from Keats that summed things up well and she explained it thus: “It’s that niggling doubt that you’re not necessarily crap, but that what you’re writing isn’t adding anything exciting to the mix. That it’s just mediocre. That it’s not just forgotten, but forgettable. Now that’s scary.”

I think these fears are actually encouraging. Of course, that doesn’t help in our darkest moments of self-doubt, but the fear we’re not good enough leads to a desire to always be better. I think that’s essential to growth in any art. If we start to think we’re good enough, that we can’t learn more or get better, then surely our work will stagnate and become, at best, ordinary. Not necessarily crap, as Lisa says, but pedestrian. In the pursuit of any art, we need to constantly strive to be better, to out-do what we’ve done before. Sometimes we’ll succeed and sometimes we won’t – we may write something that truly resonates and then write a lot of stuff that doesn’t reach those heights again for quite a while. But we must always strive to do so regardless and surely, as our skill and experience improve, we will reach those heights again, and beyond. There’s no ceiling to how high we can go if we always strive to improve. I think the fear of not being good enough is what constantly drives us in that pursuit.

Margo made an interesting point that bad reviews can sometimes fuel that self-doubt. She said: “those voices feed directly into, and reinforce, that other voice inside me that’s ready to tear me down and call me a fraud”.

Interestingly enough, just yesterday Chuck Wendig posted this blog, about that very same thing. He calls it the “writer as stowaway”. He has two new books coming out soon and the early copies have gone out for review. He describes the feeling like this:

all the while I’ve got that flurry of fear-bubbles in my tummy: egads they won’t like it they’ll despise it I’m going to receive hate mail people might punch me Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly will probably give me whatever the opposite of a starred review is like maybe they’ll rub a cat’s butthole on my face in public OH GODS THAT’S HOW BAD THIS BOOK IS.

In classic Wendig style, he echoes exactly what the writers in my guest posts have said.

The second question I asked was:

2. What career markers do you still strive for? What heights are you determined to scale?

I asked this for a very specific reason. Whenever I talk to other writers about their successes, whether they’re new and have just had their first publication or whether they’re as successful as the guest post respondents, there’s always one over-riding response: “Yes, but I haven’t done X yet.” That might be anything from making a sale to a pro market, selling a novel even after massive short fiction success, getting a bigger advance even after a 7 figure deal or anything else. Regardless of levels of success, writers are always striving for more. And I think that’s a good thing – it goes hand in hand with always striving to be better. We want to get better all the time and we measure whether we are getting better by whether or not we score those better publications, bigger advances, more awards, movie deals, etc.

In answering that question, we got some interesting variations on the theme. Kaaron would love to sell a story to the New Yorker and get a call from Hollywood. Jo would prefer a Manga or videogame deal. Angela strives for constantly better markets for her work. Lisa has similar desires to Angela and they both want to see their novel-length work finished and in a good home. Trudi wants to see better success in the US market and wouldn’t mind a call from Hollywood too. Margo wants her work to constantly plumb deeper into truer depths of humanity.

And beyond all this, the over-riding desire (which overlapped this question and the next) was for their writing to be successful enough that they could give up the day jobs (or work less) and have the time to write as much and as often as they like. As Margo put it so well when she talked about who she envies: “anyone who’s had (and earned out) a seven-figure-or-more advance, or freakishly big sales, gives me a bit of a pang, simply because they can buy the slabs of time that make the efficient production of regular novels possible. They can focus, you know? They don’t have to always be fighting their way towards the writing; they can just pay the world to go away.”

(The exception to this desire, perhaps, is Trudi, but that’s because she’s already done that!)

And, as I said, the previous answers cross over with the answers to the third question I asked:

3. Whose career do you envy? Why?

I deliberately used the word “envy” because it’s very loaded. And I expected exactly what I got – very little in the way of actual envy. Margo’s answer above was one of desire rather than real envy – she doesn’t envy the people, just the time they have. As Trudi said: ”Envy is pointless.”

She’s right. Envy is a destructive emotion. I’ve always seen the success of others as proof that any of us can succeed, and that includes me. As Trudi went on to say: ”I’ve always been excited when someone has succeeded at doing something I want to do, as that proves it’s possible.”

