On Fear, Failure, and Giving the Finger to Creative Shame
By most measures, I am a complete failure as a fiction writer. I have one published story out there. I've tried with some other work, but I've mostly been rejected. Much of the last decade and a half has been spent thinking about writing, trying to write, giving up, starting again, and cycling through a whole host of emotions, all of which seem to circle back to those damned rejections.
All writers get rejected. I know that. The rejection itself isn't the failure. I know that, too. My failure is of a particular kind; my failure lies in succumbing to fear.
Allow me to explain...but understand that I'll have to start over a bit.
By most measures, I am a complete success as a 21st-century American person. I did very well in school, even have a master's degree from Harvard. I have a solid, steady job, and my supervisors tell me that I'm good at what I do. I pay my bills on time, including the mortgage on a house in a desirable suburb of Houston. I'm sharing all of this with a wonderful and encouraging partner. We've been married, as of this writing, nearly 20 years now. We have managed to help our kid learn and grow for over a decade (...a remarkable feat considering our track record with plants). We also laugh a lot.
So...ya know...success. Right?
Yet, a nagging fear has kept me from doing what I really want to do.
Most of the successes above have come fairly naturally to me. I am fortunate in that I have a mix of skills and experiences — some earned, some gifted, some the result of privileges conferred upon me — that schools find desirable, both as a student and as a teacher. (This, as it turns out, can get you pretty far in 21st century America.) Falling into teaching as a career was a fairly easy choice. I landed my first teaching job, and things have kind of snowballed from there. Again, my particular set of skills lends itself to education.
In the areas where we are told life is most important — school, work, family — I've done pretty well. I take care of the things that get put on my desk and the people I've got in my life. (I'm patting myself on the back as I write this, which makes for awkward typing.)
But...and you knew there was a big "but" coming...I've always really wanted to tell stories. When I was a kid, I used to write stories in spiral notebooks. As a teenager, I wanted to be a screenwriter (because films are cool). As an adult, I've always wanted to write fiction, especially novels.
What's stopped me? FEAR. FAILURE. SHAME.
Even though we may have belief systems that tell us otherwise, most of us are trained to need external validation. It begins early. We might seek the approval of our parents when we're very young. That's only natural.
We grow up a little, we go to school, and school deepens the desire for external validation. Our education system is built around external validation as a motivator for learning:
- Gain approval from teachers, mentors, and coaches.
- Earn grades as mark of your academic acumen.
- Live a happy life.
(It doesn't always work out this way, but we don't talk about that too much.)
Then, when we get out into the working world, if we want to advance, our work must be validated by a supervisor of some kind.
In short: Our educational and economic systems and our culture, more generally, have primed me to look for and to need that validation.
But, in writing, in art, how am I to get that hit of external validation that I've been trained to crave?
Here's what I'm coming to learn: when you need someone else to tell you that it's good, you have a tendency to question your art and to comprise it. You write something and the inner critic takes over. Resistance comes into play and you freeze. Remember: You need external validation, but you fear rejection. All your systems are telling you to seek external validation, but they are also telling you that your work isn't good enough. Why? Because your little ego is trying to protect itself from rejection. Only two things can result from this situation:
- Best-case Scenario: Creative Stagnation.
- Worst-case Scenario: Creative Shame.
Creative Stagnation comes from giving up. You fear rejection, so you stop taking risks. You might stop working altogether, or you might continue writing, but you never publish it. This is not a good outcome, but you can probably overcome it through a minor overhaul of your mindset.
Creative Shame, however, comes from giving in to the fear of rejection and allowing it to completely define who you are. Maybe you send a piece out there to a magazine or a journal. The rejection letter comes, but rather than understanding that the work simply wasn't right for that publication at that time, you internalize the rejection. You say, "I'm not good enough."
Nothing good can possibly result from this. You focus on that voice telling you just how not good enough you are, and it starts to grow inside of you. After all, what we pay attention to is what we grow. You stop writing, stop creating, shut down the piece of you that builds and dreams and takes risks.
Creative shame is a downward spiral. It leads nowhere good. Trust me. I've been there. (Notice how I switched to the second person for that whole section? Hm. I wonder if I'm trying to distance myself from that narrative...🧐.)
Well, I'm 40 years old now. My life is half over. So, I'm kinda feeling done with this creative shame bullshit.
I can look at my writing and say, "Well, it's over," or I can do what I really want to do: write stories that make people think, make people laugh, make people cry.
I'm staring creative shame right in the face and telling it what I really think. I'm giving it the finger. I'm exorcising it from my mindset, eschewing it from my belief system, kicking it in the pants, chucking it to the curb. I'm working through an exhaustive, soul-searching exfoliation of my approach to writing. And I'm guessing I'll be doing it for the rest of my life...because that's what artists do.
The tips and tricks I give on inwy and the documentation of the effort to rewrite my novel are hard-won lessons that are working for me as I nurture my inner artist. They aren't platitudes or regurgitated recipes guaranteeing success. They are what keep me going in the face of fear and creative shame. Your mileage, of course, will vary.
As for the failure I mentioned at the beginning, I am embracing it. I'm learning from my failure, and I hope you'll find what you need to do likewise. If I can be of help, please let me know! I would love to connect with you to talk about the creative process. My dream is to build a community of inspired, creative professionals, who are looking at creative shame, looking at fear of rejection, look at failure and saying, "Okay. Time to move on and make something!"
NOTE: I'm super-serious about wanting to hear from you. You can find me on Twitter (@sbhebert), or subscribers can use the "Contact Support" button in their accounts to email me.