Freelancer’s Survival Guide Setbacks Part Three

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Setbacks Part Three

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Once again, we’re talking about setbacks and unless something goes really wonky, or someone asks a very good question, this should be the last time.

In the previous two weeks, we covered all kinds of setbacks.I divided setbacks into four types:

1. Financial

2. Mechanical/technical/production

3. Physical

4. Emotional.

Part one dealt with financial and mechanical setbacks.Part two dealt with physical setbacks.Which leaves emotional setbacks for part three.

In some ways, emotional setbacks are the most difficult setbacks of all.You can blame outside forces for each of the previous three setbacks. For example, you ran into trouble because the economy collapsed.Or because your biggest client didn’t pay you. Or because someone sold you tainted spinach to sell to your grocery store customers.

And whose fault was Hurricane Katrina?Even if the government had responded quickly, the hurricane would have still hit the Gulf Coast, ruining countless businesses.

Sometimes someone else truly is responsible for what happens to you—whether it’s an Act of God or whether it’s someone else’s incompetence.

And sometimes, setbacks are your fault.

Face it.We all make mistakes. Sometimes we make doozies.The mistakes might be the result of ignorance or overconfidence, arrogance or inexperience.Whatever the reason, the best thing we can do is own up to our mistakes, and not make the same mistake again.

The problem, however, is that you will have an emotional response to any setback that happens to you.Sometimes that response will be relief, which means that you shouldn’t rebuild your business in the way that it was before.(Or you shouldn’t rebuild it at all.)

But other problems lead to other reactions.

In addition to the physical crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina, that disaster also created emotional setbacks.The survivors grieved.They lost their homes, their businesses, their communities.In many cases, they lost relatives as well.

Grief is a real, powerful, and sometimes crippling emotion.The grief books (and there are many) recommend going easy on yourself and understanding what you’re going through.Survive it, the books say, and eventually you’ll feel better.

Which is all well and good when you have a day job that allows you to take personal time or a job that doesn’t require your attention every minute of every day.But imagine what it took for these folks to rebuild their businesses and their lives while grieving. They didn’t have time to go easy on themselves.They had to work through the grief.

Many people who suffer physical setbacks actually postpone the emotional reaction to it.For some reason (and I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not sure what the reason is), some people can hold back their emotional reaction until a more appropriate time.Soldiers, police officers, and firefighters do this routinely.

The problem is that when the actual physical crisis ends, the emotional reaction begins.And it’s a powerful reaction—all the more powerful because it waited to come out.

That’s when you’ll hear people apologize for “unnecessary” tears, for “emotional” outbursts, for “inappropriate” anger.The emotional reaction is part of the physical setback, and needs to be treated that way.If you skip it—and people do—then the emotion will come out in other ways.Many sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder never had time to deal with the emotions during the crisis, and so have to deal with them when the crisis is over or face a crippling unpredictable reaction.

If you go through something severe, like we discussed in the previous two parts—a fire, a flood, the loss of everything, complete financial collapse—get some counseling as well.You’ll need some kind of support to get through the emotional aftermath, whether that support is through your faith, your friends, or your therapist.

But what of emotional setbacks that have no relationship to the first three setbacks?In some ways, these are the most difficult of all. Because, as much as we like to think we’re anunderstanding culture, Americans prefer to ignore deep emotions.We don’t want to hear how sad someone is or how angry they became.We might listen sympathetically to the first time the story gets told, but if the teller doesn’t recover quickly (and we each have a different definition of quickly), then we avoid the topic or worse, avoid the teller altogether.

We have a pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality, and that often means that the people around you expect you to recover right away.The flip side of this are the people who allow one setback to destroy their lives. They find like-minded individuals who never get past whatever it was that destroyed their lives, and they spend the rest of their lives reliving it.

Most people in that second group don’t have the physical or emotional stamina to own their own business.But most people don’t fall into that category.Most people can recover, given time and support.Both of those things are difficult to give, which is why I recommend that people in crisis get professional help whenever possible.

Generally, the negative emotions cause the most setbacks—although not always.I’ll end on a positive emotion that can cause the most trouble of all.

Here’s the problem with emotional setbacks, however.Unlike fire that destroys a business or financial meltdown that destroys nest eggs, emotional setbacks aren’t always obvious problems.Something emotional that will destroy me won’t even bother you and vice versa.Something in our individual make-up causes one type of emotion to hook itself into one person, and not bother another person at all.

