Self-sabotage is something most writers are likely familiar with. We just about get in the habit of working on the WIP (work in progress), and then suddenly we put everyone and everything ahead of finishing that book. Usually they’re noble causes, too. Cleaning the house, organizing the closets, alphabetizing the pets….
I work hard to make “success” books part of my morning routine when I’m doing my chores: making the coffee, making the bed, putting on any laundry, etc. One of my favorite audio books is “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. Namely because the advice is practical, doable, and aligns with my personal value system.
No shade on the “believe it enough and it will happen folks,” but there is also a degree of WORK involved in reaching any goal.
This is why we must learn to ignore the outside voices and take the helm of our own destinies.
Results Reinforce Habits
Why did I bring up “Atomic Habits?” Other than it’s a good book? There was something I read this morning that I feel needs expounding. Clear notes, correctly, that when we see evidence of our habits, that reinforces our identity.
When I declutter daily, I see my surroundings are neat and tidy. Therefore, eventually I identify as an organized person.
But what about being a writer?
Becoming a writer will likely be one of the hardest things any of us does, and for a number of reasons. Unlike eating healthy, working out, saving money, or systematically decluttering our living spaces, much of what we writers do is in the dark. There are many times we will have to press on using sheer force of will and blind faith.
We’ll have to write simply for the love of writing.
We can write millions of words, dozens of books, even publish books and I GUARANTEE you at least ONE @$$hat out there will intimate what we do is not “real.”
Whether they do this out of jealousy, misguided good intentions, or simply not thinking before they speak? Who knows? Yet, I can tell you that, after 16 years of working with all levels of writers, many of them household names? The insecurity never goes away. If anything, it gets worse.
Anything Here Familiar?
I just published a book!
Them: Yes, but you self-published.
My debut novel received almost a hundred rave reviews.
Them: Yes, Amazon really is trying to crack down on fake reviews. Are you sure they’re all real?
My book hit #1 as a best-seller.
Them: Amazon best-sellers aren’t REAL best-sellers.
My book made the NYT Best-Seller list.
Them: Everyone knows the NYT list doesn’t account for actual sales and the numbers are manipulated.
I just published my tenth novel!
Them: How nice. Amazing that Philip K. Dick wrote 44 novels and over 120 short stories. And Stephen King has written 9000 novels and 43,000 short stories.
Okay, I was being a bit silly there because I was starting to depress myself.
The point is we cannot rely on external validation. That is a formula to end up curled in the fetal position washing down raw cookie dough with tequila.
I also mention this because, we’ll self-sabotage wasting time pondering if we are “real writers” instead of WRITING!
What can happen is we’ll keep moving the goal post of what makes us a “real writer.” Eventually, we’ll give up because we set that standard SO high we crumble under the pressure.
Here are a few fun blogs to remind y’all that writers write. Plain and simple.
Diagnosing a REAL Writer: Do You Have Terminological Inexactitude Syndrome?
This is Gonna Leave a Mark: What Makes a “Real” Writer
Real Writers Don’t Self-Publish (Part One and SATIRE)
Real Writers Don’t Self-Publish (Part Two and ALSO SATIRE)
The Personal Apocalypse—When are We REAL Writers?
Self-Sabotage & Fear of Failure
I’ve been on social media since before it went mainstream in 2006, which means I’ve experienced and witnessed enough Imposter Syndrome to last many lifetimes. One of the main reasons we are SO hesitant to call ourselves a writer is precisely because of the head games mentioned above.
Critics will always find some reason to diminish what you’ve accomplished.
Most people fear failure, which is dumb because failing is the only way humans learn. How many of us would berate a toddler every time they fell learning how to walk? We learn by DOING, and we improve by FAILING.
Yet, our culture has ingrained fear of failure into our DNA. My parents never cared about the 90 questions I answered correctly, only the 10 I missed. Schools punish failure, jobs punish failure, culture punishes failure.
Want to know the one phrase that vexes me to no end? “One-hit wonder.”
Despite the FACT that many “one-hit wonder” songs have defined pop culture and even entire generations, our culture still saddles them with that term.
They were KUNG-FU fighting!
Oh Mickey you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind.
Pass the Dutchie on the left-hand side.
