Fear of Success?

Things have been going really well with my novel, except for the actual writing part.

I have agents (plural!) who said they’d like to see a revision. I have worked with a story editor and I think I have figured out why it hasn’t been working. I have a plan for fixing it and it’s not an overwhelming amount of work. I have time. I’m even kind of excited about the changes, which is a rare thing when you are some years into a project. And yet no writing.

A friend suggested fear of success, which at first seems odd, since I have been so driven for the past few years, but I sat with that thought for a while and I think she is right. Everything seems like it’s about to happen, except that I am not making my part happen.

It doesn’t quite feel like Imposter Syndrome. I don’t feel any doubt about belonging, or feel like I don’t deserve this. I do deserve it. I’m a good writer, and I have been working towards this. I have no doubts about who I am as a writer.

Yet at the same time, I am a kid from Scarborough with immigrant parents; we don’t write books. We get degrees and jobs and marriages and enjoy our outward trappings of success. That’s still me even though it’s not me.

I was thinking about this in the car, getting a bit teary-eyed, and then Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” came on the radio, and I started crying harder since apparently well-placed bubblegum pop music has the power to be emotionally overwhelming.

When I was a teenager, I remember reading Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, which came out sometime in the 90s. It was a major Canadian literary novel, and it contained characters who looked like me. They weren’t exactly like me, since they lived in Mumbai and I’ve only been there on brief visits, and the time period was different. But there was enough familiarity in the novel that it felt like someone was starting to explain my own family to me. Not completely, but the some of the parts around the edges were starting to fill in. There were other authors like this in the 90s. Shyam Selvadurai. Arundathi Roy. Vikram Seth.

I am no Rohinton Mistry. I am not an imposter, I belong, I deserve this, but do I deserve to deserve this? If I feel like an imposter anywhere, it’s not among writers but among those other children of immigrants, born in the suburbs, who went to a good school, got a degree and a marriage and a well-paying career in IT Marketing, and then tossed it all away for a different marriage, a different degree and a burning ambition to not have a job. Who the hell do I think I am, writing a book?

I never actually dreamed of being a writer as a teenager; that idea seemed so wholly unrealistic. This is not one of the five careers South Asian kids are allowed to have. But it’s the dream I would have dreamed if I were allowed to have dreams.

I’m not naive. I know Canlit is not standing out there with arms wide open to welcome a brown girl. We’ve had a number of raging dumpster fires that make that clear. I had one agent reject my book because there were a lot of strong books by South Asian writers recently, and apparently only white people can publish mediocre novels.

Still, I don’t know if there’s a teenager out there who will see themselves in my book, but I know there are some GenX children of immigrants who might What will they think? Are they going to see me as some sort of self-hating ABCD? What happens when people start looking for my life in my book? What if I say something on Twitter and an onslaught of trolls come out of the woodwork to tell me my book sucks?

Will everything change if this all works out? My gut says, no, probably not, but my fear says what if it does?

I am okay if the book comes out and sinks into oblivion. That doesn’t bother me. I’m okay if no one publishes it; that doesn’t mean anything except that publishers make mistakes. The book is good, or at least, it will be. And if it isn’t, the next one will be.

But as long as I don’t actually write it, I never have to face the question of what happens if this succeeds?

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Possibly Inappropriate

If you haven’t caught the latest Canlit controversy, go Google. Look up The Writers Union of Canada and “The Appropriation Prize.” I’ll wait.

I may be the worst person to talk about cultural appropriation, because frankly, I’m not much of an activist. I’m more of a sedentarist, really. (Did that pun make sense?)

Owing to a pretty privileged life and having not had significant exposure to major publishing, cultural appropriation as it affects me, personally, to date, seems to largely boil down to a lot of eye-rolling and general irritation. (I swear, if I read one more story about a magical spiritual experience in India….) But I get that it affects other people and other cultures much more deeply and painfully. Maybe I don’t get it on a gut-wrenching level, but I can see that this has happened to other people.

Here’s the part I don’t get.

In all the crying and hand-wringing over “I’m a writer, and it’s my job to put myself in other people’s shoes, and why can’t I write about whatever I want to?”, who exactly is holding an actual gun to people’s heads and saying “Writing about a marginalized culture, eh? You feeling lucky, punk?”

No one is actually stopping anyone from writing these things. Hell, by most reports, no one is actually stopping anyone from publishing these things, either. Write whatever the fuck you want, there’s no pen and paper embargo preventing you from doing so.

But, more and more, people are saying, hey, stop that. You are hurting me with your words. You should not hurt people with your words. You should be careful with those things. Maybe instead try writing things that don’t use and damage and hurt people, mmkay?

Is that so terrible?

I mean yes, there are other power dynamics to this, and people are losing plum jobs because when the are in a position where they get to amplify certain voices, they are picking (and sometimes celebrating) the ones that are hurting other people…. but at the base level, we’re still down to looking at the words. Which ones did a writer choose?

Seriously, is all of this because some people want to write what they want to write without being held responsible for the words that they put out into the world?

They don’t want to face criticism for what they’re doing? (Clearly none of these people have a mother like my mother.)

I’m trying to understand who writes and publishes so cavalierly that they don’t understand that words have power. Art has power. Why else do we do this if we don’t think words can do something real? So when we use that power–even unintentionally–and hurt other people with it, why disbelieve that the words hurt?

Like, I get that nobody likes to be told their wrong. And the 140 characters on Twitter from people who are so damn fed up with all this that maybe they don’t have time or energy to stay it nicely anymore can be harsh. It’s upsetting. I can see why people get huffy or defensive…. heck, if I were in the midst of a tweetstorm, that would probably be my first reaction, the reaction that’s emotional and easy instead of the more reflective “Damn. I fucked up.”

Nobody likes to put their precious words out there and get told that they used their words wrong. In writing this post and putting it out there, maybe someone is going to reply and tell me that I’m privileged and naive and that I used my words wrong. But I’m still responsible for my words.

And it continues to puzzle me, in all of the “Isn’t this censorship?” and “Writers can imagine themselves in other people’s shoes” and “This my artistic choice!” You are being held responsible for your words. You may be shocked to discover that your responsibilities are much larger and more wide-reaching then you realized when you hunched over your laptop and first tapped them out. Your use of words might result in major consequences for your life. This may suck.

But you do not have a special calling that absolves you from responsibility for your words.