Friday, July 9, 2010

On writer guilt

Several days ago, I saw something on Twitter that broke my heart. It was from an author whose book deal had recently fallen through, and here’s what it said:

I feel like I owe an apology to everyone who congratulated me, like the engagement fell through and I got all these gifts I didn't deserve.

You can read the whole story on her blog.

I know it doesn’t help much to say I’ve been there before, but I have. I sold my first book in May 2006 to Harelquin/Silhouette’s Bombshell line of women’s action-adventure novels. Fifteen months later, I got the “un-call” from my editor saying they were canceling the line a month before my scheduled debut. Though I got to keep my advance, I was out on my butt with one formerly contracted novel, two follow-ups that never made it to contract, and a whole lot of guilt.

The guilt was the worst part.

Even now – after three years and a new three-book deal – it still hits me sometimes.

All those people you told, the voice in my head whispers. They thought you’d have a book out by now. They’re wondering if you lied. They’re wondering if you suck. They’re wondering if you slept with all the editors and weren’t particularly good at it.

When people say writing is a solitary profession, I always laugh. I don’t know any writers who work without an army of people behind them – spouses, partners, children, friends, family, agents, editors, bikini waxers, and hoards of acquaintances who cheer your successes and mourn your failures.

When things go wrong, it doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your writing career – you can’t help but feel you’ve disappointed them all.

I’ve blogged before about deciding who to tell about your writing.

But that’s really only half the equation. Unless you write in a bubble (which tends to get your keyboard sudsy) there will be others riding along in your writing journey. How do you not feel responsible for letting them down if things don’t go the way you hope?

I don’t have an answer.

Writing is emotionally draining whether you write gut-wrenching literary fiction or nut-busting thrillers. Not just the writing process, but the expectations we pile on ourselves. There’s no way to alleviate that – though I suppose sex, drugs, and insanity sufficed for Hunter S. Thompson.

But wouldn’t it be easier if we all learned to be a bit more forgiving of ourselves? To accept that no matter how hard you work at it, there’s only so much you can do to control your own writing success. The rest is just dumb luck and the very subjective opinions in an ever-shifting publishing world.

I can’t promise not to care what people think. No author pursuing publication can promise that, or we’d all be content to scribble our thoughts on the back of a tampon box and stuff it in the medicine cabinet.

What I can promise – what we all should promise – is to cut ourselves some slack. To recognize that there will be ups and downs and times where you want to kick someone in the nuts and run away laughing. No amount of guilt we pile on ourselves will change that.

But if we all make a conscious effort to give ourselves a break, it’ll go a long way toward reducing the number of authors feeling lousy over things they can’t control.

So how about it? Are you a guilt-ridden writer? Want to join me in throwing off the hair shirt?

Leave it over there by the bar, and pull up a stool. I’m buying.

25 comments :

Emilia Plater said...

This was really beautiful. For a while there I felt like I was reading an article in a magazine! I am so with you. The guilt is something we've all felt in one form or another, published or agented or unagented. But it's not a good thing to let hang around. Awesome post :)

Indigo said...

I went through this whole phrase a couple weeks ago, where I honestly believed I couldn't live up to expectations. Not mine, but his - the guy who believes in me wholeheartedly and thinks I have what it takes.

My thoughts ran along the lines of : What if I can't find an agent that believes the same or when I'm finally published my book doesn't do well; is he still going to believe in me?

Honestly, it's hard enough having enough faith in yourself to take that plunge, without feeling you're letting down the guy sitting there coaxing you on. So thanks for this.

At the end of the day all I can do is try and if I'm NOT good enough yet, keep improving until I find my niche. (Hugs)Indigo

Matthew Rush said...

Ouch. That is rough. I honestly have to admit I probably would have given up if that had happened to me. Congrats to those who stuck with it and persevered, especially you Tawna!

Today's guest blogger is Guinevere Rowell!

Danica Avet said...