Taaake ooooon meeee! Taaaaake meeeee ONNNNNNN!
Stop! Collaborate and listen!
Woot, there it is! Woot, there it is!
The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had. It’s a mad world.
What does the fox say?
Now that y’all have at least ONE of those stuck in your head, I hope I made my point. Go check out the list of one-hit wonders who, by definition, are “failures.” This is to point out the lunacy of our culture. So don’t look to it to feed your ego.
Self-Sabotage & Fear of Success
Many writers who do successfully hit a “real” best-seller list (whatever “real” might be defined as) then struggle with if they can do it again. Or will they be the dreaded…one-hit wonder?
Because if one book sold hundreds of millions of copies and redefined culture as we know it…but the author doesn’t KEEP doing that…then they failed.
Makes TOTAL sense.
Yet, we can fall into habits of self-sabotage not only because we fear we’ll fail (never finish the book, never land an agent/book deal, be published, make a list, etc.) but precisely because we are afraid we WILL accomplish these things.
What if I only have one good book in me?
I made Whatever Prestigious List, but was it a fluke? Can I do it again? What if I can’t?
This might all sound rather silly, but emotions aren’t always logical. Remember, perfect is the enemy of the great. It is also the enemy of the FINISHED. No half-finished “perfect” book ever became a runaway success, but some very much less-than-perfect ones have.
We’ve covered fear of failure and fear of success, but the one I really want to explore today is the notion of whether or not we deserve success.
I Don’t Deserve It
When we’re stuck in a culture that doesn’t value what we do, it’s easy to believe (at least subconsciously) that writing is some extra indulgence. A hobby, a guilty pleasure, something to be done after doing REAL work.
Many of us are partners or parents or are taking care of loved ones. We believe that when the laundry is done, the dishes washed, the beds made, the bills paid, the pets brushed, the curtains are washed, the ceiling is repainted…THEN we can write. As if writing is not a profession, but a treat to be doled out for good behavior.
THIS is a mindset we must change if we want to go pro. For the record, I STILL struggle with this. I have to MAKE myself get up and write first thing. All the while the siren’s song of dishes, litter boxes, email, and bills are calling me.
I’d love to say I’m always successful, but I try to keep my lying to fiction. There are many reasons this profession is TOUGH and not for everyone.
Fight for Your Right to Write
Yes, it can be a battle with others, but mostly with ourselves. Many of us have a lot of bad programming we need to overcome.
I grew up in a dysfunctional family (a.k.a. typical 80s family). Whenever I wanted something, my parents had a list of common responses:
Do you have a job?
Are you the one paying the bills?
Money doesn’t grown on trees.
Me DESIRING something was intrinsically tethered to my monetary contribution to the home (or said equivalent). Since I didn’t bring home a salary, ergo I had no right to want and did not deserve anything. I only deserved when I a) made good grades b) cleaned my room c) did my chores.
Seeing a pattern here? How many writers don’t write because their writing doesn’t make money, but their writing isn’t making money because they aren’t writing? We unwittingly self-sabotage and that self-sabotage just exacerbates the feedback loop from hell.
Been there, have the box of t-shirts.
No More Self-Sabotage: You Deserve It
We all deserve our dreams. If your dream is to be a writer, then YES, that will demand a lot of work. As in writing, rewriting, reading, studying, learning, researching, building a brand/platform, cultivating an audience, showing up day after day and putting down words no matter what.
What being a writer does NOT entail is you being a good little you and doing all your chores and “real” work before you’re allowed to go write.
If no one has yet given you permission to go write, I will.
WRITERS WRITE. Enough said.
Ultimately, we are in charge. There will always be people who will criticize, tell us why we are poseurs, fakes, fools, hacks, etc. Until we realize that all of that just goes with the territory and get to work ANYWAY, we’ll find every reason not to sit butt in chair and write.
We will revise the opening of that novel 9,763 times. Start new books while abandoning half-finished ones. We’ll believe we can’t succeed because (INSERT REASON HERE) and we’ll talk ourselves out of even trying. Ultimately, we won’t even need the outside world to work against us, because we’ll figure out a way to self-sabotage before they get the chance.
BUT, that is what happens when we are operating in auto-pilot. Now that, hopefully, we are more aware of counterproductive behaviors/ideas/attitudes, we can take action.
