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!

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26 comments

  1. Think this applies to almost every career or endevour. When I worked in scientific research, some become “paralysed” by early successes. Only thing you can do is not think about your past achievements and keep looking forward.

    And when it comes to writers: I often like later novels even better than that first successful one.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wonderful post, Jackie. I am so glad you wrote about this. I think the bottom line is to write from a place of passion, or even obsession–no matter if our books are “hits” or not. Thinking of meeting other people’s expectations while you are working on a project is no doubt deadly. It transforms a work of joy and creativity into simply “work.” Taking risks is essential to good writing and other creative acts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A writing instructor once told my class that if you don’t feel a bit nervous about your current project, then you’re not stretching yourself enough. I think that speaks to your point because if you’re stretching yourself and taking a risk, it’s counterproductive to be concerned about expectations.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yeah. I have in my mind that I would have to write like multiple books before I ever put one forth to publish. Because then I wouldn’t feel pressure to write more, I could just take one from the vault and be like “uh, try this one?”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I think there’s also fear of the criticism and scrutiny that comes with success. I think about the heaps of nastiness that Gilbert gets/got along with the praise. I don’t know how these authors can write another word! But they do, and that’s admirable.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Excellent point, Nina! In fact, I was listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast recently and she discussed exactly that. She said that if you put your creativity out into the world, you have to allow opposing viewpoints. It’s part of the contract. You can’t expect to receive only positive feedback. (Though, too often the people posting negative feedback don’t haven’t anything constructive to say, but that’s another post!)

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  5. Thanks for the various perspectives, Jackie. Pearl Jam expressed a similar view – they weren’t prepared for the success that accompanied their music. When it happened, they didn’t know what to do with it (the lead singer in particular). The artists that don’t expect success are married to the process. And while the world is admiring, the artist, as Gilbert says, just wants to return home.

    Love this post. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Oh, good to see you blogging again, Jackie.
    I thought of Harper Lee as soon as I started reading your post. How on earth do you top To Kill a Mockingbird? The pressure must have been crushing. (I was surprised to learn that Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird.)
    If I were to have a choice, I would pick writing many mildly successful books. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I had so many mixed feelings about Harper Lee’s recent book. I think she likely never intended to have Go Set a Watchman published. Perhaps the reason is that she never felt she could top To Kill a Mockingbird.
      Many mildly successful books would work for me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh, I love this–the video in particular, because with your words, it highlights what we all go through. Last night, I did a quick meditation exercise where I let go all attachments to what people thought and expected. And, for a split second, I felt so wonderful and free. Writing like that is the best kind of writing:). From that phenom place. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad this post resonated with you. Writing without worry about what other people think is indeed the best kind of writing. I think it produces the truest stories — ones that are ultimately more meaningful for the writer and reader. 🙂

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  8. What a beautiful definition of home; I will remember that.

    As I was reading your piece, I was thinking that this is also a reminder for us to be gentle with people who have had success. To avoid putting to much of our expectations on them. Allowing them to pursue their creativity in their own way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A wonderful point, Letizia! We often expect people to top their previous success. Fans likely put as much pressure on the artist as the artist herself. Gentle encouragement is what’s needed. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

      Like

  9. Very interesting. I can totally see that yearning for success and, at the same time, fearing the aftermath – the Great Expectations unfulfilled.

    I feel the same way with my very modest success in blogging, and in writing for our local paper. “What if I’m waning? What if nobody wants to read my drivel anymore? Instead of hitting the top and then falling, what if I never hit the top?”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is a strange paradox. You put it so well, Peg: yearning for success and fearing it at the same time. I try to put both out of my mind as I’m writing, otherwise I’d be completely flummoxed. Well, even more so than usual!

      And I’d read your drivel any day of the week. 🙂

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  10. Jackie,

    I know of two fiction writers who said that after winning NYFA (New York Foundation on the Arts) $7,000 Fellowships that they could not write a word for a whole year. One of the authors, D.S. Sulaitis, used to be my coworker at a nonprofit, and she wrote modern fables with Lithuanian Americans, and to my knowledge, has never published a book although she had an agent for awhile and a novel and collection in the works. (There’s the object of the fear.) She did win the Boston Review fiction prize when it was judged by Ha Jin, one of her favorite writers, and has had stories and essays published in anthologies. The other author, Junot Diaz, fiction editor of The Boston Review, won, oddly enough, the same year as D., and had already published one book. I read his statement of writer’s block in an interview. Of course, he did finally catch the next wave and ride for awhile, hopping on another wave, and is still out there.

    Liked by 1 person

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