The Terror of Writing Success: Why the Fear of Success Might Hold You Back More Than the Fear of Failure

Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon on Unsplash

A few years ago, two writer friends and I tried an exercise from a book I’d been reading about “making it” as a writer called “Word Work” by Bruce Holland Rogers. The exercise asked us to write down all the benefits of writing your most authentic work, and then all the awful things that might happen if you wrote what you really wanted to. The results surprised all of us.

First of all, you have to know what it is that you really want to write, more than anything. It could be a memoir, it could be crime fiction, it could be children’s picture books. It could be fabulous articles for Medium! It’s the writing you feel inside you have to do, the writing you crave to be able to put on the page.

If you thought we’d all just write down benefits such as money and fame, then you’d mostly be wrong. Sure, they were in there, but fame ended up on the awful list rather than the benefits list. Money was more about simply earning a living in order to be able to write more, and write what we wanted to without pressure. Fame and best-seller status implied heavy deadlines and pressure from publishers. Being stuck in one series with no freedom to branch out.

We discussed J.K. Rowling and not being able to shop at the supermarket or go to a movie without being recognized and perhaps harassed. The fear of public speaking raised its head — having to speak at conferences and being interviewed. As one who suffers from foot-in-mouth problems, interviews scared me. Then there was envy from friends, expectations from readers … You can see how this is going — we ended up with small lists of benefits and big lists of awful possibilities.

The key to this exercise is to do it as free writing. Not to deliberate about it too much, but to write as much as you can, as fast as you can, and see what emerges. Free writing tends to tap more into the unconscious which is, of course, where we often find our secret fears. Perhaps the most useful part of this is to apply it to your procrastination issues.

These might manifest themselves as writer’s block, or putting off writing until there is no time left (fridge cleaning, anyone?), rewriting the same thing over and over but never sending out, refusing to show your writing to anyone, stubbornly resisting rewriting, or sending something out once and giving up after one rejection. Instead of a fear of failure, what if much of this is actually a fear of success?

More and more writers are admitting to what is commonly called “imposter syndrome”. The belief that even though your books are published and selling well, sooner or later someone will come along and reveal it was all a fluke and you can’t really write. As Neil Gaiman so clearly put it: “I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard … would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down.”

Success doesn’t rid you of imposter syndrome — in many cases, it makes it worse. It’s as if the bigger the success, the further you have to fall when they “find out”. If you’re a new writer, just starting out, this might seem ridiculous to you. That success others are finding so daunting — what you wouldn’t give to have some of it. Or would you?

Success and publication means judgement. Judgement in this day and age of social media, extensive reviewing via different platforms, comments sections and Twitter mobs is a scary proposition. That novel you have put your heart and soul into might have something in it that is misread, or cause a furore. What if you found yourself at the center of a Twitter storm? Or what if you wrote that long-dreamed of memoir and, after publication, most of your family stopped talking to you?

Success also means appearing in public. There are very few writers these days who can be hermits. There will almost certainly be a clause in your contract that says you have to assist with marketing and publicity, which means interviews, talks, bookshop signings and conferences. If you have even a small fear of public speaking, all of that could make you break out in a sweat right now.

And the less you feel comfortable with all of that, the more you notice the writers who are doing fantastically at it, and then the ones who were mobbed by “outragers”. Is there no middle ground, you ask? Then you read about mid-list authors who go away quietly and whose books stop getting published, and then you really despair. Success starts to sound like a four-letter curse!

So how do you know if it’s your fear of failure or secretly your fear of success that’s holding you back? Try the exercise first. And remember that you’re talking about the benefits and awful things that might come from writing your most authentic work, your “heart work”. Spend 20–30 minutes on it, fast free writing as much as you can, go and have a strong coffee or soothing tea, and come back to it.

What do you see? I can’t tell you what I think will be there — I already know from doing this with other writers that we all see and experience and feel these things differently. But if you don’t write it out, you won’t know what is inside you, and what might be holding you back. If you can, do this with other writers and then talk about what you have discovered.

Why share like this? Because being in a community of writers and talking about this stuff will take you a long way towards dealing with it. Just seeing other writers’ lists of possible good and bad outcomes can help you to see it’s not just you. It’s also definitely worth remembering — these are possibles. Once you see them on the page, you can work out how to deal with them.

Being in a group of writers can help you deal with imposter syndrome — by celebrating every accomplishment along the way. In my long-time writing group, we celebrated every publication, no matter how small, with a cake. Nowadays, I celebrate the finishing of a novel’s first draft with champagne, because I know how hard it is to write a whole novel, and I have seen so many of my students over the years who never achieve it (and some of them have been terrific writers — but perseverance and determination beat amazing language and ideas).

Keep track of your writing: every day or every week, write down what you wrote. Not just words in your current novel, but anything else. A poem, an article, a short story. Have a special notebook just for this, and once every six months, look at what you have achieved. That’s success!

Teach yourself how to talk about your writing. It sounds weird, but there is nothing worse than being put on the spot about your novel or your book or your writing, and babbling nonsense. There are lots of resources on the net to help you, but you will find they all talk about “elevator pitches” and publisher pitches and blurbs. That’s fine — that’s what you want, but you’re preparing yourself to talk to all the people around you every day, at home, at work, at school, about what is closest to your heart — your writing. When you are able to describe and explain your novel, for example, in a few concise sentences that light up a listener’s face with interest — that’s success!

If your fear of success comes from “what will my family think”, then prime them with small pieces or excerpts. Publish these small bits on a blog or on your website, try to get them published in journals, or even send them to your family as letters or postcards. Don’t ask for feedback, by the way. You will never hear what you want to. Simply present, and then move along.

If your fear comes from the public speaking element, take a class. When you see everyone else there struggling with the same fears as you, and you’re all being given strategies and skills to learn, the fear will lessen. It won’t go away completely, but those learned skills will help you immensely. There are lots of ways to practice, too. I have a friend who threw up before every poetry reading she did but when she started teaching, she found standing in front of a class every day increased her confidence 200%. Success!

The thing about huge success is that it’s so … huge. Yet it’s so unlikely to happen, we wonder how we could possibly fear it. It’s because it’s tied so closely to our dreams. With best-seller status comes all the awful stuff. Procrastination and failure protects us from it, even if we don’t realize that’s what is really going on inside us. If you try the exercise, I’d be interested to know what came out of it for you.

Writer, teacher, editor, book lover — is where I offer editing and manuscript development services.

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