Think about all those one-hit wonders.
They did the work, learned to sing, play an instrument, or at least be brave enough to put themselves OUT THERE. And maybe they never made it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but you know what?
Don’t worry. Be happy 😉 .
What are your thoughts on self-sabotage?
Are you guilty of shooting yourself in the metaphorical foot? Do you put everyone’s needs ahead of your own? Does writing feel like some guilty indulgence instead of the meaningful profession it is? Have you struggled with the notion of what makes a “real” writer?
What have you done to overcome these issues? Do you have any suggestions or tips? Hey, I am a work in progress ALWAYS and love the feedback!
I needed to read this today. Thank you. I have to stop apologizing for being a struggling writer. I write, therefore I am.
writers are very good at self-sabotage, we are probably trying to get in first before some well-meaning moron does!
I really love your point about one-hit wonders being considered failures. It kills me that people think Harper Lee isn’t a successful author when she wrote something so powerful and life-changing.
Thank you! I needed to see this. Time to pull up my big girl panties and get to work. 🙂
Self-sabotage disguises itself as personal responsibility. It’s tricksy that way.
Self-sabotage is a biggie, Kristen. As you say, it’s easy to let everyone and everything distract us from our story. I know that first-hand. My current WIP has taken me longer to write than anything else I’ve ever done and I’m not finished with it yet. Dammit!! I need to get off here and get busy. Great post. Thank you for sharing!
I really *REALLY* needed to read this today. The last 5 years I’ve been going through a very painful spiritual and emotional awakening that has been a great excuse to stop writing. Like the Fool on the tarot card, I’ve been standing at the cliff for the last several months. It’s time to jump.
Whenever I write, I find it pleasurable. That does it for me. That keeps me writing.
I write! But I write slowly. Looking around the house and garden, I’m darned if I can see what else I’ve been doing all this time.
I’m currently in a season of getting rid of stuff so there’s more room for the things that really matter. Like writing. And knitting. And a pot of tea.
Caregiving for someone with limited mobility and fun bowel issues has temporarily killed my writing. I don’t honestly see any exit just now. Getting up once or twice a night to help him has turned my brain into mush.
Having been a caregiver over my career for aging family I SO get it. There are seasons in what we do. Might be a time for self-care and to read and keep the well filled. Maybe journal.
As a storyteller, sharing my writing and making a connection with someone who loves my story is more important than selling a million books and making the best sellers list. Yes, I’d like to make a good income from my book sales, and I am guilty of all the self-torture you’ve shared in this post, but life is too short to keep beating myself up over things I have no control over. If all I ever publish is this one 5-book series, than that’s okay. If all I ever have is 100 loyal readers, than that’s okay too. I’m sharing a story with the world that has been a part of my soul for over 20 years. If I end up being a ‘one-hit wonder’, than I’m good with that as well. I can leave this world knowing that I’ve left my mark. Writing a good book and being a storyteller is about sharing your soul with readers who love your work. And that you can’t put a price tag on.
Omg, I love your blogs and I keep them in a folder in my email so I can revisit them ‘once my book is ready’.
I never commented before, but this one made me cry and I’m typing this through the teary fog.
I wrote my novel 5 years ago and sent it to exactly 101 publishers. About half said no immediately, about half never dignified me with answer and only few said it was good but not for them or not at the moment.
I know English is not my first language and I know my book needs extra editing so I said to myself I’ll become personal trainer so I can earn more and save enough for proper editor in the meantime I’ll write prequel and sequel so I’ll have trilogy that I can self publish.
It was 5 years ago… I still wait for that perfect time to sit and write when everything else is done… but it never happens.
Thank you for making me see how I stand in my own way.
(((HUGS))). You are not alone. We ALL do it. I’m so happy I can be a blessing to you. I look forward to being able to buy copies of your books!
ooh yeah. I used to write fanfiction. Punched out 1.5 million words. It gets read every single day. But can I finish my original work? Nope. It has to be better than the fanfic, [what? why? who said?]
And I think it is not good enough but do not know how to make it better, so I ditch it and start a new story… and now you can see where this is going.
I’ve missed the whole goldrush and now I do not even write fanfic anymore. I have broken whatever system I had.