In my ongoing effort to make this blog interesting and keep it alive, I've invited Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in issues affecting writers to take over on Friday's and do some "writers therapy" online. Sue comes to the topic with clinical authority as well as writerly authority. Her own fiction has been well published so she's more than qualified to tackle the subject.
If you have any questions for Dr. O'Doherty, please send them to her at dr.sue at mindspring.com
And so without further ado I turn the floor over to Dr. O'Doherty.
Writers struggle with issues that are unique to the profession. We tend to work in isolation, a condition that brings to the fore any insecurities we may have. When we are not writing, we often fear that we will never be inspired again. When we are, we worry about the quality of our work. The submission process can be agonizing; it reinforces all of our doubts about our gifts and about the possibility of ever achieving our ambitions. Even acceptance of a book, article, or story can be a mixed blessing—jealousy and rivalry emerge from unexpected quarters, and of course, each acceptance evokes the fear that this success was a fluke, that we will never be able to pull it off again.
In this column, I will discuss some aspects of writing and publishing that set us up for difficult reactions, and propose alternative strategies and ways of looking at seemingly insoluble problems. I will also publish thoughtful questions from authors, and respond as I would to a client who had come in for a consultation. I invite you to share your responses and your own questions, as well.
Dear Dr. O’Doherty,
How do I deal with professional jealousy -- mine and that of my fellow novelists? It seems that no matter how successful a writer is, by the various measures one uses to measure success, there is also something more that he or she wanted and didn't get. Sometimes it is hard to be thrilled for a nice person when a prize you thought you had a good chance of winning goes to a book you know in your heart is inferior to yours. It goes both ways. Sometimes, too, there is a feeling of curdled warmth coming at you when your own book garners a great review or wins some recognition.
This is all very hard to talk about among writers but it is on everyone's mind.
Reasonably Successful Novelist
Competition among writers is a complex phenomenon, in part because there are no generally agreed upon standards for "success." If prizes were given for the longest novel, or the one with the biggest words, we could all agree on who should win. As it stands, however, there is no universally accepted answer to the question of which story, novel, or article is "the best," or even what constitutes quality. Some feel that the book that sells the most copies is the best; others, that excellence should be judged by "experts"—academics, professional critics, or fellow writers who have been determined to be "the best" in some other contest. Thus, we are pitted against friends and colleagues for a piece of a fairly small pie, the distribution of which is determined by people to whose values and critical judgment we may not subscribe. The wonder is not that jealousy exists among writers, but that we don’t rip one another’s throats out.
Accept that envy is a natural part of a writer’s life. Try not to judge yourself too harshly for uncharitable feelings toward a rival. When a nice person wins an award that you deserved, write a scathing review of the prizewinning book. Then rip it up, flush it down the toilet, and congratulate your friend with all the enthusiasm you would hope for if the prize were yours. When the tables are turned, expect your colleagues to greet your success with less than wholehearted enthusiasm. It is only a matter of time before you will all be united in resentment of yet another undeserving winner.
If your circle of friends consists primarily of other writers, you may be shortchanging yourself, and not only in the area of competition. You may wish to expand your circle of friends to include interesting people in other fields, through taking a class, participating in volunteer work, or simply being open to conversation at the gym or your child’s school. This is not always easy for writers to do—socializing time is limited, and writers are often reclusive by nature—but cultivating other interests can only enrich your writing, and a friend who can be completely on your side—who can share wholeheartedly in your triumphs and express unreserved anger at your losses—can be invaluable to your equilibrium and sense of self-worth.
Do not, under any circumstances, disparage your gift to appease less successful writers. To do so is to degrade the art of writing, impoverishing us all.
Dear Dr. O’Doherty,
Even after eight published novels, I still have crippling self-doubt. Every time I begin a new novel, I'm sure that it's the end of my career, that any talent I ever had is gone. I know now that this is part of my process, but it's a painful one. Any suggestions how I might bypass this step, please oh please?
Biting my Nails
Paul Cézanne once said that each time he finished painting an apple, he believed he had solved the problem of painting apples. But then, when he moved on to the next apple, it was an entirely new apple, and he had to start all over again.
After eight novels, you may feel that you should have this problem licked. You have, of course, accumulated wisdom and developed your technique over the years, but the actual hard creative work of each new novel is, as you have learned, an entirely new apple. Not only doesn’t it get easier, in some ways it gets harder. The expectations placed on a successful novelist by agents, publishers, and even well-intentioned loved ones, all confidently awaiting your next masterpiece, can be inhibiting, if not crippling.
When you feel yourself falling into the trap of self-doubt, take out a piece of paper and write the following: "This is new territory. I am an explorer." Tack it up on your bulletin board. Look at it once an hour, and write it over again if necessary. Remind yourself that the most important work you are doing is in the process itself. You are discovering and recording aspects of yourself and the world that are uniquely yours. If this were easy, there would be no point to it. You are mapping out new territory, and it may be harrowing—and, for that matter, you may not arrive at the destination you had set out for. But you will experience wonders along the way, and you will transmit them to paper to the best of your ability. The world may expect one thing from you, but you are free to deliver something else entirely. In writing, you are obligated only to yourself and to the work. Clearly, you are up to it.