Oh wow, Tawna, were you reading my mind? Two months ago, I got "the call" by an agent with an agency I was eager to work with. She loved my story and was ready to send out. I was waiting on the contract, but in the meantime, I contacted all the other agents I queried and told them the news. Then I told my family. It was finally happening!

A month later, I got an e-mail from my agent saying she was no longer able to represent me because she didn't work with the agency any longer. I was once again unrepresented with a manuscript out to several houses. Back at square one, I'm trying to find an agent, but it doesn't appear they want to touch a project already pitched to the publishing houses.

Now all I can think is: Everyone's going to think I was exaggerating, or lying and that kills me the most. I like to consider myself an honorable, truthful person, so this...FUBAR has made me doubt myself and my integrity. Did I misunderstand the agent? Did I do something wrong? And that's what I hate the most.

Thanks for the shoulder to sniffle on!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I think all of us writers understand the ups and downs and quirks of the industry.

But the non-writers in our lives ... not so much. They don't understand, and explaining seems like excuses.

My guilt/shame right now is that my debut novel came out this May, BUT it's the same novel I published independently in 2007. I now have a contract with Sourcebooks, and the book is out with a new cover and a new title -- and people who know me think it's a *second* book. They are disappointed and feel a little cheated when they buy it and discover it's the same book they already have.

I keep apologizing and explaining and I feel like a dweeb.

Expat mum said...

I never talk about what's going on vis-a-vis publishers, purely because of this. Having bagged a great publisher four years ago, I know a lot of people (OK, dozens) are probably wondering where my next book is. Turth be told, I have been distracted by three kids, a dog and a not-for-profit which I established, so I'm not too fretful, but I know I'm letting some people down. Aarrghh!

Larissa said...

Yep. I'm still in love with you.

Also, "kick someone in the nuts and run away laughing" totally made me snort laugh, and since I'm in a bad mood, that is a major accomplishment!

SM Schmidt said...

And here is where I want to bury myself under a blanket and say it won't happen to me. People don't know how publishing works so they assume when you say oh I wrote a novel it'll be on shelves next month.

It's the disappointment when you choose to explain to them how it works that makes me feel worse. Yea I don't think I'll tell my friends until its on the shelf for sanity's sake.

lora96 said...

Gah!
In my fantasy life I already have an agent and a book deal. Now I have to edit myself in my fantasy life so I don't embarrass myself and disappoint my imaginary fans when my imaginary book deal falls through.

Grrrrrr.

Meanwhile, informative post. Very compassionate. Still kinda want to blow my imaginary head off...

Patty Blount said...

I often think writers are among the bravest people in existence... how many others bare their souls to those "very subjective opinions" you mention on a regular basis, knowing they'll be rejected repeatedly?

There are many times I feel like a fraud, trying to count myself among them. I'm not brave! I'm not, I tell you! But every night after work, I can be found in front of a keyboard, trying like hell to be.

So, yeah, there's guilt - truckloads of it though not at the level of I-must-return-gifts. For me, it's feeling like a fraud, feeling unworthy of the company I've been keeping, and constantly kicking myself in the ass. I'd never be this hard on a friend so why I cannot break out of the trap is a mystery.

Misty said...

Love you, love you, love you.

The guilt of being a writer starts the moment you admit you are one. It's just like when your wedding guests ask when the kids are going to start coming.
Ah well. We'll have to compare tampon boxes sometime.

Linda G. said...

I'll join you. Damn thing's too itchy, anyway.

It is tough sometimes--when you get an agent, most people not in the biz expect your book to be on the shelves at the local bookstore within a few months, if not weeks. I've explained to quite a few that it doesn't work quite that way.

Cherie Reich said...

I'm right there with you too. Last year around this time, I had my first published piece (a short story) and another story coming out with a e-publisher. Then, in a week's time, the entire publisher went under and all us authors were left out in the cold.

It hurt (at times, still does), and worst of all was the guilt...all the people you told and everything. It makes you feel like a failure, even though none of it was your fault.

