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As writers, we don’t always go sanely toward our solutions. Instead, too often, we suffer toward them. Reasoned arguments are lost to us. Our little mental slot cars that get us from Chapter One to The End have flown off their tracks.
And, suddenly, everything we know is wrong.
There may be no worse feeling for a writer than suspecting that the thing we’ve done, the thing we’ve committed to, sweated over, felt such complete confidence for, is crap. And maybe not just the passage or the page, but the whole thing.
Each of us has a critical little gremlin on our heads that speaks to us as we write, and waits to have its say when we’re not. Is its voice right or wrong? Is this our surreptitious, lurking, ever-present self defeat getting the boot in? Or is truth and awareness speaking to us as frankly as it can?
If you’ve ever twisted the water out of a washcloth—if you were the washcloth, not the twister—you can imagine how writers feel at times like this. If you’ve ever walked a maze, lost, too far in to turn around, too anxious to continue, you know that there’s no easy way back.
We want to believe that a hard-won ability that lives under the surface of us. If we sink into black water, get in over our heads, we want to believe that that a foundation of craft or talent or instinct will give us a solid place to stand; a place to catch our breaths and recover. But sometimes our feet never touch down.
Better sense tells us that, with a little distance, a little more hard work, we can recover. We can see the story’s honest faults and fix them. But unlike the place of pain that yields answers—eventually—panic makes everything impossible. We flail. We get sucked under. We lose our direction and the will to find the surface. And we drown. We get eaten, as the Radiohead lyrics say, by weird fishes.
For writers, so completely defined by the act that drives us, this is a paralyzing, terrifying place. Without the writing, there is no us. The brilliant, three-dimensional world is still and grey. We float like ghosts in the airless space, not wholly dead and nowhere near alive.
So, in the midst of such a moment, I’m turning to this confessional. And here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to shut down the page and set the work aside. I’m going to eat something. Take deep breaths. Clean the apartment. And find the faith in myself that will let me see the work’s flaws with a cool, unhateful eye and find the whatever to address them.
Those weird fishes? They’re all around. The trick is to swim with them. And not be eaten alive.
The holidays can be tough enough. Throw in a case of the flu and the challenge becomes more…interesting. Interesting—a nice word for it.
Christmas retreated from my catalog of enthusiasms a number of years ago. In the bad, long-term relationship that I wasn’t self-possessed enough to escape, I adopted a smiling, benign indifference to it. Safer that way. In the years since, I’ve used the cherished silence of the house to let words find me; in the vacation week between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve braved the chill in long, thoughtful walks on the goes-nowhere road outside and let the universe find me. Days were filled with the page; nights, with the thought of the page. The hours were full.
Not this year.
Being between books is hard. Being beset by the challenge-to-confidence that is the search for an agent makes everything harder. Keeping one’s emotional balance is a difficult thing when the winter silence is silence only. Then, enter the flu.
The 900-mile drive to the house was almost alarmingly easy, even after a 4 a.m. departure. No visits from the Muses during the long drive…but never mind. By the time I’d arrived and unpacked, the illness set in for real: the body-twisting cough, the hammering exhaustion, the Niagara of sinus.
Keeping one’s heart open to creativity is pretty impossible when you’re sleeping 18 hours a day. So be it. Job One is the dutiful avoidance of self-pity. Exist to get well—fair enough. Do the dishes five at a time, the length of time one can stay upright. Read. Indulge in movies that take little attention. The other stuff, the good stuff, the stuff that takes psychic strength and confidence…the reassurances that yes, you are a real writer and, yes, it’s just a matter of time and added effort until an agent finds you and your friends actually get around to reading what you’ve written and, yes, the story is in there even if it’s hiding…those understandings will just have to wait until you’re well.
When you’re sick, the darkness lets the black dog in. The holiday is a festival of expected happiness and the promiscuous see-what-a-wonderful-life-I-have celebrations of others. The night is not Possibility, it’s just night. The silence is just silence. The blessed, glorious week of solitude is an hourglass of lost minutes. And that damned, ever-present self doubt, that knowledge of the too-thin veil that lay between you and the big, empty, indifferent world: That, my dear ones, is the very real wolf at the door.
So, here is the list of tasks at hand. One: Get strength back. Two: Find the joy that’s so clearly around you—the peeks of sun on grey days, the birds in the back yard, the eagles circling behind the house. Three: Get back on the horse. Write those letters. Transcribe those notes. Pet a cat. And four: Kick the black dog out into the darkness from which he came. You can’t overcome a feeling by pretending it doesn’t exist. Feel it, face it, move on. We are not held hostage by truth: The door is right there, and the key has been in our hand all along.
Agent queries are the writer’s time to be gutsy, fearless and resilient. Or to pretend to be.
Pretend is the operative word, here. Fearless ain’t the natural order of things. Inside every writer is a failure waiting to be exposed. Terror scratches at the back of our heads like the lioness in that much-seen YouTube video—the one that tried to eat a toddler’s head through a glass wall. Fear is the lion. It’s hungry. It’s relentless. The claws and fangs of rejection are always back there. The question is, what can we do about it?
Good news: As a writer, I’m not alone in fearing rejection. Bad news: Every writer is alone in that fear. Given the content on the websites I’ve been reading, writers are a single organism of quivering neurosis.
Makes sense that we would be. We spend months and months in the company of characters who are more real than the breathing phantoms around us. We flee from the world in favor of a more fulfilling (and, let’s face it, often way more interesting) space in our minds. We write and rewrite. We polish and we suffer. We embrace and cast away. We are nudged by the lover-page in the dark hours; we are exiled to the islands of ourselves. And now, we must put a busy cadre of agent-others in the position to send us packing. Nice.
The most honest, self-aware thing we can say is that the prospect scares us shitless.
One of the poisonous pools of doubt comes from having be picked up by the first agent who saw my first book…and published by the first publisher who read it. Being declined (and, full disclosure, I haven’t yet toted up enough rejections to count on one hand) proves the worst things we believe about ourselves. Forget the soaring passages that sing to us, even now. Forget the voice that is so strong that, barring terrifying self delusion, it is driven by a real sense of wonder. Forget the honest accolades that have come from beta readers who’ve seen the work. One word of anything less than praise speaks to the hack, the fantasizer, the trembling Ordinary in us all.
Don’t the words shine so brightly off the page that the agent must see the glow through the avalanche of query emails? Shouldn’t the power and potential be instantly apparent?
As we wait, we’re caught between the equal urges toward hand-wringing and neck-wringing. We are possessed with reading about triumphs despite adversity: “[author’s name] was turned down by [appallingly large number of] agents, and the work is still in print”; by self-induced platitudes such as “all books aren’t for all agents; all it takes it one.” Thanks. I’ll remind myself of all that when people tell me how ugly my baby is.
Time to make failure my ally; to make fear my best friend. The agent is out there. The publisher is. The audience is. It’s my job now to find them. The work that should have been finished isn’t done at all. And the only sure way to guarantee not being published again is to do nothing.