Take anger.Some people can’t abide anger.They fear it. They avoid it in themselves.I’ve known people who quit jobs because their boss had a quick temper.I used to work for a man who broke phones when he hung up.I worked for a woman who threw dishes while screaming at the top of her lungs.That bothered me, sure, but not enough to quit.

But liars, backstabbers, and manipulators? Whenever they appeared at any job I worked, I quit in an instant.I can’t abide people like that, and the smallest incident involving me will make me run from that person forever—paycheck or no paycheck.

Why did I call this difference between people a problem? Simple.Something that might bring you to your knees might strike your best friend as hilarious.It’s not that your friend is insensitive.In fact, your friend might be the first on the scene with money and a place to stay if your home and office were leveled in a tornado.But have an emotional tornado, and that friend might not understand what you’re going through at all.

When the people around you don’t understand, you start questioning your own reaction.Are you overreacting? Are you too sensitive? Are you, in fact, being silly?

Probably not.You’re having an emotional setback, and unless you figure out a way around that setback, it might devastate you and your business.

Signs of a severe emotional reaction: inability or lack of desire to go to work, crying jags, extreme (and seemingly unprovoked) anger, and/or something the psychologists call emotional lability—excessive emotional reactions and frequent mood changes.

If these things are happening to you, you’ll need to figure out the underlying cause, and find a way to release that emotion or to deal with it or (worst case) to block it.

Sometimes, as in the case of grief, you’ll just need to endure until the emotional reaction lessens. Time really does heal, although it’s hard to realize when you’re in the middle of it all.

Often, in the case of emotional setbacks, you’re experiencing a problem, but you don’t know why.You’re less enthusiastic about work.Your habits have changed and you don’t know why.You have no joy in something you used to love.

In fact, you may find yourself looking for a way out.

Sometimes that’s a legitimate response to a business you thought you’d like, but you didn’t understand or you don’t like as much as you thought.Maybe there’s more drudgery than you were prepared for or maybe you’re not suited to the day-to-day tasks of the business. That’s a different issue.

What I’m dealing with here is something more subtle.You’ve been working at your business for a long while now, and up until lately, you’ve enjoyed it. Then something changed.

Usually what changed is an event that precipitated an emotional response.So let’s look at some of the more common negative emotions and the way they can manifest in your business.

1. Fear.Fear is insidious.It paralyzes, quite literally.If you can’t get anything done when you used to get a lot done, you might be suffering from excessive fear.

Some of us were raised to be fearful, so this is a natural state.My parents suffered some extreme financial reversals when I was a little girl, and they taught me (through their actions) to quit when the going gets rough.I’ll give you one example:

At twelve, I was the best swimmer in my age group at the YMCA, where the local pool was.I won every race among our group. So I represented our group in an actual race against other groups and as I was swimming, I realized I was half a length behind some other girl.Instead of pushing harder, I climbed out of the pool, claiming I didn’t feel well.My parents let me.They took me home, and we never spoke of that race again.

As an adult, I now realize that my coach had the proper response: Get back in the pool! You’re not sick! Keep swimming!But to me, losing was worse that quitting, so I quit.

I often wonder how different my life would have been if I continued.But my parents, because of their own reversal of fortune (and their reaction to it), told me later I clearly wasn’t a swimmer or an athlete.I shouldn’t try any longer.

I remained paralyzed with fear over athletics until my late 30s, when I realized that I could finish swim races.Sounds like a minor thing, but it was pretty major for me.Overcoming that fear led to all kinds of other activities, and gave me strength in my writing business.

A lot of us were raised to be perfect, to make no mistakes, so we live in fear of mistakes.We make a single mistake and we freeze, afraid to make another.Instead of charging ahead, we don’t do anything.

That’s why fear is insidious.You’ll lose your opportunity or your advantage or your business because you’re taking no action at all.And it’s always better to take action, even the wrong action, than it is to remain motionless.

So if you suddenly can’t get anything done, ask yourself what you’re afraid of.You might be surprised at the result.

2. Anger.My favorite emotion.Really.I get a lot done when I’m angry.In fact, anger breaks me out of fear (usually anger at myself).While anger is a driving force for me, it’s a paralyzing force for others.Some people—especially women of a certain age—were raised to suppress their anger.Anger was an unacceptable emotion, so they weren’t allowed to express it.

If you can’t express anger, it comes out sideways—either in snide comments or passive/aggressive behavior.Better to figure out who—or what—you’re angry at and confront that person in a non-threatening manner, than to continually punish them with verbal asides or hurtful behavior.Particularly if that person is a client.