Unfortunately, it happens, but we really shouldn't be so hard on ourselves. You're so right about that. :)

Purple Cow said...

The same applies to everything in life...that's why its better not to make announcements (whether it be a new job, new car, etc etc) until it actually happens!

Kelly Breakey said...

I have not had to dance with the writers guilt. My writing is still strictly for the enjoyment I get from writing. I am more of a wannabe than an is.

But I seriously take my hat off to all of the writers I have met via twitter who sweat it out day and night in the hopes of getting that book deal.

So Congratulation to you for letting me and all the rest live a little vicariously through you with your book deal!

NINA NAKAYAMA said...

What a beautiful post. Inspiring. Funny, too (per usual). =D

When the first YA novel I wrote years back (wow, haven't thought about that for awhile) went from my agent to a pub editor that was interested and actually talking about it with colleagues who happened to know me, the handful of friends I told all thought it would be in bookstores *soon* (ha). When the pub passed, I had the guilt (and shame) then. I put the pub part of writing on the side for a bit while I got my grad degrees (those were some nice guilt-free years of writing). When I 'returned' and found out my agent was ill, I felt a lot of guilt about having just the tiniest worry over my writing future when she was going through so much. Sadly, my agent is now gone and now I'm starting all over again. Yes, I have guilt now when I tell my amazingly supportive hubs that over all the overload teaching and projects I do every semester and summer as a prof, without an agent & book sale for my novel, we still can't afford to buy a house here in Hawai'i. It royally sucks.

And still I write. I pour it into my current WIP (which luckily is angsty and not one of my romantic comedy WIPs). Re: your other post, no one at the univ knows I write. Only three friends, my sis, hubs, and my immigrant parents (who still have the assimilation detachment) know...oh, and my dogs. But, a ton of new online friends know! =) Without new twitter & blog authors like you, you're right, I'd probably kick strangers in the nuts & run away laughing. *grin* So yes please, I would very much like to join you at the bar. Hornitos tequila, jaggerbombers, and any kind of Mexican beer! I'll buy the next round... =D

Thanks so much for this post.

KD Easley said...

I totally understand. Ten years ago I was offered a contract with a small publisher. I was ecstatic. I told everyone, the ladies in my writer's group, all my online friends, everyone in my family. My cousins took me out to dinner. My mom took me shopping. My aunt bought me a little gift to commemorate the moment, then I got the contract in the mail. Suffice to say the contract would have tied me and everything I wrote during that time to that house for years and years, and their creative accounting on royalties would have made sure that I never saw a penny from any of my work.

I turned down the contract, but I wasn't thinking about myself as I did it. I was thinking about all the good wishes that friends and family had thrown my way when I shared my good news.

It was very hard to go back and tell them it wasn't going to happen.

Michelle Wolfson said...

I love this post and think you're all very brave for sharing your experiences.

As for whether or not you should share and celebrate, it's obviously a personal decision. The aftermath should things go south may be rough, but I personally subscribe to the celebrate-the-good-while-it's-there theory of life. You never know what's coming and I'd hate to live my life expecting the worst all the time. I like to have hope. And I think you may as well share the good things that happen with friends and family. And if things do turn sour, then you pick yourself up and move on and it will only make you appreciate your success all the more when it finally arrives to stay.

And you don't owe anyone an explanation for anything. As someone commented, you would never be this hard on a friend or fellow writer, so why beat yourself up about it.

But that's just me. And even for me, it's easier said than done.

But thanks, Tawna, for reminding us all not to feel guilty. Especially me. I hate feeling guilty.

Sean Ferrell said...

This is a brilliant post, Tawna.

The difficulty lies in the fact that critical natures make us writers. We look at the world and say "Why is it like that?" We write to figure it out. When that critical nature looks inward, well... there's a reason why so many turn to booze, drugs and cartoons.

Tawna Fenske said...

