The Ongoing Angst of Successful Writers – Conclusions

Publetariat Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Alan Baxter‘s Warrior Scribe site on 4/11/13. Alan is a regular Contributor here at Publetariat, but due to the length of this piece, and its numerous references to related posts on Alan’s site that have not been reprinted here on Publetariat, we are reprinting only the first portion of the article and providing a link back to the rest at the end of our excerpt.

I’ve really enjoyed the recent run of guest posts from six of Australia’s most successful genre writers. Here I’ll try to collate the overlapping themes from those posts into one place (and have links to all the posts in one place too.) First and foremost, I’d like to thank the six respondents for giving their time and honesty to the idea. So here are the links to each individual post, with my heartfelt thanks:

Kaaron Warren

Jo Anderton

Angela Slatter

Lisa L Hannett

Trudi Canavan

Margo Lanagan

I expected considerable consensus from all of these talented writers to most of the questions. It’s pretty obvious the questions were loaded to that end, but that was because I’ve regularly seen those kind of comments from writers of all styles and all levels of success. But let’s go through each of the three questions and see what the key themes were.

1. What do you still fear as a writer, when it comes to putting your work out there? What fills you with doubt and angst?

This is the question that I knew would draw the most consensus. The over-riding responses were of “imposter syndrome” – that dark and quiet thought that no matter how much success you see, at some point everyone is going to realise you’re a hack, or that one day everyone will point and laugh because they’ve all been having you along all this time. It’s simply the fear of not being good enough, contrary to all the available evidence. Or there’s been some terrible mistake.

Kaaron said: I’m still sure that one day someone will say, “You do realise it’s all been an elaborate joke we’ve played on you? You’re a crap writer and no one has ever liked anything you’ve ever written.” Trudi said: “one day I’ll discover that every person who liked and bought my books was just being polite” although she also pointed out: “but I can laugh it off.” That’ll happen when you’ve sold as many books as Trudi has!

In terms of being good enough, Jo said: “I fear being ignored, but I fear attention too. Silence is disheartening, but when people do sit up and take notice I’m terrified they’ll hate the story, tell everyone they know, and then laugh at me. Loudly.” Angela said: “you’ve lavished all your love, attention and care on it, that you’ve flensed and polished it until it looks like a slightly evil supermodel, but that when it’s out in the public gaze someone will find a fault you didn’t see.”

Lisa used a quote from Keats that summed things up well and she explained it thus: “It’s that niggling doubt that you’re not necessarily crap, but that what you’re writing isn’t adding anything exciting to the mix. That it’s just mediocre. That it’s not just forgotten, but forgettable. Now that’s scary.”

I think these fears are actually encouraging. Of course, that doesn’t help in our darkest moments of self-doubt, but the fear we’re not good enough leads to a desire to always be better. I think that’s essential to growth in any art. If we start to think we’re good enough, that we can’t learn more or get better, then surely our work will stagnate and become, at best, ordinary. Not necessarily crap, as Lisa says, but pedestrian. In the pursuit of any art, we need to constantly strive to be better, to out-do what we’ve done before. Sometimes we’ll succeed and sometimes we won’t – we may write something that truly resonates and then write a lot of stuff that doesn’t reach those heights again for quite a while. But we must always strive to do so regardless and surely, as our skill and experience improve, we will reach those heights again, and beyond. There’s no ceiling to how high we can go if we always strive to improve. I think the fear of not being good enough is what constantly drives us in that pursuit.

Margo made an interesting point that bad reviews can sometimes fuel that self-doubt. She said: “those voices feed directly into, and reinforce, that other voice inside me that’s ready to tear me down and call me a fraud”.

Interestingly enough, just yesterday Chuck Wendig posted this blog, about that very same thing. He calls it the “writer as stowaway”. He has two new books coming out soon and the early copies have gone out for review. He describes the feeling like this:

all the while I’ve got that flurry of fear-bubbles in my tummy: egads they won’t like it they’ll despise it I’m going to receive hate mail people might punch me Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly will probably give me whatever the opposite of a starred review is like maybe they’ll rub a cat’s butthole on my face in public OH GODS THAT’S HOW BAD THIS BOOK IS.

In classic Wendig style, he echoes exactly what the writers in my guest posts have said.

The second question I asked was:

2. What career markers do you still strive for? What heights are you determined to scale?


Read the rest of the article on Alan Baxter’s Warrior Scribe.