Authorial Intrusion: Fear of Success

Have you ever daydreamed of writing a series that has touched as many people as Harry Potter? Or writing a memoir as successful as Eat, Pray, Love? I close my eyes and think about how wonderful that would be. For a moment I smile, and then something weird happens. I can actually feel the anxiety rise in my gut. My heart starts beating faster. It doesn’t feel good at all.

Not to worry, right? I’m certainly not at work on a series of high-fantasy novels titled Larry Botter. So why does just thinking about being in J.K. Rowling’s shoes cause me to twitch?

The Fault in Our Stars

Then I saw this video from John Green, author of the very successful YA novel The Fault in Our Stars. When that book was published, he was already at work on a new manuscript. “I started to feel this intense pressure, like people were watching over my shoulder as I was writing.” He ditched that story and reimagined it, but after 100 pages that too was abandoned. “I was elated and grateful that The Fault in Our Stars had reached so many readers, but at the same time I was terrified because I felt like I could never follow it up.”



Again, this is a problem of scale that I clearly don’t have, but something in the honesty of his video made me see the universality of the fear behind his words. I’ve read similar posts and articles by writers with more commonplace levels of success, and I realize the fear is the same. The fear is the same if you’ve sold 10,000 copies or 1 million copies. And the question is the same, what next?

In her TedX Talk, Jemele Hill, a host on the ESPN2 network, suggests that we fear success because it creates expectations and stakes and accountability. Success feels more complicated than failure. It’s more demanding. That “what next” feeling is always lurking, whether you’re publishing your first story or a book that has achieved phenomenal success.

That word phenomenal made me think of an interview Oprah did with J.K. Rowling in 2011 as the last Harry Potter movie was being released.

Winfrey: But I read something recently. It was the story of Michael Jackson in the making of Thriller and in that story the writer said Michael Jackson never realized that Thriller was a phenomenon that, it being the number-one selling album of all times, is a phenomenon. That what happened when that album came out and people all over the world doing that dance and listening to every song and that he spent his life chasing the phenomenon and therefore was never satisfied.

Rowling: I read it and that really resonated with me.

Winfrey: And it really resonated with me, too and I thought “I don’t want to be that.”

Rowling: Exactly.

Winfrey: I don’t want to be chasing the phenomenon that I know –

Rowling: I have to do it again. I have to do it again.

The fear of success stems from the pressure that we or others place on us to “do it again.”  In fact Rowling goes on to say, “People say to me, ‘Well, you must just think how on earth am I going to top that?’” It can be paralyzing.


Elizabeth Gilbert knows what it’s like to come off a resounding success:

…that whole Eat, Pray, Love thing was a huge break for me. But it also left me in a really tricky position moving forward as an author trying to figure out how in the world I was ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody, because I knew well in advance that all of those people who had adored Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be Eat, Pray, Love.


This all makes me sweat just a little bit. Is it possible to feel anxiety about what comes next even before there is a before? What to do? Aim for mediocrity?

Here’s Elizabeth Gilbert again:

…you have got to find your way back home again as swiftly and smoothly as you can, and if you’re wondering what your home is, here’s a hint: Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself. So that might be creativity, it might be family, it might be invention, adventure, faith, service…your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.


That, I think I can do.

Have you experienced fear of success?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Authorial Intrusion: Giving and Receiving (Part 2)

My last post was about things to consider if you’re planning to attend a writing workshop. Let’s say you’ve found the right workshop for you. Most likely one important component will be submitting your writing for feedback by fellow participants.

And this is where things often fall apart.

I’ve seen it happen in my MFA program. In small critique groups. In online forums. In structured workshops. Writers come with the best of intentions but have different expectations. Someone gets offended and the whole thing implodes.

New Orleans

I had three long months between being accepted to a recent workshop and attending which gave me plenty of time to worry about the group dynamics. How would we get along? Would we have productive sessions or would things languish into an awkward silence? Happily we quickly got into a nice groove. By the end of our session, we knew each other’s preferences and tendencies.

