The Crushing Weight of Expectations

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Rock Slide by ActiveSteve (Flickr)

It is a truth rarely acknowledged that the act of writing often comes with an entire catalog of weighted expectations attached to it. For published writers, it is SO easy for our self worth to become wrapped up in our commercial performance; it is almost inevitable that the weight of those hopes and expectations will leak out into our work. Maybe this book will bring us the coveted significant advance, or maybe this is the one the publisher will throw the entire weight and heft of their marketing and promotion machine behind. Maybe this will be the book that hits the list or earns a starred review or finally—finally—causes that elusive fame and recognition to appear.

Published authors don’t have the corner on the expectation market. Pre-published authors are often just as weighed down. This will be the manuscript that lands me the Famous Agent, or grabs the attention of the Rock Star Editor, or at the very least gets me that damned contract I’ve been dreaming of for YEARS.

This will be the book/manuscript that validates me in the eyes of
my family,
my friends,
or my peers.

This will be the book that brings me the recognition I crave. The recognition that will finally allow me to feel that I’ve made it, that I’ve achieved something of worth and value.

This book/manuscript will—at last!—make me a Real, Fully Licensed Writer instead of the impostor I’ve actually been all these years.

Dear reader, let me share with you a truth I’ve discovered the hard way—none of those things will bring you what you seek or make you feel validated. Or, if they do, it will only be for the most fleeting of moments.

As Anne Lamott so brilliantly said: “Expectations are resentments under construction.” In truth, they are one of the surest fire ways to suck the creative joy our of our lives and work.

We’ve talked about discipline before, but the longer I’m on this writing path the more I realize that what we need to be disciplined about changes significantly over time. Initially, it’s about butt-in-chair and making time for writing in our lives. However, eventually that becomes ingrained and you find yourself devoted to the practice of writing.

Then new challenges, often requiring even heftier doses of discipline, arise.

And one of those challenges is learning to free our work from the crushing weight of expectations.
We often forget that the act of writing, of being people who are driven to tell stories and play with words and ideas is a gift—one not handed out to everyone. Whether that initial spark is talent or drive hardly matters because it is your passion and persistence that will fuel you during the more harrowing twists and turns in your journey.

The problem with expectations are many. Not only are they resentments waiting to happen, but disappointment as well. By having expectations, we are planting the seeds of our future sense of failure when those expectations aren’t met. And in publishing this is especially true as so many of our expectations are almost completely outside of our control.

But perhaps more importantly, expectations can rob us of the joy of what we’re achieving in the here and now. They fill our hearts and minds so full of what an “ideal” career/writing path should look like that we don’t recognize the wild and wonderful and potentially hugely satisfying career path we DO have.

Another thing that happens is that we start twisting and shaping our writing to better fulfill those expectations, rather than to develop our strongest, most vibrant work. In many cases, expectations come out of a need or hole in our core self that we are trying to fill. Often, in the deepest, darkest recesses of that hole sits fear. Fear of not being enough as we are, which in turn means that we are writing out of a place of fear, which is never a good thing.

Not that fear does not have a place in the writing process, because it does. Fear we will not do the story justice. Fear that it will never be as perfect as it is in our head. Fear that we are biting off way more than we can chew. Fear that we are exposing too much of ourselves, laying our own hearts too open. But oddly, those are positive fears. Fears that come from embracing the act of creating, and therefore life.

But the fear that breeds expectations is often a negative fear, a fear that comes from wanting to avoid the sense of inadequacy or insecurities that haunt us, when what we need to do is embrace our raw, excruciatingly human experiences and try to turn them into something transformative for our readers.

Of course, we can expect things of ourselves—things we can control like behavior or discipline or commitment. But even there I’d caution a gentle touch because expectations we place on ourselves can quickly turn into simply another way way to beat ourselves up and no one, not us and certainly not our writing, benefits from that.