Of course, those natural pangs of “Why not me!” are always there when we read about the success of others. As Lisa said: “It’s only natural to have a pang of oh-I-wish-that-was-me! when a new writer skyrockets to stardom apparently out of nowhere — but it’s not actual envy.”

Lisa then talked about the writers she respects and admires. She doesn’t envy them, she just wants a career like theirs. Jo said a similar thing, citing writers she admires and whose careers she’d like to follow.

Kaaron was a little more honest in her use of the word envy, but it boiled down to the same thing. An admiration of people who have got to a position she’d like to see herself in and a desire to get there too. In this instance, that’s not envy as a destructive emotion, but as a rallying call. Perhaps Angela summed it up best with this:

”I don’t envy anyone – what good would that do me? Envy is a wasteful emotion based in insecurity – yes, that’s a life lesson, not just a writing lesson. Comparing yourself to other people is destructive and a waste of time. When you look at successful writers, you need to remember that they had to do the hard yards before they were successful – there are no easy rides in this business. Everyone suffered rejections of novels they’d lavished attention on; everyone has had to do jobs they’ve hated just to make ends meet; but every successful writer has kept on writing. That’s the secret: keep writing, keep learning, keep improving.

By all means look at successful writers and learn from them – that’s what they’re there for, to act as models of ‘here’s one we prepared earlier’, rather than ‘oh, I wish I was [insert name here], I’ll never be as good as her/him, wah-wah-wah!’

Never stop learning – at no point in your career should you think ‘I know it all – no one can tell me anything!’ There’s always something new to learn or something to re-learn that you’ve started taking for granted and kind of forgotten.

So, envy no one, learn from everyone.”

So really, there are three primary things that we can take away from all of this:

1. Everyone struggles with self-doubt and is always concerned that they’re not good enough. It’s a natural and valuable thing, because it means we will always strive to be better.

2. We all want more from our careers – we want better publications, more readers, more money from writing so that writing is all we have to do and other jobs don’t distract us from our passion. And it’s good to desire those things.

3. There’s no point wasting our time envying others. Their success is proof of the possibility of our own success and we can learn from them and strive to have careers like them. There’s no reason we can’t have success like theirs if we accept but rise above the self-doubt and always work at learning and improving.

Beyond anything else, the simple truth is always the same. Keep writing. Regardless of doubt, fear, setbacks, the success of others or anything else, the successful writers are the ones who keep writing. Keep learning, keep striving to be better, keep putting your arse in that chair and your fingers on those keys and keep writing.

If the answers above tell us anything, it’s that there’s never an end to the process. We’ll never be happy with where we are and we’ll always strive for more. That’s what it is to be a writer. If you haven’t got that, you have to ask yourself – how much do you really want it?

Keep writing.

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One thought on “The Ongoing Angst of Successful Writers – Conclusions

  1. Most writers I know are insecure, even those who are acclaimed authors. Writing is a pretty lonely business. It’s you and a pen and paper (with some it’s a computer). Some authors share each chapter with a loved one or colleague. Others, like myself, just share the work with the characters they create. And, at some point when you’re done writing you have to share with others, whether it be friends, relatives, colleagues or, if the book is published, reviewers. I don’t take reviews overly seriously. I’ve had stellar reviews for a book followed by others for the same book panning the novel. Reviewing is subjective. One can’t expect everyone to enjoy your work. As I mentioned above I know an acclaimed author I’ve published (in my “day” job) who has won just about every award a writer can aspire to who refuses to let others see his work until it is finished. He then worries that his mass market publisher will reject his work or feel it’s just not good enough. Before he refused to let others see his novels before he finished them he showed a number of novels to editors or agents. If the response was negative he put the novel away and never finished it. This from an author who has written more than a few classics that will be read a hundred years from now. Fortunately, I’ve published some of those books which he did finish but stuck in a cabinet. Some are good, others exceptional, none horrible. All are now part of his legacy and it’s a privilege to publish material that some fool rejected years and years ago. I imagine that most authors have these same insecurities.

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