Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 11: They Want To
I know, I know. The title is harsh. Because the topic is harsh.
Remember, I have decades worth of experience watching and trying to help writers. And I have learned, to my chagrin, that some writers are beyond help.
Or rather, the help those writers need is beyond anything I or any other writer/mentor can provide.
The writers who are beyond help often ask for help, especially early on. They take classes. They try a few things. They talk a great game. They might know everything that there is to know about writing/publishing/agents or whatever holds their interest.
But when you actually look at what they do, the one thing they do not do is write.
Let me amend that.
They do not write for publication, whatever publication might mean.
There are a handful of these writers who actually write a lot and put it all in a drawer. This has been the behavior of some writers since the dawn of time. Ever hear of Emily Dickinson’s sister? Her niece? Well, they’re the ones who got her work published after she died. (Even that is a long sad story, filled with anger and lawsuits and tampering with the poetry.)
In her lifetime, ten of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published, and some speculate that she had nothing to do with the publications. She wrote the poems, handbound them, and sent them in little booklets to friends and family. Speculation is that some friend or family member had the poems published—anonymously, mind you—because someone believed that Dickinson’s voice should not have been silenced. When asked if her work could be put into a charity anthology or even an anthology of anonymous work, she dithered and ultimately, through dithering, let the opportunity pass.
Does that sound familiar to any of you? That dithering is often the subconscious, worrying about what might happen if something is published.
Whatever fears the writer has—a fear of failure, a fear of success, a fear of being “revealed” for who they really are—mount. The writer simply can’t overcome them, and so, rather than publish, the writer dithers or fails to mail things or indie publish things.
The writer often guarantees their own failure.
I’ve watched so many writers do this. If you don’t try, then you can’t fail on a large level. If you don’t put your work out there, then you won’t have to see that the world won’t fall at your feet just because you published something. If you don’t put your work in print, then you won’t have to see what readers or critics or your friends will say about it.
These fears are paralyzing for many writers (heck, for many creatives in all disciplines). I still run from singing, mostly because singing in public brings memories of my mother. The last time I sang with a group, when I was around 40, we participated in a competition at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
We performed on a riser, and I was toward the back. After I climbed to my position and turned around, I could see the front rows of the audience. And there, for a moment, was my mother. She sat in one of the chairs to the side, a frown on her face. I figured I was seeing a woman who looked like my mother.
We started singing, and the woman who looked like my mother started shaking her head. Then she sighed and rolled her eyes, just like my mother would have.
I made myself look away.
When I looked back, the seat was empty. I doubt anyone had been sitting there. Or maybe I had been right; a woman who looked like my mother sat there briefly.
It didn’t matter. My throat closed up, my voice failed me, and I couldn’t wait to get off that stage.
I haven’t sung in public since.
What would it take to get me to sing in public? I’m not sure. I’ll probably find out in the next few years. I’m hoping to muscle my way past it. But if I can’t, then I know what I would need to do.
Therapy. Talk therapy, focused on exorcising that woman from my brain so that I can enjoy an art form I’ve loved since I was little.
What happened to me on that stage (and on most stages where I had to sing) happens to writers too. Something terrifies them on a deep level about either writing or publishing.
So those writers do what they can to guarantee the failure.
The problem that we creatives have when they have this kind of paralyzing fear is that the fear encompasses success as well as failure. Success—singing on stage in a competition that we were winning—is just as hard if not harder than bombing.
I always expect to bomb when I sing. When I realize that I’m not bombing…well, then the throat seizes up and the voice quits.
It’s not conscious.
Nor is it conscious for a writer who needs to fail to protect themselves. They don’t get to the writing. Or they don’t publish their work. Or they don’t mail it (if they want to be traditionally published).
Logic doesn’t work here. If you ask that person what they’re afraid of, they might tell you or they might dance around it. How would I have answered about my singing? That I was terrified that the ghost of my long-dead mother would disapprove?