It is okay, necessary even, to yearn and long for things, but like all shadowed parts of ourselves, they better serve us when they are examined and admitted openly and then accepted as simply part of the human condition. They will likely not ever go away. We humans are a bottomless pit of expectations. Just ask anyone whose ever had their expectations met if that stopped them from having more, even bigger ones spring up in its place.

Expectations—most especially the publishing variety—are loud grating static that detracts from the much more important and fulfilling act of writing. Expectations can hideously corrode the one part of this whole publishing thing we can actually control—which is the work itself.

Let what you’ve achieved be enough. Let the creative journey you’re on be what fulfills you.

 

 

What are the expectations you place on your own writing—the deeply hidden, will hardly admit to yourself expectations? Can you begin to identify how they might rob your creativity of joy and vibrancy? How they might, in fact, make your work weaker?

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About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. says

    Robin-

    I’m glad you mentioned fear, the root of so many problems in publishing.

    Fear is natural. That expectations arise from it is to be expected. That those may curdle into resentments is unfortunate. However, I believe all of that can be used.

    The emotional landscape of a story, characters unfolding feelings, come from us. For characters to be rich on the page their creators need to be rich in their own emotional lives and generous about sharing them.

    Now fear is a negative emotion. It’s hurtful to feel and hurtful to read about. Readers turn away from it. Even in horror and thrillers, the points of which are to evoke fear, readers cringe from its raw pain.

    Only when fear is provoked through action or evoked by portraying a different secondary emotion can genuine fear be experienced by the reader. Another way to allow fear to seep into a reader’s bones is to make characters aware of the fear they’re feeling and its effect, in a sense objectifying it.

    Which in a way is how to deal with one’s own fear. Recognize it. name it. Allow it to dwell but turn it into an object and put it where it belongs: in your story.

    Some day I would like to know where you got your wisdom, Robin. For now I’ll just keep reading your work. Thanks!
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Deal: Michael Fletcher

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  2. says

    “Let the creative journey you’re on be what fulfills you.” Thank you, Zen Master, for this mantra. I do my best to re-focus on my love of writing when I’m overwhelmed by my many self-induced expectations.
    Suzanne McKenna Link´s last blog post ..Slow Down Ahead

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  3. says

    “Expectations can rob us of the joy of what we’re achieving in the here and now”

    Robin, this bit here really stood out for me. My deepest fear is that I’m kidding myself when I think my writing is going to pan out to anything worthy of a bookshelf. There are times when I scrutinize myself and my work, or compare it to the work of others who have done well; I wonder if I ever will attain that level, or if it’s just talent.

    Of course, I’ve learned not to buy into this. I like to tell myself my work is not as bad as I think. I like to tell myself that my work is unique and should not be compared to the work of others. I like to tell myself that even for books that shine – books that people rave about – those authors worked hard and earned their way there, and I’m slowly doing the same.

    But boy can those fears eat away at me. Boy, can they rob me of all joy at the simple act of writing. Thank you so much for this encouraging post and a reminder of how important it is to focus on the creative journey.
    John Robin´s last blog post ..Author Journeys: Welcome Therese Walsh

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  4. says

    Terrific post, Robin! I really needed to hear this. Sometimes I forget why I started writing in the first place–because I love putting words on paper. Everyone always asks if I’m published when they learn I’m a writer. Getting published is an expectation and when I have to say “not yet” it’s disappointing. I need to remember to enjoy the journey until I reach my destination!
    Carol Opalinski´s last blog post ..Lady Emma’s Holiday a winner!

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  5. says

    Robin–
    “Wisdom” is a good word to apply to what you say in your post–thank you. As you point out, expectations are inevitable. What then? Again, as you say, examining one’s expectations is the grown-up thing to do with them. If done in a serious way, this is a process of self-examination–and what is ever wrong with self-scrutiny?
    I think, though, that “expectations” is another way of referring to hope. And hope is the mother’s milk of creativity. But what a writer hopes for–that’s what defines him or her (Money? Fame? Mastering craft? Self-knowledge through creativity?).
    Inscribed over the door of Dante’s hell is “abandon hope all ye who enter here.” That could be applied to anyone who has hopes as a writer. But it sure is important to know what you’re hoping for. Otherwise, writing is hell.
    Thank you again.

