Anxiety and the writer … The Writer Whisperer Speaks #1

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Authors suffer from a unique set of anxieties. Those anxieties evolve over time, depending on where you are on the author life-cycle, but they never go away. I’m not a worrier, not by nature, anyway – I was once described as being more laidback than a surfboard smoking a doobie – but a recent chat with some writer friends about anxiety got me to reflecting on this important issue. The result is this piece, the first in a series on off-beat topics about writing and the publishing industry. If you want writing advice about plot, pace, characterisation, etc… go somewhere else. The Writer Whisperer has bigger fish to fry.

Image credit: The Noun Project CC 4.0

Mental health is big at the moment. Everyone’s banging on about it, from self-help gurus, to doctors, to rent-a-celebs whose fifteen minutes of fame died with their exit from that reality show where orange people do really stupid things to other orange people. Of course mental health is important, and doubly so in an industry where luck and subjectivity can so often mean the difference between success and failure; indeed, where even the terms success and failure can mean so many different things to different people.

An author’s lifelong relationship with anxiety begins early on. You start as a shiny-eyed novice, bashing out that first novel, riding high on adrenalin as words pour from your fingers like lightning bolts. Who said this writing lark was difficult? You’re a literary god, the heir to Hemingway, a blazing star streaking across the literary firmament. Clearly, all those jaded hacks complaining about how hard writing is don’t have The Gift. Not everyone can be touched in the way you are.

You finish. You pull out your Writers & Artists Yearbook. You send your submission off to a few handpicked and very lucky agents, together with a covering letter infused with your winning personality and a cute little photo of you that you think will look great on the book jacket. You reward yourself with an indulgent bottle of Prosecco and a Chinese takeaway. A sort of pre-celebration. You coyly tell your Facebook friends you’ll soon have BIG NEWS on the literary front.

And then your first rejection letter arrives. Surely this has to be a mistake? Who is this hack? Have they lost their mind? You dismiss the letter as an aberration, an agent who clearly didn’t read the book, an agent with no taste or discernment. Probably a tax dodger, too.

But then another letter arrives; then another, each one a stake hammered through your gonads. By the end, the Olympian self-confidence you began your writing journey with is in more pieces than your heart was the last time you were dumped. You feel as if you’ve been mugged by a gang of Hell’s Angel bikers; and then run over by each and every one of their bikes.

You want to stay calm, but it’s hard to stay zen when all you really want to do is drag those cockeyed gatekeepers into a wrestling ring and pile-drive them into the canvas, followed by a flying elbow smash to the face. (It goes without saying that I’m not actually advocating violence. In reality, agents are hardworking, much put-upon individuals with the thankless task of sifting through mountains of sub-par submissions searching for that nugget of gold, the type you’d definitely invite over to have tea with your gran. But this sort of mental exercise is quite common following rejection, as an aid to dealing with pent-up frustration. Or so I’ve been told.)

Suddenly, you’re avoiding the eyes of anyone you’ve ever told about that damned novel. You evade questions about the book like a politician greased in baby oil. Your own mother keeps wondering, archly, when “Tolstoy is going to be joining us for dinner”. Your humiliation is complete.

They say the average person spends eight months stuck in traffic during their lifetime. Well, the average author spends at least ten years in a state of abject self-doubt, and maybe a year as a drooling puddle of angst. Authors need a thick skin, none more so than during those years when you are first trying to get published. I’ve been there. I wrote (and submitted) seven novels across 23 years – beginning at age 17 – before being published at age 40. I know the soul-crushing feeling of rejection, the horror of being thrown off the horse and head-first into a pile of dung.

The best advice I can offer is this: wallow in misery. You heard me. Let it all out. Weep, wail, thump your chest, rend the air with your laments. Wander around like a ghoul, complaining to anyone who will listen – your mum, your friends, the postman, the guy with the glass eye at your local off license – that the system is rigged, that the industry has its head up its arse, that they don’t deserve you. Get it all out of your system. And, once you’re done, you’ll be ready to start again.

I studied economics in university. Here I encountered Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, a theory of human decision-making that suggests we all pursue a hierarchy of psychological and physical needs. Authors have a similar hierarchy, in roughly the following order: finish a novel, find an agent, find a publisher, get some sales, get some decent reviews, get invited to events, get on the awards ladder, get a bestseller tag, get your contract renewed, repeat.

