Last week at work, I was yelled at by a business I’d included in a newspaper article assignment. The woman on the other line called me out for not contacting them for proper information, which was true. Her voice continued to raise as she pointed her finger at everything I did wrong, and I didn’t fight her because everything she said was true. I’d written an entertaining article that ended up going gangbusters, much to my surprise, and this business was left to clean up the PR nightmare I’d unintentionally created for them by not verifying information. I felt genuinely bad, and I tried to apologize, promising a retraction. But then she hit me where it hurt.
“I see you’re a writer,” she told me. “I see you write things about how to be a writer. It would take nothing to put your name out there as someone who spreads bad information.” She let me know that if their company suffered from this article in any way, I was going down with them.
I was officially triggered. Every single fear I’ve ever had came crashing down on me, things I’ve felt all along, but now were staring me in the face. I’m not good enough. I don’t know what I’m doing. Who do I think I am? How dare I even believe I can keep playing this make-believe game of being a writer, both at work and in my personal life? I’m not educated enough. I’m not talented enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m a total and complete hack.
This triggered barrage of fears at work has seeped into my work as an author. I’m not supposed to talk about this. Who says? I don’t know. I just know that most authors keep things light and friendly, presenting their books in these neat little packages as if they didn’t spend months or years before that bleeding at their keyboard and contemplating ending it all out of self-doubt. My favorite indie authors who are making a killing at this game are funny, personable, and confident. Not me, though. I’m a complete disaster. I’m a mess. I doubt myself constantly. The worst time of my life is always book launch time, because I’ve already predicted its failure before the book is even released.
But truthfully, it’s also a relief when the book doesn’t sell. It means there’s less of a chance for someone to discover the flaws I’ve included between the pages. I’m afraid any research I’ve done hasn’t been enough. Readers will discover I don’t know how to sail a boat, grow a garden, live on a pot farm, or watch a good friend die. I’ll get something wrong, and a reader will call me on it, and the book will be destroyed.
Making it in this writing game is all I want, and it scares me the most. It would be amazing to reach the point where I can live off the proceeds from my books. But what happens if someone smears my name, either by something I’ve done, or something I haven’t done? You’ve all seen the internet mobs that come flying with their pitchforks over someone who’s done something terrible. It would take nothing for a false rumor to be spread that way and ruin someone’s life. If I had a platform, it would be too easy for someone I’d rubbed raw to smear my name and ruin my career. This woman that called me on the article could potentially ruin me by letting everyone know that I have no idea what I’m talking about, that I love to spread fake news.
This woman isn’t even my biggest fear. It’s the readers. When I’m writing a book, I am free, for the most part, of any doubts I have. It’s just me and the characters, and we’re having a great time during the weeks I write their story. But as soon as the book is ready to publish, all my fears take over. The door opens, and I invite people in to read all the things that have been private for months. I’m left vulnerable as people I don’t know pick up my story and witness what I’ve created. Worse, people I know pick up the story. I feel judged, exposed, emotional, afraid. The days after a book release, I usually hide, unable to muster a social media post or say anything about the book because I’m so spent and nursing a nasty book launch hangover.
Then there’s the marketing part. I tell people I know how to write, but I don’t know how to market. That’s a partial lie. I know things I can do that will help drum up interest, but I don’t do them because of my fear of rejection. If I tell people about the book, they will ask what it’s about, and as I tell them, I can hear a little voice telling me they’re not interested, they’re just being polite, no one reads anymore, and so on. I worry more that I will gather their interest, and then, once they read the book, they’ll be left disappointed because I failed to live up to my hype.
And, of course, there’s that one fear I spoke of a few paragraphs ago—if I gather a lot of interest, there’s more potential for someone to realize I’m a hack. I’ve published 9 books so far. I should be so much better at this game. Instead, I’m worse—and my self-doubt is my biggest reason why.
I was listening to Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday podcast with India.Arie, who spoke about leaving the music industry for a time because she felt like she was losing herself to the commercial side and not keeping true to her own beliefs. Her obstacle was her feeling of inadequacy. When she was nominated for 7 Grammys, she was so overwhelmed she couldn’t handle it. When she didn’t win a single one, she was caught somewhere between feelings of failure and a sense of relief. I totally get her on this one. Then she told Oprah a realization she’d had just a few weeks earlier in a moment of self-doubt.
“What if Oprah decided she was too fat for TV?”
Whoa. Let’s chew on that for a second. Oprah wasn’t always OPRAH. She was once a radio station newscaster who found her calling in the talk show arena because she knew how to tell a story. But what if she had decided she couldn’t be seen in the public eye because she wasn’t thin enough, smart enough, or likable enough?
What if Steph Curry decided he wasn’t good enough at basketball?
What if Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (my obsession) felt like his life was too messy to create music?
What if Stephen King had successfully thrown away his manuscript for Carrie?
What if Jesus, Gandhi, Muhammad, Confucius, Buddha, or the Dalai Lama decided they didn’t know what they were talking about, and kept quiet because they were afraid someone would strongly disagree with them?
Earlier this year, I tattooed my favorite Bible verse on my arm: Be not afraid or discouraged. The Lord your God is with you. Joshua 1:9. Fear has been my driving force for so many years. It’s been my God. My focus this year has been on faith, and part of that journey is to let go of fear. Here we are in November, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. In many ways, I feel more afraid than ever. I wish for thick skin, and it’s ridiculously thin. I pretend I have callouses because I work at a newspaper and deal with ridicule on a daily basis. But I don’t have callouses, I have scars that keep reopening.
Not one person in this world is flawless. I’m just me, trying to figure out the world and where I fit in the story. I don’t have all the answers; I can’t even pretend that I do. But I do know that I can only own the things I can control. I can’t control how many people read my book, though I can do things to push it in their direction. I can’t control what people think about my book. But I can control what I write, and stay true to my beliefs as I write it. For that, I need to be clear on those beliefs. What’s my ultimate message? Each story incorporates something I’m grappling with in the time that I’m writing it. What have I learned from the story? What do I hope the reader will learn?
Finally, what’s my definition of success? I thought success was selling enough books so that I can be a full-time writer. However, this definition doesn’t make me happy. It feels shallow, and its broad definition makes the goal out of reach. But you know what makes me feel like I’ve fulfilled my purpose? When someone reaches out to me to say they found themselves in my story, that they felt less alone when they read it, that it reached a deep emotion inside they hadn’t even known was there. My definition of success is when a reader connects with the story I’ve told them, and I’ve changed them because of it.
That’s a definition I can live for.
There will always be critics in this world. I’m not done fearing them, but I’m trying to move away from that. The best I can do, the best any of us can do, is to remember we are all souls having a human experience. We are all connected in one way or another, even with our worst critics. What can we take from each experience? What should we leave behind. Most important, which voices in this world build us up and encourage us to be the best we can be? Those are the voices to focus on.