Here are five guidelines to help make sure you have a productive workshop experience:

  • Honor the rules. They are there for a reason. Most workshops have formal or informal rules. Submit the required number of pages in the required format. At the required time. Send your comments to other writers as requested. If the workshop leader asks you to remain quiet while others are discussing your work, then remain quiet. That also means no strange faces, no audible sighs, no slumping back in your seat.
  • It’s all about giving and receiving. I’m often amazed when a writer tries to slide by with lame feedback on everyone else’s work but expects a dissertation on his or her work. First, this is a two-way street. Second, you learn as much (or more!) by offering thoughtful comments on another writer’s work as you do reading comments about your work. You’re engaging in critical thinking, rather than passively reading.
  • Check your ego at the door. Your group doesn’t need to be bombarded with comments insisting that they MUST change something or they will be sent to writing purgatory. And no piling on without adding something new.
    • Addendum: Likewise, check the cheerleading at the door. Writers are there for honest feedback. While I’d love to hear that you think I’m the next Ruth Ozeki, I also need information about how to improve.
  • Honest feedback doesn’t mean brutally honest. Yes, we writers need a thick skin. If you can’t take having your work dissected, this might not be the best creative outlet for you. But there is a line between offering constructive criticism and criticizing. If you’re not sure where that line is, ask the group leader.
  • Remember that the character’s lifestyle and beliefs don’t necessarily match the author’s…or yours. And that’s okay.
    • Addendum: Just because you’re not familiar with something doesn’t mean it’s not possible. A long time ago (in a land far, far away), I had submitted a short story for feedback. One woman found my character unrealistic because she lived in an apartment above a hair salon. “Who does that?” the woman asked.


Have you been part of a writing workshop? Have any items to add to the list?

Next time, I have some suggestions on the most difficult aspect of a workshop: what to do with all those comments you received.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


Authorial Intrusion: Attending a Writing Workshop (Part 1)

I’m just coming off a terrific week. I attended a writing workshop, my first in more than a decade. I was nervous at the outset, but soon the week settled into a nice (if tiring) rhythm. It was a win all around: I received invaluable feedback on my novel-in-progress, met some great writers, and learned new techniques.

The best part? I feel invigorated, ready to tackle current and future writing projects with enthusiasm.

Here are five tips if you’re considering attending a writing workshop.

  • Think about what you want. There are so many options out there. Ask yourself what you want to take away from this experience. Be honest! Do you want:
    • feedback on your current writing project?
    • craft lectures?
    • to meet literary agents?
    • to mingle with other writers?
    • quiet writing time?

The workshop I attended offered many of the above items, but there was no set writing time. In fact, the schedule was so jam-packed, I often spent what little downtime we had in a daze. That brings me to the next point.

Virginia Woolf's Writing Desk

Virginia Woolf’s Writing Desk via The Guardian

  • Know what you’re getting yourself into. You’re going to be out of your comfort zone. Plenty of people you don’t know will be reading your work. Maybe you’ve come to the workshop from out of town. There might be a (gasp!) mixer. It can be scary. Read the details about the workshop, including the fine print.
    • How are the days structured?
    • Will you have “homework,” e.g. reading workshop submissions in preparation for the next day?
    • What is expected of you? What level of participation is needed?
    • What is the participant-to-teacher ratio? Is it reasonable for this type of workshop?
    • How many participants will there be? How diverse is it?
    • Are “big name” authors/agents/editors important to you?
    • Do you want to attend a venerable workshop (read: very competitive), or are you willing to go for the scrappy upstart (read: possible bumps in the road)?

If you poke around on the workshop’s website, you should be able to find the answers to most of these questions. Be wary of vague statements and no contact info.