And therein lies the difference between theory and reality.

Getting onto the ladder of success is no guarantee that you will stay on it or continue in a smooth upwards trajectory. Disappointment lurks around every corner waiting to beat you to death with your own shoes. Your first book (or second, or third) might not sell as many copies as your publisher had hoped. You might be deluged with negative reviews lashing your back like Jesus during The Passion. You might fall out with your agent/editor, burning your bridges by insulting their literary taste and/or choice of tea coasters. You might not get the newspaper spot you felt you deserved or that longed-for awards longlisting because some other completely undeserving writer got it. A new contract becomes an unlikely proposition – suddenly you’re about as welcome at your publisher’s offices as a turd bobbing around in the water cooler. You feel as if you’ve been cast adrift in a rowboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You’re clinging to the side of a cliff while a jackbooted industry avatar stamps on your fingers.

It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that these are all situations that can create incredible stress and concomitant levels of anxiety.

So what do you do? That’s the wrong question. The right question is: what can you do?

Well, option one is to crawl under a blanket, curl into a ball, and suck your thumb. This is a perfectly valid strategy. We all need time out now and again. In fact, stepping away from it all might give you the space you need to find clarity and chart a new path. A new idea that re-energises you. A new genre. Perhaps time enough to get over writer’s block and the feelings of abject failure churning around your insides like last night’s curry-tuna-pasta fusion.

A second option is to redirect your rage into risk-taking behaviour. Maybe you could take up stick-fighting like Rambo did in Thailand to overcome his demons; or maybe you’ll want to join a crotchet circle. Again, it’s about temporarily re-channelling your energies so that you can shed the negativity. Sometimes focusing on something other than writing can be highly therapeutic. I play cricket. Badly. (And if you don’t think cricket is risky just because we seem to be standing around in a field all day not really moving … think again. A saggy cucumber sandwich during the tea break can be mentally devastating.)

A third option is to sit back and review your successes to help re-inflate your ego. Celebrate small successes too.  That great review from your mum’s best friend. The weird smile on that guy’s face who bought a book at one of your signings and who definitely wasn’t a stalker. The fact that your agent still answers your emails instead of leaving a message with his secretary to tell you that he’s left the profession and moved to Guatemala to take up missionary work.

A fourth option is to seek the counsel of other people, a sympathetic ear, a pep talk, words of wisdom from those who’ve been there. Nothing wrong with that – unless, of course, you hate other people. There’s no shame in being a misanthrope. Many writers are. They’d rather shoot themselves in the face than have to make friends with other writers.

Seeking advice after things have gone wrong is particularly difficult. It’s hard not to feel as if you’ve failed, no matter the previous successes you may have had. You’re only human.

Here’s the good news. Most authors are more than happy to offer a shoulder to cry on, or a slap in the face as a means of bringing you to your senses. After all, we’ve all been there. We know what you’re going through. Guess what? We care. (I’ve said this elsewhere, but friendships are the single most important thing about this industry, and the best way to navigate its ups and downs. Because, when all else fails, they will still be there. Hopefully.)

A final option is one you won’t find in any writing manual … Quit. Yes, I said it. There’s nothing wrong in deciding that you really don’t want to put yourself through this anymore. It doesn’t have to be permanent. But there’s nothing worse than trying to slog on when every fibre of your being is pulling in the opposite direction. I don’t mean to get all Mr Miyagi on you, but your mind and body must be as one. You don’t have to get up each day positively ejaculating from your eyeballs with enthusiasm, but you do need to feel good enough about writing to want to push forward. Motivation is everything as an author. If all you want to do is take an axe to your laptop then you really aren’t in the right place to continue.

Anxiety can be crippling for a writer. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of seeing your ambitions go up in smoke. These are all valid feelings and we’ve all had them at some time or another. Conventional wisdom would tell you to simply persist and keep going – and, yes, if that suits your personality and your circumstances, then absolutely you should do that.

But there are other options too; don’t be afraid of taking the unconventional path. There’s more than one way to skin a camel.

The Writer Whisperer has spoken.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a therapist, and none of the above constitutes that sort of professional advice. So don’t sue me.)

If you would like more from the Writer Whisperer … my quarterly newsletter contains articles, competitions, giveaways, short stories, book news, and recommendations. Simply register here

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