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  6. says

    What a wonderful post–it left me inspired and motivated for the day of writing ahead. Thank you!

    There’s much in here to savor, but these words really resonated this morning: “We often forget that the act of writing… is a gift—one not handed out to everyone. Whether that initial spark is talent or drive hardly matters because it is your passion and persistence that will fuel you…”

    So true. Onward!

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  7. says

    What a wonderful post–it left me inspired and motivated for the day of writing ahead. Thank you!

    There’s much in here to savor, but these words especially resonated this morning: “We often forget that the act of writing… is a gift—one not handed out to everyone. Whether that initial spark is talent or drive hardly matters because it is your passion and persistence that will fuel you…”

    So true. Onward!
    Christine Finlayson´s last blog post ..Thoughts on writing

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  8. says

    Lovely post. Expectations can suck all the joy out of writing and I also think they can sabotage our chances of ever finding the success we want. It’s when we write the stories we are passionate about, without expecting anything beyond the joy of creation, that the ever-elusive success alights on our shoulders.
    Karin Gillespie´s last blog post ..Oops! I Forgot How to Write A Novel

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  9. says

    Thank you for this heads up. I am not yet published and am always eager to get a peek over the wall so that I can prepare myself for things to come. (Oh, sure, I understand this may well be delusional thinking, but it’s all I’ve got for now. Sigh.)

    I appreciate your transparency.
    Vicky Lorencen´s last blog post ..4 reasons you really mustn’t blog

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  10. says

    Oh, Robin, I read this with my heart thumping and tears ever threatening. The crushing weight of expectation and its close friend, disappointment has been keeping me down for over a year (it might even be closer to 2). Some of that time was valuable, because it let me look at the work more critically and find areas that needed improvement. But not all of it. It’s been a struggle for me to let go of the need for that external approval from the authorities — shades of the straight-A, well-behaved, gold-star-getting girl I was. I needed your words today. They came at just the right time. Thank you.
    Natalie Hart´s last blog post ..Sunday Ramblings

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  11. Anjali Amit says

    What a wonderfully wise post. Thank you for pointing out that expectations arise out of fear, that there is a link between expectations –wanting good things to happen — and fear — shying away from bad things.

    But that is what we humans do, isn’t it? Our desire for perfection sets up expectations that may or may not be met. So round and around we go. Oh what a Sisyphean task we set ourselves, in life as in our writing endeavors.

    And all we have to do is to “recognize the wild and wonderful and potentially hugely satisfying career path we DO have.”

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  12. says

    I think most of us set expectations when we first begin this journey. And it does stifle our creativity. Eventually, we mature as writers and learn to focus on our stories instead of the rewards. We also gain a good dose of reality. But, like other aspects of life, we discover that the reward we do received is more lasting than our original expectations.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..My Indy Journey – Day 10

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  13. says

    The picture with the post really fits, and as a pre-published author I have struggled with this. But just lately (with several in the drawer and the accompanying disappointments) it’s become easier and easier (and necessary) to focus on what I love most…the writing. As you say, there’s something so absolutely freeing about it. I feel a bit giddy with the possibilities again, which is wonderful!
    Julia Munroe Martin´s last blog post ..Over a Million Emails (but who’s counting?)

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  14. says

    Awesome! I agree with so many comments here as to the timeliness of your post. It’s as if you were reading minds. Fear of success can be as daunting as fear of failure, as success brings a new level of expectations into your career…and a new fear of not meeting them. An endless cycle. I’m self-published, which places all the responsibility of “make it or break it” on my shoulders. It’s a daily mantra to talk myself out of negativity and embrace the passion of this crazy, wonderful career path. I do agree with Donald Maass in that we should channel these emotions into something we can use in our books. We all love to write, so just do that. Bury yourself in your story and let go of the “stuff.” Thanks again, Robin, and to everyone who’s contributed.