  • Get behind the scenes. Once you’ve narrowed your options, the best way to find out about the workshop is to ask someone who has been. Don’t rely on the blurbs posted to the workshop website. Post the question on social media and follow up privately to make sure this is the right workshop for you.
  • Understand that fellow participants and teachers are there to help you…but not coddle you. If you’re seeking a lot of one-on-one attention, it might be better to attend a formal class or hire an editor. If you’re seeking unabashed praise, it might be better to ask your mother. (Thanks, Mom!)
  • Be generous. Most workshops ask that you offer feedback to other writers. This is such an important part of the process, it is not to be taken lightly. I’d argue that you can learn as much or more by giving than receiving. If you’re not at the stage where you are ready to give thoughtful comments on another writer’s work, consider postponing to a future workshop.

Here is a link to upcoming workshops in the US and Canada. 

Next time, I’ll have some specific details on what to expect during the critique sessions. Until then, do you have any tips for attending a writing workshop? Have you attended a workshop recently?

Have a great weekend, everyone!


Tourist in My Town: Brooklyn Bridge Park

Brooklyn Bridge Park is a waterfront park that hugs the East River for about 1.5 miles. For decades it was absolutely derelict.The area inspired plenty of mafia films. The piers were rotted. Everything was either tagged with graffiti or rusted. Old trailers were abandoned with weeds overtaking them.

But thankfully that is a thing of the past. As if you needed one more reason to come to Brooklyn (I mean, come on people!), Brooklyn Bridge Park is now a great space for the community.

At the north end of the park is Jane’s Carousel. Jane Walentas and her team painstakingly restored the horses and chairs by hand over 20 years. I love everything about this place. If I need a pick-me-up, this is where I come. Hurricane Sandy nearly spelled the end in 2012, but luckily the water receded just in time.

Jane's Carousel

The park runs under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges along the piers lining the East River.  This is definitely an urban, mixed-use park. It’s not a space of quiet contemplation like the Conservatory Gardens.

Large pavilions provide space for organized sports. For the record, I do none of these sports, but I like the idea of someone else doing them.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

Look at these intrepid young people playing beach volleyball! Good for you, young people!

Brooklyn Bridge Park

Now this is more my speed: Ample Hills Ice Cream stand. I doubt that Walt Whitman had this in mind when he wrote, “I too lived—Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,” but let’s not quibble. I had a scoop of “Baby, I was churned this way,” and it was delicious.


Brooklyn Bridge Park

I thought this was a clever concept and design. It’s a curved wading pool in a protected alcove. Though it does beg what should have been the obvious question: who wants to wade into the East River? I wouldn’t go in even wearing a hazmat suit.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

During the warmer months, there are concerts and events at this new bandshell. What a lovely view. See the orange Staten Island Ferry docking in Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty to the left of the frame.

Brooklyn Bridge Park


The park is about 75 percent complete so construction is ongoing. The same is true of these luxury apartments being built just behind the park. A two-bedroom unit costs only $3.7 million. Who’s in?


What a bargain! And this view is free. Sweet.


There are quite a few art installations throughout the park. This one gets right to the point.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

I spent hours walking the park and this just scratched the surface. There are even nature walks through the park. Check out Heather Wolf’s photo blog to see the wide variety of birds that live here.

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Great New Books

I think the vast majority of books I’ve read in the past few years have come to my attention through personal recommendations. I rely on their honest opinions to help me select my next read. There are too many great new books to waste time reading bad books.

One site that I have been following since its inception five years ago is Great New Books. This site is a collective of 10 bloggers who take turns recommending a new book every Wednesday. They only review books they love, and, in turn, I have been introduced to many authors and books that otherwise would have escaped my notice. They have lengthened my TBR list considerably.

Today I have the distinct pleasure of offering my recommendation over at Great New Books. This summer novel will whisk you away to an island paradise with a family whose vacation turns out to be something short of bliss. Please join me there for my recommendation and a full archive of other Great New Books!