Am I a Failure? Overcoming Writer Shame
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It’s okay to feel shame. We’re human. Occasionally a healthy dose of shame can make us better, but when shame becomes unproductive, that’s a problem.
There are a lot of snobs in the creative world. People, who are often no further ahead in their career than you, who like giving a lot of ‘advice’ about why you’re not successful. In reality you only need one lucky chance to get the ball rolling on a creative career. A chance that becomes so much more likely with hard work and consistency.
Yet so many people give up before they ever get to see the fruits of their labour. Why? Because of shame. Shame that we didn’t get a book published by 30, shame that our first screenplay only got a 6/10 on the Black List, shame that we can only write for fifteen minutes a day due to work and other commitments. Yes, all those terrible fouls that your more enlightened peers will stare down their nose at you for.
This rhetoric of you need to make writing your life to the detriment of your living expenses, family life or sanity is what stops people from trying. The “You don’t write for 6 hours a night, how will you’ll ever make it in this industry?” sneer that drips from writing forums and Reddits filled with people in your exact same boat.
Just because you don’t write four 100K novels a year like Stephen King doesn’t mean you’ll never get published. Just because you can’t make time to write everyday doesn’t make you an aimless poser. Getting your screenplay rejected by your first choice ProdCo doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Even if you are a bad writer, that doesn’t mean you always will be.
Finding success is all about grit
There is so much space for tenacity and grit in the creative world. Being talented is not particularly important for being successful, as evidenced by Kylie and Kendall Jenner’s novel. Some people are luckier than others, some people will be more successful even though they are less talented or dedicated than you are. If you love writing, and you have a desire to put your work out into the world, by hook or by crook you will make it happen.
The day I finally started feeling like I was getting somewhere with my writing was the day I decided to stop expecting myself to be like everyone else. I can only go at my own pace. However, I can guarantee I would be MUCH further ahead in my journey if I hadn’t listened to the people telling me I was already a failure because I wasn’t doing things exactly like them.
You can be the writer who doesn’t start until you’re in your 60s, or the one who only writes for half an hour per month, or who takes twenty years to write their first novel. None of these things are shameful. The only thing that is shameful is giving up on your dreams because someone told you you’re not doing it right. I’m not sure who came up with this analogy but I realised it is very apt for life –
Imagine we are all unpopped kernels of corn. Under the same heat some of us will pop quickly while some of us will pop slowly. However, eventually, given the right conditions, we will all pop. No matter when we popped we will be indiscernible from any other delicious piece of popcorn.
And for anyone feeling evil, we can also add — and those who popped first might even be a little burnt by now.
People find their way at their own pace
We can all accept that we are different people with different personalities and pasts, but for some reason we can’t handle the idea that we can all carve our own paths and get to a similar outcome. Just because your friend bought a house at 23, that doesn’t mean you have to. Just because a girl from your writing group got published on her first novel and you’re still getting rejected on your eighth, doesn’t mean you will never get published. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t, but you’ll never find out if you quit.
Creative endeavours are hard. We wrap so much of ourselves up in whether or not something we created is appreciated by others. While managing a fear of rejection is something we should all work on, it’s also a bright flashing neon sign that we need to have a lot more compassion for each other.
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Creativity is not a zero sum game. Knocking someone else’s confidence to the point that they quit will not make it any more likely that you succeed. Even if it does, the way you treat others on the way up is the way you will be treated on the way down. Bear that in mind next time you’re negging someone because they only wrote 200 words this week.
Shame not other writers, lest ye be shamed
Yes, some people are navel-gazing attention seekers posing as writers who clog up the forums with their incessant dumb questions, but the majority of newbie writers are just lacking confidence. Think about all the reasons you’ve ever wanted to quit and try not to be the person who puts all those insecurities onto someone else.
Next time you want to give up because you think you can’t make it as a writer, ask yourself what does being a writer mean to me? If you want to be a prolific writer with a long career, then instead of being ashamed that you aren’t ready to pop yet, find out how you can turn that shame into action. What small steps can you make now to reach your future goals?
As long as we’re making some progress towards that then we are never failures. No matter how slow that progress is. The trick is to be real with ourselves to find out if we could be working harder right now. Could you sacrifice thirty minutes of TV time to get some words in this week? Notice this as honestly, not shame.
If you’re struggling to meet your lofty goals you either need to reframe what you consider to be successful, or you need to be honest with yourself and work a little harder. Whatever happens DO NOT QUIT based on someone else’s opinion. Life is too short for that.