It’s not about logic. It’s about emotion, and that emotion is almost always fear.
If you see yourself in this, and you really, really, really want to be a published writer, then you need to get professional help. That professional help is not another writer. Which is why I say that as a writing teacher, I can’t help a writer like this.
The powers that stifle that writer’s voice are beyond the powers that I have, the recommendations and the exercises. Some of these writers take a lot of courses from WMG. Some of these writers do well at them. These writers often do well one on one, but not at the larger picture.
The larger picture is that something is twisted up in their psyche that creates a fear so big that the writer can’t overcome it with practice or logic or effort. The writer needs to untangle the something—whatever it is. And with storytelling (as with singing) that something probably came out of childhood.
I know mine did. I worked enough on myself with the help of a therapist that I can see where my mother’s own fears triggered my own. She was a spectacular singer. (I have great memories of her singing descants and harmonies on hymns in church…while she stood in the pews. Her voice would soar.)
As a young woman, she was offered an opportunity to study with one of the great opera singers of the time and turned it down. Or it did not happen for another reason.. I have no idea why. Was she afraid? It would make sense. She had been orphaned young, sent to live with a bunch of siblings, endured a lot of abuse, and probably did not have the confidence to declare that she wanted the opportunity. Or maybe it was as simple as money. It was the 1930s. Depending on who she was living with at the time, there might not have been enough money for her to take advantage of the opportunity.
Whatever it was, it morphed into her being extremely critical of anyone who sang—even professionals that she saw on television or on the radio. She directed church choir for decades, but not a choir I was ever in. Still, that didn’t save me from her savage reviews of anything I sang.
That’s all in there for me. And if I’m going to sing, I need to remove that influence.
Right now, removing that influence is not worth the time for me. Maybe someday it will be.
But it will take time and effort—a lot of effort.
And that’s what writers who let themselves fail on this level also face. Solving the problem will take courage to face their own stuff. It’ll take money to get professional help. And it will take time.
There is no magic bullet or an easy solution. There’s the solution that will help the writer along, but that solution is unique to that writer. There is no one-size fits all.
As I mentioned at the start, I’ve seen a lot of writers with this issue. Most of them are like me with singing. They try occasionally, but don’t really put in the effort. They coast on who they were or on the praise from a teacher long ago or on that one contest that they won or the single short story sale that they made decades before.
Every now and then, though, writers surprise me. I privately dismissed them, thinking they had too many issues to ever continue with the writing. After a year or two of excuses, I usually help the writers only when it can’t be avoided. There are so many other writers who actually take advice or who are striving, even if it is not in ways that I would recommend.
I admire effort, and if I see no effort, I’m not going to put in the time either.
The writers who surprise me, though, are the ones who actually do find help. Real help. They do the work to get past their issues. Sometimes it takes years. But these writers all figure out a way around the fear.
The metaphor I think of is another one to do with actual performance. Years after I was out of school, I learned that some performers have stage fright so badly that they throw up before every performance.
Those performers go on stage anyway. They deal with the fear their way, and then perform their art, whatever it is.
I had no idea that such a thing was possible. I figured that fear would win every time—at least when it came to singing on a stage. I had no idea there were workarounds.
However, if you asked young me for a workaround of any obstacle I discovered in my writing career, I would find that workaround. Sometimes it took years. Sometimes it took working outside the box.
And sometimes it took sucking up the bad stuff and setting it aside so that I could continue doing what I love—which is writing and publishing.
In fact, this past summer, I did a series of videos about the Fey. They accompany my book, Lessons From the Writing of the Fey. That book was hard to write, and the videos were even harder to do.
I had had a series of career-killing problems with those books, and I had managed to survive, through the support of Dean and my friends, but also by setting each indignity aside. I kept working and I mostly ignored all the bad shit.
Yes, therapists who are reading this. I know. Denial is a bad thing. But it helped me through the abusive world of traditional publishing, and it helped me work on the Fey back in the day.
