Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Do Writers Want?

I started Monday's post by saying sometimes it's hard to admit what you want. Today I'm going to look at that statement more closely. Why is it so hard? What holds us back? Over the course of the last year I've identified the components that caused me to hold back on announcing that I was a writer. Today I'm going to talk about one of them.

The first one, and the one I would guess is most common, is fear of failure.

I'm the kind of person who loves my A pluses. Or as one of my friend calls it, my A pluses with a circle around it and a smiley face in the middle. I don't like bad grades and I've never been graceful about receiving them.

In college, while some people my age were risking their lives fighting in a war I spent three days (yes THREE whole days) sobbing about getting a B on a report card.

If you tell me the steps to getting an A+ I will go through hell and high water in order to make sure it happens. And interestingly, most of life is set up that way. There are clear instructions and definitive steps. All you have to do is figure out the trick to doing each step well and you get the A+, the raise, the amazing review or the unanimous praise.

When I practiced law I specialized in transactional finance which is a special sort of heaven for people like me. Guess what a transactional lawyer uses to close a deal? A checklist!

Tell me you want to finance a bridge somewhere in Brazil and I will happily produce a twenty page checklist along with all the documentation necessary to make the deal happen. This might sound like a lot of work, and it is, but there's no ambiguity about how to get from point A to B. It's all clearly defined (and if it's not you can look it up in the definitions section that I would draft to go along with the deal).
Then there's writing.

I'm sure there are checklists about how to become a successful writer. In fact I've seen them. You can do every last thing on those checklists; read the works of great authors, write, rewrite and edit until your fingers are bloody, network, use social media, go to conferences, get your MFA and you still might not meet with success.

Writing is nothing like putting together a transaction for the financing of a bridge in Brazil. There is no clear path to success, no boxes to check, no formula to follow and A+'s are given out sporadically at best.

Which, for someone like me, produces a lot of anxiety.

How could I admit I wanted to be a writer when there were no boxes to check and ladders to climb? How could I claim to be good at something when someone, somewhere was going to tell me I was terrible at it? How could the person who spent three whole days crying about getting a B on her report card risk doing a career belly flop in front of the whole world?

I stewed about this.

I spent more time than could be considered healthy making up pros and cons lists. I even tried to rationalize keeping my writing a secret by promising myself I would shout it from the rooftops the minute my novel hit the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for three months straight.

But in the end it was much simpler than that. Of course, most solutions are. Hope you stop by on Friday as I continue my series on growth. And if you are holding tightly to your own failure fears I would love to hear about them in the comments.


Rick Daley said...

I think the fear of failure is what motivates me. Sometimes it's more pronounced than others, but if it ever goes away completely I'm in trouble...

Charity Bradford said...

Amen. Even once we decide to be a writer, we have to decide our path. Keep trying for traditional? Go with a more personal experience with a smaller publisher or self-publish?

I always say that writing isn't about the money for me, but what writer doesn't want to become as popular as Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowling deep down? Is that even possible without a big 6 publisher?

Cassie Mae said...

Ditto to everything you just said! I'm a more mathematical person so when I started writing and realized there's no basic guaranteed formula, it had me a little freaked. :)

Unknown said...

Brilliant article, I'm glad I found you :)

Unknown said...

Ah, all this is exactly me, right down to the overweening need to achieve an A+. The one B I had in grad school made me upset for a year.

Writing was always a dirty secret, although, for me, it was largely because of the fear of rejection. Here I was, pouring my heart and soul into these works and I was terrified that they might be ridiculed. It eventually led to long, long spell of writer's block.

When I got laid off last year, I made myself try. I'm so happy I finally started trying, that in and of itself is a success.

Morgan said...

Success in writing is soooo out of our control... it's scary. We can only do our best and... hope. I know for me, I prefer to shout from the rooftops what I'm doing with my writing to keep me accountable. I know if my friends and family didn't know my goals, it'd be so easy for me to just stop... if that makes sense?

Great post. Really. I love it. :D

Emily R. King said...

I have a fear of failure. In fact, it's my greatest fear. I've allowed it to paralyze me in many ways, including as a writer. I'm working on it, one day at a time. It's a journey, right?

Weaver said...

I love my checklists. I have a huge one on a giant whiteboard in my office. It helps me to focus when I'm tempted to let myself be distracted.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

When it comes to anything artistic, it can't be measured or guaranteed. I'm a perfectionist so you can imagine my struggles.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Johanna, good article. I'm with Alex on this. Artistic endeavors are unpredictable and come with no guarantees. No clear paths, no formulas. Dammit.

I fight my perfectionism all the time. Artistic things are one of those things you enjoy and eventually say, to hell with them. I like doing what I'm doing and just do it.

I think one of my fears is I do it and then run out of ideas. Silly, of course it is. In all the years I've written, I've never run out of ideas, lol!


Carol Kilgore said...

Fear of failure is awful. I never experienced it with non-fiction or short stories. Now I have The Novel. I lollygagged for months before I finally said 'screw it'. The world won't end, and neither will I.

Johanna Garth said...

Rick, I love the idea of making fear of failure work for positive change.

Charity, there are so many many choices!

Cassie, wouldn't it be great if there was a formula

Nina, thanks so much for stopping by.

Esme, isn't funny how unexpected good things can happen when you least expect them!

Morgan, I think the lack of control is scary for a lot of people

Emily, its amazing how paralyzing fear can be.

Donna, who doesn't love a checklist, right!

Alex, yes I can imagine exactly!

Sia, I can't imagine you ever needing to worry about running out of ideas.

Carol, I love the use of the term The Novel! said...

I can relate and appreciate this post, Johanna. I was an A+ obsessive myself. As I'm trudging through draft one of my first book, I'm repeatedly freaked-out by what I've taken on. So much of it is about defining as-you-go, believing in self, and dealing with ambiguity. New lessons for the recovering A+ obsessive. Thanks for articulating this so nicely.


Gail said...

Very interesting and very familiar. I write but I don't consider myself a write. I just write.

Jemi Fraser said...

I definitely fear the public belly flop! I'm getting more comfortable talking about my writing with my family - but that's it so far! Maybe once I'm published... :)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I remember that first negative review hurt. You just can't let it get to you. You just have to focus on the positive, not the negative.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I think it's good that getting grades you didn't want motivated you to work even harder for the grades that you did want; that's the kind of attitude that I think students should have.
You're right in that there is no one right way to succeed at writing, because there has been more than one author who broke all the "rules" and still succeeded. I think it's about going with what works for you. But I have to admit that I still read other authors' checklists for any tips that might work for me. :)

Jenny S. Morris said...

Fear of Failure. Yep, not sure any person that writes isn't susceptible to this. I've told my husband, why can't writing be like math before. You add A to B and you get C to fix the problem. But I guess it would be boring then.