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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Is it Good?

When I first found my way back to writing, I gave my precious baby of a short story to my husband to read. His reaction: “Is that it?” We divorced shortly after.

I gave the same story to a friend, who liked it, and I mailed it out to a dozen literary magazines, all but one of whom rejected it with a form letter. The one that didn’t is quite famous for sending everyone personal notes and told me to keep writing. They also rejected it.

I took a creative writing class, shared my work there, and got good feedback from the teacher and the other students. I took another class. I found a writing group and began sharing work there. I shared my work with friends, whether they knew anything about writing or not.

I showed my work to my boyfriend who immediately began looking for veiled messages to him in the story. I stopped sharing my work with people I was dating. I never showed my work to my parents. But outside of that I decided I was going to be willing to show my work to everyone so I could humbly get their feedback.

I told myself I wanted feedback. I said I wanted constructive criticism. I said I wanted to be a better writer.

And yet, it was oddly empty if they just told me what wasn’t working about the story, and how it could be better. If they gave me feedback and didn’t say they liked it. Even if it was kindly and thoughtfully said, it felt like a letdown. And when they liked it, it only felt good for a minute.

What I was really looking for was someone to say “It’s good” and say it in such a convincing way that I would always believe that I was good.

People sometimes compare writing to other professions, saying how a car mechanic or an accountant doesn’t need people to tell them that they are good, so get over yourself, writer. Except that those tasks have a built-in feedback loop. If the car runs, you fixed the car, you are good. If your debits and credits match, you are good. At least, you are good enough.

There is no such feedback loop built into writing. I write something, I think it’s good, then I think it’s mule crap. I show it to someone who says they like it, I think it’s good again, then I think that perhaps that person is only trying to be nice but doesn’t mean it, because who can possibly like this mule crap?

When someone, usually another writer, can explain why they like something and why it’s working on craft terms, well, then maybe I’ll believe them a bit longer, as they have given me proof. They’ve justified their opinion.

It’s funny how we can immediately believe that something is no good without such proof, but probably if we trust someone enough to read our work, we assume that they have no motivation to actively damage our feelings. Also, we did ask for it. “Tell me what I can do to make it better.”

Or the form letter rejection. “This is a literary magazine, they have authority on what is and isn’t good, and so clearly I must suck.”

You’re never good enough for writing, you know. Even in those brief flashes when you think you might be, there’s always another rejection, another comment, another thought that makes you think you’re not. There’s always someone putting a book or a story out there that you read and it blows you away and makes you think “Why do I even try? Why am I wasting my time?”

There’s no award that at last makes you good enough. No publication credit. No special residency. No comment from someone you admire. Not even that elusive perfect sentence.

You’ll never feel good enough for writing, at least, not all the time. Even reading this, quietly thinking to yourself “yes Sonal, but once I achieve this goal, I’ll feel good enough”, let me tell you that you will feel good enough for a moment but then that moment passes and nothing has changed.

Don’t wait for the day you feel good enough.

Write anyway.