Wow, I'm so happy this post resonated with so many of you! Sometimes I don't know if sharing these kinds of stories just depresses people, yanno?

Emilia, magazine article, eh? I was a journalist in a past life, I blame that :)

Indigo, I was talking about the idea for this blog post with Pythagoras, and he fell all over himself assuring me that he's never ever been disappointed in me. I told him I appreciated that, but that wasn't even the issue -- he feels sad when I feel sad, and while I appreciate the empathy, it sucks just knowing you're responsible for making someone else sad.

Matthew, I can honestly say I never considered giving up. Killing someone, maybe, but giving up? Never.

Danica ((hugs)) on the agent situation. That just sucks! Is there anyone else at your former agent's company who might remember you and like your work? Seems like there could be a toe-in-the-door there.

Dianne, your situation is fascinating -- I'd never thought about that before, but I totally understand how you feel having to explain a unique situation over and over.

Expat Mum, sounds like you've got your hands full. When do you find time to breathe?! (much less write)

Lasrissa, admit it, you've always wanted to kick someone in the nuts and run away laughing.

SM Schmidt, oh absolutely -- it's amazing how many people assume that if you write a book (any book) it's just guaranteed to be on the shelves somewhere in a matter of months!

lora96, one step at a time, you'll get there...you'll make yourself nuts if you start fretting about all the ways things might go wrong!

Patty, I love this! (and not just because you said hard on): "I'd never be this hard on a friend so why I cannot break out of the trap is a mystery."

Misty, know what's funny? I thought of the tampon box thing because that's exactly what I caught myself doing a couple days ago -- scribbling some random writing-related note on a tampon box because it was the closest thing at hand.

Linda G, you're exactly right about people assuming agent = automatic seven-figure deal within a week of signing. No matter how amazing your agent is (and ours is certainly amazing!) it's never that simple.

Cherie, what you said here -- love this! "It makes you feel like a failure, even though none of it was your fault." Very true!

Purple Cow, it's tough though, because sometimes things seem certain to happen (signed book contracts, even) and still fall through. There's no way I wouldn't want to celebrate that sort of thing with loved ones, but it's crushing to have them have to endure the disappointment with me.

Kelly, I will cross my fingers you're able to avoid the writers' guilt forever!

Nina, oh man -- your story sucks! I'm so sorry that happened to you. It's comforting, though, to realize this sort of thing happens to a lot of writers. Makes it feel less personal somehow.

KD Easley, ugh, your story breaks my heart, too. I know exactly what you mean though. When I first landed that book deal with Harlequin/Silhouette, all my friends took me out to celebrate. People bought me drinks and gave me gifts and patted me on the back. I STILL feel awful about that. I know I shouldn't, but I do.

Michelle, great comments! Thanks for chiming in. I agree, there are always going to be people you share your successes with because it's just more fun that way. The downside, of course, is having to drag them through the failures as well.

Sean, wait, did you just call me BRILLIANT?! I want this in writing. Oh, wait...

Thanks so much for reading and commenting, guys! It's so great to know we're all in this together.

Tawna

Jan Markley said...

Good post. There are so many things we can't control in the publishing process.

Debs Riccio said...

Thanks for this - came at the right time x

Talei said...

Ah, this must be really tough to deal with. After all the hard work, getting the deal and then having it fall through, I can't imagine.

I'm working on my first big WIP, for me its early but I do feel sad reading about how hard it is to get published. Also you point about who do you tell about writing, that is the question. None of us are islands so when things go wry, we also share the pain. I enjoyed really this. A good reminder that the road is not all that rosy right?

Patrick Alan said...

I have nothing to add except my good looks.

There. Isn't everything all better now that I am here?

Claire Dawn said...

Truthfully, I'm a little scared to tell any of my non-author friends about my steps on the journey. Like what if I get an agent and the book doesn't sell? Writers would get it, non-writers not so much. Or I get a deal, and the house folds? I'd so much rather be like, "My book hits stores tomorrow. Buy it!"