Here’s the problem with anger, though.It can easily turn into uncontrollable rage.I had to learn how to control my anger and turn it into a positive force.My ex-husband gave me a metal garbage can and told me to kick it every time I got angry over a rejection.Believe it or not, that worked.I loved that can.It dented easily, so I could see the damage.And then I could calm down and write another story or deal in a dignified manner with the person who made me angry.A therapist told me once that she has her clients punch pillows when they’re angry.It gets the violent part of the emotion out, she said, and leaves the constructive part.

It’s really not good to own a business with employees and be a shrieker or a person who smashes phones.Extreme anger directed at employees can get you in trouble with the law these days.Better to find a constructive way to deal with it, and then move on.

Sometimes that constructive manner is to get the emotion out, and then fire the employee.Or tell the client you don’t want their business any more.

Getting rid of the object of your anger will often make the anger go away.

3. Betrayal.This one’s hard.Betrayal happens in all kinds of ways.A trusted employee goes to the press with lies.A client badmouths you to other clients.A friend tells your confidences to others who really shouldn’t know.

If the person who betrayed you works with you, then often you don’t want to go to work, even if you own the place.It’s easier to avoid that person than it is to confront them about their behavior.And it’s easier to avoid work than it is to get rid of the person who hurt you.

Often the best thing to do in the case of betrayal is to take the person who caused the hurt out of a position to hurt you.Don’t confide in that friend any more. Fire the employee who went to the press.Refuse new projects with the client who badmouthed you.

And otherwise, don’t engage.Let the incident fade into the past.That might seem hard—and it is, initially—but after a while, it gets easier.And then it becomes unimportant.

I wouldn’t have believed that last twenty years ago. But I’ve experienced it. And I learned something else.

People forget.

So often we worry about our reputation.We worry that people will misjudge us or damage our reputation.(Or maybe we damaged it.)Here’s the funny thing: Most people never notice.If the harm to the reputation is severe, repair what damage you can and then go on.Over time, it’ll be a small partof your resume if it’s there at all.

I haven’t edited for 12 years.Recently, a friend of mine interviewed me for a short profile that will appear in a science fiction magazine in a few months.This friend is a student of the field and has known me for at least fifteen years.

He asked me about my writing, about the various genres I publish in, and then asked if I thought we needed to cover anything else. Since the interview was going to go into an sf magazine, I said, “You’ll probably want to mention that I won a Hugo for editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and that I used to own (with Dean) Pulphouse Publishing.”He laughed, and asked (rhetorically) how he could have forgotten.

He forgot because I haven’t done it for so long.

When I was editing, people used to forget that I was also a writer.They see what they want to see—or what you present to them.

Recently, Dean and I asked various writers with long publishing careers how many crashes they had.All of them answered with at least three.Now these folks were close enough friends that we could even broach the question without apology, and with the exception of one friend, we hadn’t seen any of those crashes.And we try to stay current with other people’s careers.

Things you think might have an impact on your reputation probably won’t harm it at all.

Betrayals that have an impact on reputation probably aren’t as severe as you think.Betrayals that are personal will probably make you angry or upset for the rest of your life. But you can’t let them make you bitter.Take constructive action against the person who hurt you, and then move on.

4. Failure.I’m going to do a longer section on failure in the next few weeks, but failure deserves some mention here.Often we feel like failures when we’re not failing at all.What’s going on?

Usually you’ve failed in a personal dream or goal.Or you’ve perceived a failure where there is none.Sometimes it’s a simple as attitude.

As a friend of mine says about his wife, she sees a black cloud in every silver lining.I can be that way as well.If twenty-five good things happen today and one bad thing happens, I’ll focus on the bad thing.Many people are like that.

When we do workshops, I make the students write down the good things we say about their work as well as the bad things.In fact, I harangue them until they do so.

That’s because we often don’t hear the compliments.We’re looking so hard to improve that we never see what we’re doing well.

If you take an attitude of one mistake is failure into your business, you won’t survive. You really do need to think positively, even if you have to make lists to keep yourself on track.I write down every good thing that happens in my business in my calendar, so when I get into a failure funk, I look back and see the good things.It helps.It really does.

5. Success.As with failure, I’ll do an entire section on success, but it deserves a mention here.Success can sometimes cause an emotional setback.

I know, I know.You’re all shaking your head.

But here’s what happens.

You have a goal which you thought was unattainable. That goal is what drives you deep down.You are striving to meet that goal, thinking it’ll keep you going for the rest of your career and then, suddenly, you attain it.

You’ll stop working.You won’t know why. But you’ve just lost your driving force.

