The Perils of Success for Writers

(Always remember to celebrate your writing success…just don’t lose your head. Photo by Jeremy Tolbert.)

Success can be as difficult for a writer as managing feelings of despair at not being successful. For one thing, if your goal was to publish a novel with a major commercial publisher and you’ve suddenly achieved that goal after years of work…what do you do next? You may not have thought past that point, and thus feel at loose ends, drifting, at the very moment when most people think you should be celebrating. Or, you may have spent so much time expecting the worst and having to push up against gatekeepers and other obstacles…that the lack of an obstacle makes you stumble. You literally don’t know what to do without an obstacle in your path. It throws off your balance. Finally, success may go to your head and you may behave like a coked-up rock star for a few months, until reality hits you in the face.

One child prodigy I know had four novels out from Bantam by her early twenties but by the age of twenty-five had literally joined a circus and disappeared into Eastern Europe, never to return — as an author, at least. Another writer achieved great commercial success at the expense of mental health, ever more erratic in emails and face-to-face meetings, and eventually became a recluse. A third writer got a huge deal for three books and, with his day job as an anchor, proceeded to adopt an arrogant attitude, and blow almost all of the money on clothes, books, travel, and thirteen pairs of very
expensive shoes.

Failure’s easy — wrecking your life, not living up to your talent, can be accomplished painlessly over years, or even over the course of an afternoon if you really put your mind to it. But once you’re successful, you have real problems: expectations put on you, readers who correspond with you, and responsibilities you could never even imagine while you were typing away in your tiny office, certain no one would ever read your words even as you hoped
the opposite would be true.

Even a modicum of success can throw you off of your game, especially if there’s an unfair niggling little voice in the back of your head saying you don’t deserve it. Success is a form of praise, and praise can be hard to take, because it requires acknowledging a form of love. We’re generally not good with love, or being as generous to ourselves as we’re told to be to others.

Here are some of the possible untoward results, of success, sudden or otherwise:

• You quixotically quit your day job based on having won a lottery that you may never win again — namely, the big book advance — and run out of money within a couple of years. (Crawling back is much, much worse than never having left, or going part-time and gradually phasing out the day job once you’re assured of future writing income.)

• You turn into a horrible human being, a premature midlife crisis induced by your sudden change in status, and when you wake up from this delusion, you find the wreckage of your life all around you like an airplane’s burning fuselage. (In this case, you will probably have lost the affection of friends and family members, and possibly even the love of your spouse or partner.)

• You have trouble writing your second book because you’re too enamored of your own work, or because you’ve listened too closely to book reviewers or fans, relinquishing your vision in favor of a belief in theirs.

• You never write another book because you discover you don’t like everything that goes with having an actual career.

Can you avoid these outcomes? Of course — you may be the type of personality that is resistant to all the dangers of success; I don’t mean to suggest these scenarios are inevitable, or even likely. But if you are susceptible, you probably won’t avoid problems because of reading these words, although possibly you can limit their impact.

Alas, success is an emotional rather than intellectual experience. No matter what counsel I give you, you may still get the bends trying to adjust to success. All I can advise is that when success comes, try not to make any sudden changes in your life. Try, no matter how hard it might be, to simply enjoy it and incorporate it into your existing paradigm.

As for me, I was the jerk with thirteen pairs of shoes. They still stare at me from the closet, a Greek chorus shouting “idiot!” every time I walk past them.

>>Test this section of Booklife: What other problems does success bring to writers? What have you experienced?

4 thoughts on “The Perils of Success for Writers

  1. LOL wasn't expecting you to be the jerk with the shoes.

    I'm sure I'll run into some snag I wasn't expecting, if/when I find that success, but is it weird to say I look forward to it anyway? (It's just another challenge, right?)

  2. I wasn't prepared for the resentment of others, or the unspoken feeling that now you are published you have nothing to worry or complain about. Reaching the goal of being published brings a whole new set of emotional problems as you so rightly point out. My partner and my home have suddenly shot way up to the top of my list of priorities because without that steady same reality and refuge I can see how easy it would be to become lost, and yes, miserable from the extra demands and the stresses. I'm not insensible to my good fortune, but really, the challenge simply changes shape – it does not go away

  3. Publishing brought me minor amounts of scene fame in a scene that eschews fame. It's actually just uncomfortable to meet people who know who you are and what it is you do when you have no idea who they are. That, and friends treating you slightly differently: snarky jokes about being famous can really get under your skin.

  4. Been thinking about this a lot recently for some reason, even though I have no success to worry about yet. I don't want to be that coked-up rockstar, and I don't want to buy those shoes.

    Ahh yes, there are always plenty of things to worry about :)

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