It only became a problem when I decided I’d write the next book in the series. Then I had to face those problems and exorcise them. I had to talk about them. I had to figure out if I could overcome them.
It took work. I had to overcome some major project blocks to get there. I finally had to go to the readers of the series and ask them to give me a deadline through Kickstarter.
I don’t miss deadlines. Not when someone important to me expects the work to be done by that deadline.
I knew the deadline would work.
But, ironically, I had to do so much work on myself and getting past all the blocks I had set up so that I wouldn’t fail with the Fey again, that I did miss the deadline we had set. We had the option of refunding the Kickstarter money…and every time someone suggested that I got mad.
I would finish the novella we had promised. I knew I would.
And I did.
Doing so released me and got me to write three more books so far. The project lives again.
I suspect getting through all of that was my equivalent of throwing up (repeatedly) before going on stage. It took work, it took determination, and it took years to figure out how to work around the blocks that my experiences—and my self-protection mechanism gave me.
Let me tell you from experience: It’s easier to stay off stage than it is to deal with one’s personal bullshit. But staying off stage is a lot less satisfying than overcoming the blocks—whatever they are—to achieving your dreams and goals.
Sometimes failure is a mask for a deeper issue.
If you really want something, you find a workaround.
And you do it on your own time.
It might take you years.
And that’s okay.
As long as you try.
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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 11: They Want To,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / benzoix
Wow, this spoke to me today. Besides struggling with mental illness, I also struggle with this deep-seated fear. Thankfully I’m in therapy and learning to get over it, but it’s extremely hard. But when I think about how much I love writing and creating–how much I long to write and publish–I think all this work will be worth it.
Thank you for this wonderful post.
Wow, Kris! Yep, painful to read. Necessary, though, and I totally wouldn’t mind if you would randomly repost this every so often. The mirror doesn’t lie, and I am definitely one of those under-performers you mention. However, I did find some help while remote counseling was free during Covid (no copays, yey!) After one of the infection peaks, I invested into doing some in-person EDMR work to ditch old trauma. Et voila, I could write again.
But not so fast… the problem with behaviors that are set in old traumas is that, even after the trauma gets purged, the behavior patterns persist. Changing habits has been so hard! I am working on it, keeping track of my writing, pushing my snowball forward. It’s not as well as I’d like but it’s going, and I know that as I keep exposing myself to uncomfortable situations, the resistance will lessen and the going will get easier and easier.
The best part is when I get lost in the writing (like I used to,) and I wake up from it and think, wow! This was fun! And I get to put a solid word count on the day’s little calendar block.
One interesting, inspirational source for rewiring old habits is this ex-Seal guy who has a lot to say about team leadership, even if it’s a “Team of One.” His name is Jocko Willink, and when I need to get unstuck, I look up some of his content. Being in the Decade Ahead class helps in a different, more business-specific way. Also, “feed your creative voice by publishing” turned out to be a surprising case of true-true, courtesy of Dean.
Right now, my goal is not to back-slide and just keep rolling. I’ll worry about increasing my word count later, right now I’m about consistency.
Thank you for the mirror signals, Kris!
Oh boy I feel this so hard. I have friends who urge me to publish my books, that I do write good, amazing stuff. But here I am, third novel written but not indie published like my first book. That failure to publish is very …. paralysing. I know fear is behind this and I try to overcome it, but I’m not sure how to do so. But a good reminder – not to turn to other writers for help. They are not counselors or well versed in mental health matters.
I believe the root of this fear stemmed from overly-critical parents who often tells me “it’s not good enough” or “it sucks” when I show them my work. I’m not sure why some parents do this, but who knew it could have long-lasting effects…
I recommend therapy a lot. I also recommend refraining from showing your works to your family, at least the more critical members. They’re not literary critics, literary academics or writers.