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  15. Sharon Rivest says

    Ms. Lamott’s observation that “Expectations are resentments under construction,” got me to thinking about my own expectations. But it wasn’t until you mentioned that so many of our expectations are out of our control that the light bulb went brilliant white. No matter how high our expectations, each of us can only control our own thoughts and actions. Making expectations about other people’s behavior is wasted effort.

    Yet for me, the words hope and expectation feel entwined, almost interchangeable. Like the vines of a clematis. Supporting each other. Choking each other. Both struggling to reach the light and bloom.

    Perhaps others feel this too.

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  16. says

    I loved what you said with how we can expect things of ourselves that we can control. That’s where so many of us writers get caught. Beating ourselves up for things we can’t control-whether the agent/editor will want/buy the story. Whether the advance is high or low. Whether we’ll get a five star or a one star review.

    Thanks for sharing this-it was a fantastic post.
    Sonya´s last blog post ..Interview with Jessica Watterson

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  17. says

    Expectations—most especially the publishing variety—are loud grating static that detracts from the much more important and fulfilling act of writing … Let what you’ve achieved be enough.”

    Robin, this is deep-perspective stuff, written with healing grace. (Hey, there might be a 12-step “How I Busted Expectations in the Chops and Dug the Holy Sh*t Out of my Writing Journey” program here.)

    Thanks for the crystal reflection that’s at the core of why we do what we do.
    Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..The Hero’s Journey (Is to Find Key Lime Pie)

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  18. says

    This is a fabulous post — and touches on my biggest white whale: expectations. They are killers. Joy suckers. Thieves. I tend to go through all of those thoughts you wrote down and sometimes I hold onto them for days (or weeks). But when I’m able to finally surrender to the peace of WHAT IS – I’m free to get back to writing. I wish I didn’t seek outside validation. I wish I didn’t get upset when close friends don’t acknowledge my work. But I do. I’m human and it’s the best I’ll ever do. I know these things will come up with every book launch, but I also know I have the choice to feed the negative thoughts, or pray and surrender. Surrender is always the better choice. Thank you soooooo much for this amazing post. I’ll save it and go back to it as a gentle reminder.
    Simone´s last blog post ..People love free ebooks

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  19. says

    Yes, yes, and everything yes. All I’ve ever wanted to do is write and publish books, and I write and I get cramped…and or I finish and it’s bad…and they tell me it’s bad…and then I do it again, because I don’t learn. Finally I started doing painting as my hobby when I decided writing was my serious job because I wasn’t having fun with it anymore. Painting gave me peace because I wasn’t a painter, I didn’t expect to make anything of myself.

    I’m going to read the blog again. I think I need to have it sunk into my skull 10 or 20 times.
    Hellion´s last blog post ..Hellie’s Reviews: Sophia Nash’s THE ONCE AND FUTURE DUCHESS

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  20. Denise Willson says

    I know this is sadly cliche, Robin, but, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  21. says

    Thank you, Robin, and everyone, for your thoughts about expectations.

    I have a slightly different take on expectations, which for me are motivational; they lift me up rather than weigh me down. They keep me working hard to continue to advance my writing career, and I view them realistically, knowing full well that expectations are not always met. But sometimes they are! My expectations are not grandiose, rather they are grounded in an honest assessment of my capability as a writer and my understanding of the profession.

    An unmet expectation is simply an unanticipated outcome from which we can learn and grow; it need not necessarily result in feelings of failure, resentment or disappointment, and can be an important learning experience for setting the next round of expectations.

    I also don’t agree that they detract from the pleasure of enjoying the work in the moment. I believe these two things can coexist quite well together.

    There’s an assumption in this piece that a writer with expectations is a person who is at heart fearful – of failure, of feeling inadequate, of disappointing loved ones and therefore not feeling validated – and is susceptible to measuring self-worth in part by whether he or she succeeds through publishing. This is a broad assumption, and doesn’t apply to at least this writer.

