Writers and the Fear of Failure: How to Get Over It for Good

Sometimes I feel like I’m in the unique position of having my fingers on the collective pulse of writers today. I talk to unbelievable amounts of writers every week. Some of them are my clients, some of them are new people thinking about becoming a client, and some of them are completely random strangers from the internet who email me to talk about writing. I talk to sci-fi writers and memoirists and bloggers and romance novelists and everything in between.

The thing that always astounds me is that almost every single one of these writers, sooner or later, brings the same problem to me.

They’re afraid of failure.

Now, that’s a short little sentence that covers a crazy wide range of stuff, but most people don’t know that. Most writers assume that their ideas of success and failure are THE ideas of success and failure the world over. So, if they want to be the next Stephen King, they assume every other writer does too. If they want to quit their day job and earn a full-time income just from writing, they assume all the other writers want that too. Most of the time, for most of the writers, it does not occur to us that our idea of what constitutes “failure” is highly personalized, and actually fluid. That is, we don’t usually realize that there is more than one way to think about things.

When we think about being a “failure” as a writer, we tend to get very black-and-white about it too. If my debut novel doesn’t sell over 10,000 copies, I’m a failure. If my novel isn’t finished one year from now, I’m a failure. And on and on and on. We make quick decisions about what we need to do and where we need to be in order not to be “failure” and we most often don’t see that those numbers, time periods, and concrete items we decided upon are not the goals in and of themselves.

So, what is the goal?

That’s when we come back to that tricky word, “failure.” The goal, obviously, is that we don’t want to be a failure. We don’t want to feel like a failure because, let’s face it, we already sort of do, and it’s a miserable place to be in.

But let’s keep digging. Let’s keep peeling away the layers and look at what’s beneath all this failure stuff for writers.

The truth is, when we say we don’t want to be a failure, what we’re really saying is that we want to feel liked and loved and seen and heard and approved of by our peers and the world. We want to feel good enough. We want to feel just plain enough. And that, my fellow writers, is a very slippery feeling to get a hold of and then hold onto. Because your feelings of “enough-ness” will fluctuate on a daily basis according to your moods, the state of your relationships, outside stressors, and a whole host of other, external things that you cannot control.

But what we do—or what our wonderful busy little rational egoistic brains do—is convince ourselves that if we can reach certain writing goals then we will feel good enough. We will feel like we are enough. And those critical sneaky voices in our heads will shut up, the panicky jealous feeling we get when we see another writer’s success will subside, the cold fear in the pit of our stomach at the thought that we might possibly die unpublished and unappreciated—all THAT stuff will magically go away.

Yeah, about that stuff. It doesn’t go away. Pretty much…ever. No matter how many books you publish or awards you win. That stuff comes from a deeper place than praise and accolades can reach.

But even though that stuff might never go away, it is possible to gain a little perspective on it. We can shift our attention off of the failure illusion and look at what’s really important and then start to go from there, building different writing goals for ourselves that are realistic and full of enthusiasm and self-compassion.

The thing is, we’re all going to die someday. And I’m not saying that as a toss-away YOLO cliché statement. I actually mean it. My mom died when I was just about 12 years old and my dad died just last year. I’ve had some time to think about death, and about what I want to do with my life while I’m here, and what I’ve seen most clearly is that we all get just a handful of years. Whether we get 85 of them or 35, it’s all just a handful in the grand scheme of things, really. You can spend these (very short) years throwing all your time and energy at chasing “success” and wringing your hands over possible “failure” or you can get busy living. You can sit down, right now, and write the next chapter. You can jump online, right now, and see what it will honestly take to self-publish that novel that’s been sitting in your bottom drawer. You can choose, right now, to spend the afternoon with a cup of tea daydreaming about your characters and where they want to take you next.

So, it’s up to you. It’s up to all of us writers. The thought of failure is always going to be there, hanging around your door, scurrying around in the shadows, trying to make your life miserable. But I tell you what, you focusing all your time and energy on it isn’t going to slow down the passing of the years.

So, right now, my fellow writer, sit down and do the work you were born to do.

Lauren Sapala is the author of  Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers, a guide to help any HSP, INFJ, INFP, or introvert writer move past resistance to selling and marketing their work. She is also the author of  The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers.

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