Those two will help immensely
A truly wonderful and personally timely essay. I have had to work through a bunch of those issues, for me the method that works is the 20 minute Pomodoro. Despite decades in Martial Arts, sometimes the only way I can face certain things in my writing is that 20 minute pomo.
Yup. I ran afoul of this when I tried cowriting a novel with another writer–been about 20 years ago. He was all fine and happy to write the book, bragging about how it would a best seller. He had his own business, but hated what he was doing. He fantasized about going to events and marketing, which he liked.
The problem was he made the leap from applying the words on the page to best seller and skipped over the part in between. At the time, submitting to agents was it. I was all about “Full speed ahead! Let’s get this done and submitted.” And I crashed unknowingly into his fear of submitting the story to publishers.
As we approached finishing the book, he tried to stall by endlessly redrafting the first chapter. He did a lot of odd things that most people wouldn’t have viewed as procrastination, but actually were a way to keep the story in endless revision (at a writer’s conference, he spent $500 to get a critique from a thriller writer at the point when the book was done, and without discussing it with me. It felt more of the same wheel spinning he’d been doing). Eventually, all we were doing was fighting, and we broke up.
A few years back he called out of the blue, to brag, I think that he’d gotten an agent and a jab at me on the assumption I’d given up writing (I was indie publishing). But he later came back asking about how to do a type of revision (depth), and I was pretty sure he’d gotten a general backdoor rejection from the agent. The one that asks for revisions. He called again and asked about indie publishing. Nothing’s happened on that. Don’t expect anything to happen.
Kind of sad. Some people can’t get past the fantasy of being a writer.
Well. This was painful to read.
Until very recently, I had been one of those people who couldn’t put their stuff out there.
It took two rounds of therapy, four years, and WMG’s ‘Killing the Critical Voice’ and ‘The Fear of Success’ for me to face my fear. And I’m glad I did.
My main lesson from the whole experience is that if I’m terrified of doing something that I rationally know is good for me — I need to do it. If my fears win, I lose.
“If my fears win, I lose.” Exactly, Ric. I’m so glad you’re fighting through this. Kudos!
Beautifully put! “If my fears win, I lose.” That, with attribution, is going on my writing bulletin board.
“If you really want something, you find a workaround.”
This. I’ve had more big life rolls in the past seven years than I could imagine. Major events, a couple of them truly debilitating.
And over that time? I had to find multiple workarounds. I figured out how to write 24 novels, 13 story collections, and a few non-fiction books. And figured out how to run a publishing business (still learning, of course.).
I distinguish between fantasy and desire. Fantasy is a way to try things on, to imagine what things would be like. It’s a great imagination tool. But too many of us get stuck there, and never harness our will and intention to turn fantasy into a burning desire that will take us where we say we want to go.
I’ve appreciated this whole series, Kris. Thanks for writing it.
I realize my comment above might sound like bragging. That’s not it. There are writers with quadruple my output and exponentially more success than I have. I’m pretty clear on that.
I was just trying to reiterate your point that we all have things stacked against us—some more than others. Gods know I’m privileged in many ways—and still, if we want something badly enough, we’ll keep finding ways through, large or small.
There’s a great scene in the climax of the movie Red Belt, where Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s character seems about to fail. He remembers his teacher saying there’s always a way out and, amazingly, he finds it. That scene stays with me.
Kris, go sing! Whether it’s at a Karaoke bar or in front of a few friends…don’t let anyone take your power.
Ouch! This hits so close to home. My mother was an English teacher, hypercritical of me, and to be totally honest, a mean drunk. Until the day she died, she held a grudge (one of many) because I wouldn’t let her read any of my novels or short stories. I knew if I did, I’d lose the nerve to send them to publishers and editors back in the ’90’s, or publish them myself when that became an option.
So, yeah, I understand that fear. It still took me a couple of years of therapy to tame it enough so I don’t throw up when I hit the upload button for a new work.
Kris, this is dead on the money. Can’t say much more, just that you are absolutely, terrifyingly correct.