I’ve always loved writing. Writing is my meditation. My escape. It’s my happy place – my joy. Then it became my job and I loved it even more.
But there was a brief time period after Switched came out (autumn of 2012), where, with success, came pressure. For me, that pressure started sucking the joy out of writing and I had to go forward and find a way to reclaim the joy that success had taken from me.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting in any way that success in a job you love will render it joyless for everyone, but for some of us the pressure of success is something we have to learn to navigate. Success isn’t always a bed of roses. When you have one bestseller there is pressure to have another, and another after that. And if it doesn’t happen, it can be devastating. If a writer is with a publisher the lack of a second success can mean no more contracts. That pressure for continued success can suck the joy right out of what you love to do. In the writing world – one successful book means stricter deadlines, harsher audiences, and more struggle to stay at the top. Whereas pre-success, writers are their own masters. They do what they want when they want to. Deadlines can be more lenient if you’re self-publishing. They may even seem more negotiable if you have a publisher. Unsuccessful writers don’t worry as much about sales numbers because they’re usually not counting on book sales to put food on the table.
Reclaiming my joy was about reclaiming my writing as my own, and realizing that while writing I am still in that happy place, deadlines be damned. I can see why popular writers like Steph Swainston, after hitting success decide to go back to a less taxing career. I can see why some writers fall into alcohol or drug abuse. I can even see why some stop writing altogether. The pressure of success, in ANY high profile career where you are considered a public figure, can be rough. It’s not easy to handle and I don’t think writers especially are adequately prepared for it.
We see the glowing praise of readers and our books hitting bestseller lists, but we may not be prepared to push out another book so quickly with an eager publisher and editor at our heels. We see the paychecks, but don’t see the aftermath, once sales start to dwindle. We see more books we want to write, but not whether or not our publisher will keep us if one of those books bombs. A lot of the time we really believe success is just a dream, like the lottery, and it will never happen to us. So when it does happen, it may come out of nowhere, and with it that crushing pressure to produce more, faster. And not just more, faster, but another bestseller. One to rival that first success.
A lot of writers end up one-hit-wonders. It happens with musicians and actors, too. Sometimes even artists. We have our five minutes and then it’s up and we go back to being just another writer in the sea of struggling writers. We may find ourselves in a place where we wonder if we love what we do enough to continue on. And if we do, we can usually manifest relatively stable, comfortable careers doing what we love, but there’s always that pressure – or wonder. Will I have another bestseller? Was it just a fluke? Am I really a fraud? There may be more stress and self-flagellation to meet deadlines. Artists and creative types are hard on ourselves by default. We’re our own worst critics.
Recovering from the pressure of success actually takes reworking how we think. It’s important to remember that if you reach this point in your career there are a few things you’ll want to consider when it comes to overcoming pressure and reclaiming your joy:
- You may feel like a complete fraud or failure. This feeling is normal. Just remember that you’re not a fraud or a failure. You don’t have a success like that out of sheer dumb luck. You have done what a lot of people only dream of doing.
- You may seriously consider dropping your creative vocation for something less demanding. You won’t. Creative people are the way they are for a reason. Writers – serious writers – have to write. It’s like breathing.
- You will soon realize that it’s you (and often not others) who places that pressure and demand on yourself. The pressure you’re feeling is an illusion. A self-created one at that, meaning you can overcome it. (I’ve had people argue this point with me and say it was their editor or publisher who pressured them. But the fact is that you still allowed their pushing to get under your skin, so…)
- Because you may have the illusion that you need to please your editors, thousands of readers, etc., it is most important to remember who you were trying to please when you made the thing that was successful to begin with. Perhaps you wanted yourself and your friends to enjoy it. Ultimately you did it for you. So find that place and go back to it. Remember why you create to begin with. This is how you can overcome it.
- You will have to re-learn (or re convince yourself) that it’s okay to write books, or make music, or do a thing that isn’t as successful as the other thing was. It’s okay. Not everything is going to be a hit.
Lack of success a second, third, or twenty-third time around isn’t failure. It’s simply that the thing you created didn’t resonate with nearly as many people as that initially successful thing did. And that’s okay. It’s not the end of the world and no one will kick you off the face of the earth.