I’ve seen this happen countless times. With writers, the goal is usually publishing related. Some writers quit when they sell their first story because they met their goal.Others can’t go on after their first (and therefore only) New York Times bestseller.

What you have to do in this circumstance is reset your goals.That’s not easy, and if you need an unattainable goal, you’re going to really have to reach for the stars.

I can’t tell you how many people I know have quit because they attained their driving goal.So if you’re having trouble working and you just had a major success, it’s time to re-evaluate where you are and what you want from your career.

Emotional setbacks are as real as any other kind of setback.They’re sometimes harder to identify, and often harder to overcome.But you can do it.

My philosophy about any kind of setback is simple:It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down.Nor does it matter how long you remain sprawled on the floor.The only thing that matters is how many times you get back up.

The key to setbacks is twofold: expect that you’ll have some over the years, and figure out how to survive them.

And if you really want something, you can survive anything.

“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Setbacks Part Three” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

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9 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide Setbacks Part Three

  1. Well, that post could be a whole book. It raises so many questions for me and pushes so many buttons.

    My problem is success but not for the reasons you (rightly) give. As soon as I see I’m approaching something I want (like, say, an editor wants to see some small changes to a book manuscript), I stop. I don’t realize it until months later, but I know I do it. Or if I manage to reach a goal (such as selling to anthologies I was targeting or getting into a workshop I wanted or winning a grant or fellowship), same thing. I freeze. A couple of years of therapy gave me some insight into why I do this, but I still seem incapable of changing the behavior.

    I don’t quit when the going gets tough; I quit when the path is finally clear and easy. I handle rejection like a champ. I can take the most brutal critique and not miss a step. But success, praise, I’m toast.

    I even tried your idea of getting a notebook for positive things because that seems brilliant to me. I got the notebook. It’s the perfect size, perfect shape. I carry it in my purse so I can jot things down any time. I bought it in July. Haven’t written a word in it. You mention making Master Class students write down the good things. You made me. I did. Wrote down every word. Now I can’t go near that notebook. It is still sitting in the exact spot I set it when I got home a year ago, despite the fact that I’ve rearranged that office twice. I’m hoping this is just a matter of action lagging behind understanding, but it’s sure getting old.

    1. Ah, Cindie, but you remember the good things are there, where in the past you would have forgotten them entirely. I think that’s half the battle–remembering that there are good things at all. You’ll solve this because you’re motivated. It’ll just take time.

  2. I’m going to read this one again and again.

    “you start questioning your own reaction. Are you overreacting? Are you too sensitive? Are you, in fact, being silly?”

    Am I?

  3. Since you first mentioned writing the good things that happen in your calendar, I’ve been noting them down in one of the many lovely blank books people have given me for which I’d never found a use before. I’ve already gone back to look through the good things on rough days, Thank you for a great idea! (one of many)

  4. I actually have had more problems with #4 and #5 than any of the others. In the case of #4, it’s exactly that I focus on the failings rather than the successes. And as any novelist (well, most, anyway) can attest, there’s ALWAYS somebody getting a better deal, bigger advance, more promotion. I’m self-aware enough to know that I am typically my own worst enemy.

    And with #5, I’ve had people tell me it’s nonsense, but I believe it’s true, too. Your goal was to get published, you did, hurrah, but it seemed anti-climactic, so let’s quit and find another goal. Hell, let’s learn to play guitar, or open a business, or…

    But both of these come down to: I have met the enemy, and he is me.

  5. My emotional response to rejection crippled me the first time I attempted a writing career. I walked away & then spent a decade hating myself for walking away.

    This time I decided I would enjoy the process. Work hard and not let the inevitable rejection get me down. Last night I received my 4th rejection on my first novel. I had a moment of self doubt and then smacked myself in the head and sat down to write.

    Thank you for all the hard work you do for new writers.

  6. Here’s a “success” story from last year’s Lincoln City Workshop with Sheila. (was that a whole year ago? wow.)

    I was talking with Mary Robinette Kowal, who had just won the Campbell, and I asked if the Campbell had affected her writing.

    She said (paraphrased) that it had, that she felt like the millipede who is walking along and then someone says “how do you do that?” and the millipede says “I don’t know” and falls over.

    Then she said that she knew she just needed to keep trying and writing and that it would come back and she’d be able to “walk” again.

    And she has, as more recent successes show.

    On a smaller scale, I also get how “success” affects your drive and how you need bigger goals that re-stoke the drive. You always need something that you’re striving for, that challenges you to stretch and keep trying to do your best…

    – yeff

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