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
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?