    Here’s to realistic expectations, and loving the writing life! :)

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking read, Robin.

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    • says

      First of all Joan, congratulations on being one of the lucky ones with realistic expectations that don’t get in the way of your work!

      You said: “There’s an assumption in this piece that a writer with expectations is a person who is at heart fearful – of failure, of feeling inadequate, of disappointing loved ones and therefore not feeling validated – and is susceptible to measuring self-worth in part by whether he or she succeeds through publishing. This is a broad assumption, and doesn’t apply to at least this writer.”

      I can see how assumption might be arrived at, and that is my bad for not have stated it more clearly.

      For most writers, nearly all of the ones I’ve met and talked to anyway, who’ve been at this a long time and not met with the success they first imagined, the joy of writing often gets clouded by that string of unmet expectations, which in turn leeches the joy from their writing. So the initial expectations do not come out of fear, but eventually they can warp our perspective so that we end up writing out of a place of fear.

      And then the more focus we put on meeting those expectations–rather than writing–the more vulnerable we become to doubts of self worth and need for that external validation.

      Hopefully that makes it a little clearer. And of course, everyone’s mileage will vary! Thanks for being a part of the conversation.

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      • says

        Thanks for your response, Robin, and yes, that does help to clarify things a bit for me about your post. Disappointment due to unmet expectations over time can be a tricky one, for sure, and I like how Claire put it, that some of us “invite their bad boy friends, disappointment and resentment, to visit.” :)

        Setting expectations from the start is, I think, so critical, and it’s important to focus on what’s reasonable and what isn’t (also without falling into the trap of setting one’s sights too low, which is another problematic tendency!), and even with realistic expectations hopes can still be dashed, I know.

        Maybe the best thing to aim for is to become the very best writer one can be, rather than to become the next Barbara Kingsolver or Stephen King.

        Which brings us full circle to your closing thought, Robin: “Let what you’ve achieved be enough. Let the creative journey you’re on be what fulfills you.”

        Thanks for the good conversation!

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  22. says

    How true are your words Robin. How many of us, especially new writers, embark full steam ahead, thoughts and hearts overflowing with dreams of what may be, only to find ‘something’ destroys those dreams. This often happens early on when as you say, expectations are not met.

    I’ve wondered whether, if we write what we love, instead of chasing fame and fortune, would the expectations would drop away? I know this may be the harder road to take, especially if we’re reliant on the income, but the expectations (fear) would be gone.

    Also, I believe in continuing to write what I want to write, as opposed to writing what I should. This way new writers have the potential to bring exciting new points of view, fresh ideas and new words and works into the world.
    Leonie van de Vorle´s last blog post ..Off With a Ducati Roar on Holiday whilst Celebrating, Reminiscing and Researching.

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  23. says

    I expect my writing to be timeless and thought provoking. I have a longing to retire from my present career and write full time 15 – 20 years from now.

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  24. says

    Just wanted to add my appreciation for this post. My own expectations regarding publication are modest and I’m delighted so far with the success my series is achieving, but where the expectations, followed by disappointment and sometimes resentment, affect me is in never accomplishing in a given day or week or month as much as I think I should.

    Thanks for posting.
    R.E. Donald´s last blog post ..R. E. Donald: The Highway Mysteries and Hunter Rayne

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  25. says

    Ok, first off, I LOVE the pic. That is exactly what I feel like each time I think about writing a breakout best seller and becoming the new shining star of self-publishing.

    Never mind that I’ve only just started my novel.

    Writing with grand thoughts might inspire some but it floors me. I have to write with the expectation that the first draft will be drivel. Complete and utter nonsensical drivel. Then, and only then will the words flow through my fingertips.

    I’ve shared the loose concept with my family but have no intention of letting them read anything until it’s been through the first round of editing.

    Or maybe I’ll just wait until it’s live and let them buy it.
    Jack Cordwell´s last blog post ..The Drama Begins: First draft by 8/31

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