Continuing my series of posts on “What Holds Me Back,” I turn today to more difficult issues. In my experience, the greatest challenges creators face are emotional ones, and I have struggled with such things throughout my career. This is a complex subject, and not one that’s easy to cover in a single post, though I intend to try. The problem is, the emotional obstacles we face are varied and at times debilitating. Imposter syndrome, lack of self-confidence (which is different), excessive comparison of our own achievements and disappointments with those of others — these things and more can keep us from accomplishing all we hope to.
I’m not going to hold back in this post. My own experiences will only be helpful for the rest of you if I’m completely honest, so that’s my intent.
Let me begin with the obvious: I have been a professional writer for close to thirty years and in my calmer, more rational moments, I feel pretty good about my abilities and also about what I have done over my decades in the business. While I’ve never been a huge name in the field, I have been publishing long and short fiction continuously for my entire career. I consistently get good reviews, I have won several awards, and I enjoy the respect of my peers. In short, I have no reason to be anything but proud of what I have achieved as a writer.
And yet . . . .
That is, as I say, the rational view of my professional life. The thing about all the emotions I mentioned in the opening paragraph is that they’re not rational. They’re anything but. Yet they are persistent and pervasive, and they can be utterly crippling.
I have written before about imposter syndrome. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it is self-explanatory: Imposter syndrome is the unfounded belief that, despite our qualifications and successes, we are undeserving of our status and whatever accolades we might have received. I recall years ago talking about imposter syndrome with a friend, someone who was at the time far more established in the field than I, and who had enjoyed some serious commercial success. I asked this person when I could expect my imposter syndrome to go away. My friend laughed. “When you find out, let me know.”
Based on conversations I’ve had and on reading I’ve done, I sense that imposter syndrome is fairly common across the creative arts, affecting visual artists and writers, movie stars and rock ’n roll icons. (It also happens to be common among academics, so it seems I was destined to deal with it no matter which career path I followed.)
It may seem that lacking self-confidence is the same as suffering from imposter syndrome. And certainly a case can be made that a shortage of confidence contributes to what I’ve just described. But really they are separate phenomena. As I have said, imposter syndrome is a real problem for me personally, lack of self-confidence less so. Still, I have dealt with it off and on, and I have seen the impact a profound lack of confidence can have on talented writers. It can make them question their ideas, it can keep them from moving forward with manuscripts because they constantly retreat into rewrites of perfectly good stories in order to fix imagined problems, and worst of all, it can prevent them from sending out stories and books for consideration. That same lack of self-assurance can bring with it social anxieties that prevent writers from taking advantage of convention and workshop situations. As I said before, it can be debilitating.
And finally, I mentioned early in the post our tendency to compare ourselves excessively with our peers and colleagues. Another friend of mine once referred to this as Locus Syndrome, Locus being the newsletter of the science fiction and fantasy fields, where many in the industry announce awards, new contracts, sales of secondary rights, and other career milestones. I no longer subscribe to Locus because the arrival of each issue set off my worst comparison tendencies. Why is that publisher taking so-and-so’s novel when they passed on mine? Why did that person receive that award; why didn’t I? Why did my publisher take out a full-page ad for writer “x” when they merely included my book in a group advertisement?
No, I’m not kidding. I really did stuff like this to myself. More, I was hardly alone in this regard. And I can tell you, just as jealousy in a relationship can undermine love and trust, envy in one’s professional life destroys everything it touches. Many of the people I envied I also considered friends, and my jealousy of their triumphs kept me from being fully happy for them, as I should have been. It placed a strain on our relationships.
Imposter syndrome, lack of confidence, envy directed at colleagues — all of these have held me back at one time or another over the course of my career. And I would argue that all are exacerbated by a simple truth about the writing industry and the arts in general: the markers we use to chart our progress and our achievements, all tend to be external. Reviews and awards, story or book sales and new contracts, Amazon rankings and royalty statements. Not only do these forms of feedback come from outside, they all lie well beyond our control. Sure, we can publicize our work and hope that will impact our numbers. And yes, we can write our books well, and so influence reviews. But really our reach in terms of sales and reviews is quite limited.
And this is why I often return to the idea of self-defining our successes. There are a lot of authors out there these days, and they’re producing a lot of books. There’s no guarantee that our book is going to be noticed or reviewed. There is no guarantee it will sell. Which means one of two things — either the lack of attention is going to make us jealous of more successful writers and cause us to question our talent, our imagination, the quality of our work, OR we are going to take satisfaction in our own achievements regardless of the feedback we get externally.
I’m not naïve. Like I said, I’ve been in the business for thirty years. I’ve seen a lot, experienced a lot, had my share of both triumphs and disappointments. I know better than most how publishing works. Obviously, we need good sales to further our careers. Obviously, we want good reviews to help us gain recognition for our work. I would never claim otherwise. What I’m saying is this: NOT getting those things does not mean our work is unworthy. It does not mean we don’t belong in the profession. It should not cause us to question all. And to be honest, I am saying these things — again — as much for myself as for you. We all need to hear it.