It’s that time of year when the Broaddus compound goes through our winter/spring tradition of watching American Idol. Last year I compared the auditions week to the writing business, first from a writer’s perspective and then from an editor’s. This year I’ve decided that the current status of my career is the equivalent of A.I.’s “Hollywood Week.” My stories are good enough to make it to the next round, the judges keep me around until the last round of cuts, and maybe, just maybe, I may make it to the final 24.
Fellow author, Chesya Burke, and my wife are convinced that I suffer from what could be described as an acute case of “fear of success”-itis. The symptoms can take a variety of forms and I thought it my duty to alert my fellow writers of the various ways this condition can sneak up on them.
Malaise. One can feel a general “out of sorts” in terms of their career. Maybe things have plateaued for you, it has been a while since you have received an acceptance (or the flip side, the mountain of rejection slips keep growing). Regardless, you have no oomph about yourself. You may squander opportunities (not do follow up e-mails after you spent a convention garnering contacts) or you don’t nurse your existing contacts as hard as you could.
Tortured artist (aka a writer’s dark night of the soul). You stare at manuscript after manuscript and you come to the startling realization that everything you’ve written reads like the work of a drunken third grader. The best treatment for this condition, mind you, is having a supportive spouse or friend who can cheerlead for you during these dark times.
Panic. It’s funny how we can react to out-of-the-blue good news. Like say a publisher has run across your work and asks you to submit a story to their next anthology. Or an editor contacts you because they’ve decided that you’re a hot up-and-coming writer who they’d like to start working with. How do you react to such good e-mails? ANGST! Panic and a subsequent reversion to Tortured Artist.
Fear of success isn’t just something newbie writers suffer. It can affect writers in other stages of their career also. You could be a huge deal in the small press world and then get the phone call from one of the big boys in the publishing industry wanting you to switch over. Suddenly your life threatens to become that transition from being a senior in high school (and BMOC) to lowly freshman in college. Instead of being a big fish in a small pond, you are now a small fish in a big pond. Sure, you have more opportunities and the possibility of more money and readers, but there is a trade off in immediate recognition and power you are able to wield. The prospect can be scary and a matter of what you want to do with your career (and where you saw yourself ultimately being).
Maybe this could best be described as a fear of publication failure. We don’t want people to read our stories and discover that we’ve in fact laid a literary turd (and many of us live with the insecurity of fearing that we’ll one day be exposed as the frauds we secretly believe we are). Nor do we wish to make a potential career misstep. The larger the stage, the larger the possible failing (and the more evidence you leave behind of that failing).
But it’s like that in life.
Writing is one of the few careers where you actually are betting on yourself. How much talent do I have? How many people can I reach? It’s one reason why some people choose to self-publish. It can be a long, hard road, but if it’s what we want, nothing can deter us from that dream. You may fail a few auditions along the way, may get cut early from a slush pile, or you might not make the final table of contents page for an anthology, but if you keep honing your craft, you will make that top 24.
And then anything can happen.