Paths of Discontent

The other day a writer who had only a few short stories published confessed to me that he felt rather worthless. All this work and no novel. It had only been a few weeks since a writer who I aspire to be like confessed that she felt frustrated. All this work and still not selling like that worthless so-and-so. Then, just last week I complimented a writer on his amazing Amazon numbers. He said, really? But I’m not ranked in the 100s.

Extend this thread among dozens of writers, hundreds, who these days seem to be participating in a massive group funk. No, I’m not talking about envy or depression, although those are side effects. I’m talking about expectations and how they can—and do—ruin a writer’s day. And more, how these harmless little thoughts can ultimately even drive us out of the profession. All this work . . . and this is all I get?

Practicing writers are especially susceptible to misery. Several reasons for this. First: publishers and magazine editors are picky, so it is hard to sell work. We will all experience rejection, and sometimes heart breakingly. Secondly: publishers are looking for sure wins, especially in this economic climate. You may not sell when and to whom you had hoped. When we do get our writing published, it may not reach the number of readers we had hoped because it is very hard to gain traction and visibility in the marketplace. Third thing: Beyond “hard” success in advances or sales, there are the “soft” amenities: the rave reviews, the award nominations/wins. These perks can elude you if your work does not strike a deep chord with reviewers or (in case of award nominations) you are not widely networked. Reviews and big awards may not effect “hard” success, but we covet them. (Of course, even when we get them, it isn’t enough. All this work . . . and now I’m nominated for the Nebs. Hooray! (Except now I’m frantic about losing.)

We know these things. But oddly, we act like we don’t. We give lip service to the conditions of our chosen profession—but secretly we expect more. In fact we’re proud of it. We’re reaching for the sky. We’re going to slog through until the big sale, the Hugo novel win, the sales over 50,000, the hardcover release, the breakout advance, the fabulous reviews, hell, perhaps even earning royalties.

I’m here to say that this reaching for the sky is getting us a fistful of nothing.

Worse, it’s causing us to feel slighted, disappointed, disgusted and anxious. When was the last time you felt one of these for a few weeks? Or all of them?

I propose a moratorium on unrealistic thinking. Let’s redefine success so that we enjoy what the writing life really has to offer: A growing power of self-expression. A mounting mastery of storytelling. The quiet surrender to words. The birth of a story, chapter, paragraph that has never seen the light of day until now. The off hand comment of someone who read the piece and was moved by it. The society of fellow writers who value these same things.

I know, I know, we’ve all taken this vow before—to find happiness in the humble work of words. Lately, from my observations, it doesn’t seem to be working very well.

That’s why I think that the secret is to forge new thought processes. If our experience of our lives and our days is composed of connections between neurons—and I think this is what brain scientists tell us—then we need to avoid creating hugely strong connections along neuronic pathways that define us writers as failures. Or that define us as disappointed. Because this day to day disappointment saps our confidence and teaches us to be envious and worried. And eventually, like so many writers we know, we give up. All this work . . . and still no (fill in the blank.)

You may not have received what you hoped for in that last piece of fiction. But, honestly, what did you get out of it? What growth, what satisfaction, what happiness lay in it? Tell your mind; remind your brain. Forge a new pathway, and tread along it every day for a few seconds. If you’re into mantras, write six new ones that can apply to the usual situations. If you can’t stand woo-woo, then just a gentle pulling away from negativity may do. A pulling away from unrealistic definitions of success.

Because even if we achieve (fill in the blank), the bar will rise. Remember the example of the beginner and the big writer with which I began this essay? It seems to me that everyone I talk to lately is hoping for bigger and better things. That’s part of what caused the mortgage meltdown. Bigger and better is not necessarily a good thing. It may even make us profoundly unhappy.

I would love to be wheremy friend is at—the one who wishes she sold like that worthless so-and-so (a household name.) But of course when I get there, I still might not be satisfied. And from what I’m seeing out there, small (and large) dissatisfactions like these are creating well-worn paths of thwarted ambition, Grand Canyons of shady discontent in the mind.

So here’s my proposal. Let’s redefine our expectations. Let’s not reach for the sky. Let’s go for something more sustainable, less greedy. Smaller. And let’s practice wanting it.

13 Responses

  1. I love this post–thank you.

  2. lmarley says:

    “Let’s redefine success so that we enjoy what the writing life really has to offer: A growing power of self-expression. A mounting mastery of storytelling. The quiet surrender to words. The birth of a story, chapter, paragraph that has never seen the light of day until now. The off hand comment of someone who read the piece and was moved by it. The society of fellow writers who value these same things.”

    Beautifully said!

  3. sboydtaylor says:

    It is often said that the most ambitious people are those most dissatisfied with life.

    As with all things, I believe there must be a balance.

  4. planetalyx says:

    Yes! I absolutely agree. I try to tell my students that the only thing we can control is the writing. It doesn’t mean you can ignore the commercial end of things, but I like to think it keeps things in perspective.

  5. csinman says:

    I personally hold that working for your own integrity and the furthering of your skills means you’re focusing on the very things that do attract attention and cash eventually. If you spend too much time looking at what you don’t have now, of course you won’t get it–you’ve stopped walking to stare!

    Anyway, thanks for writing this; it resonated with me. After all, if I wanted to be rich, famous, or other large-scale forms of successful, I would have tried to be a rockstar.

  6. annpendragon says:

    Thank you for this. I agree whole heartedly. We start weighing the art by monetary value we take away its magic. We make our expectations so vast we drown in them because they are just too big to swim. And we get so worked up over the things we cant control in the business (pick one) and we drive ourselves out of the business.

    Maybe we can use some version of hope for the best, but plan for the worst?

  7. Kay says:


    Thanks for the comments, everyone. This topic is tough; it goes to our everyday, unconscious thought processes. We need to be so resilient, so tough, so humble in this business! And oddly it still holds true if we ever have a big success. (‘Cause we’re Still not satisfied!)

  8. I am so glad Tricia pointed this out. I’m feeling in a flunk writing-wise at the moment too.

    I mean, when you look at it, I’ve written loads of stories (one million words and counting) and some of it is pretty original, more or less. That’s something to be proud of. So what if no one wants to publish them. Their loss.

    Thank you for perking me up. Much appreciated. 🙂

  9. abidemi says:

    Thank you very much. I needed to read this.

  10. radthorne says:

    I think this goes to the heart of the “grass is always greener” syndrome… When I started out, knowing that the odds of being published were pretty bad to start with, I tried to set some modest goals. One: write a good book. Two: try to get it published. Three: Repeat if possible. No awards, no mega deals – just the basics. I managed to achieve all three (well, at least I hope I did the good book bit), but in keeping with the theme here of course I didn’t get as much of each as I wanted (small press, pretty thin distribution, etc.) But I got enough that I felt that I had achieved my goals. So now, everything else that comes my way in this wacky publishing world is “extra” and I consider it icing on my cake, to be savored when I get it but not to be obsessed over. That lets me do precisely what you prescribed, which is simply enjoy the creative process and get a thrill out of the small stuff, like a reader telling me they liked something that I did…

  11. Kay says:

    You’re both very welcome. I needed it too!

  12. Kay says:

    Kevin, you must have natural Zen!

  13. This post is extremely uplifting and useful – thank you!

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