Today I want to talk about the deeper motivations for decisions we make around our craft and career as writers. How fear and shame often play a role in decisions on how we practice our craft and navigate our career.
For instance, the person who doesn’t release their finished novel because they fear it will tank. Or the person who does no marketing whatsoever because they don’t know how to do it, so they conclude, “marketing doesn’t even work.”
Okay, let’s dig in.
What They Don’t Teach You
Over the years, I have noticed a growing number of things that I wasn’t taught in school. Hopefully some of these have changed, either in your personal experience, or in modern education in general. For example, in my personal experience:
Schools don’t teach entrepreneurship; how to take calculated risks to build a business around work that you find meaningful.
They don’t teach emotional literacy around money. They teach accounting and economics, but not how to deal with the psychological and emotional aspects of money. Instead, many people deal with money from either a fear-based mentality, remaining trapped in jobs they hate for decades, or they make decisions based on marketing alone. For example, a person might read an article about the new Apple Watch and how great the company is doing, so they buy Apple stock. In doing so, they feel they are indirectly benefitting from Apple’s success, therefore this is a sound financial investment. But that isn’t really how investing always works. It’s not just “buy whatever is successful at whatever price you can.” That isn’t investing; it’s a reaction that makes you feel good for a moment.
Schools don’t teach communication skills at a comprehensive level — skills such as debate, public speaking, interpersonal communication, negotiation, relationship management and so much else. These are life skills that are necessary in thousands of tiny moments every day, but training is typically only offered once in your educational journey, as a single elective.
They don’t teach how to recognize and cope with silent crises. Situations such as bullying, or how to recognize when a friend or colleague is suffering from some form of abuse –- be it emotional, physical, drug related, or something else. Because without knowing how to recognize when to help others, these situations are often ignored, lead to gossip, or isolate that person.
Again, I will note that this is my personal experience in education — yours may have been very different. I am aware that recognition of how to prevent and cope with bullying has (thankfully) become a very prominent topic in education recently.
Writing & Shame: Digging Deeper
How does all of this relate to writing? Like other areas of life, we often make decisions about our writing career based on surface-level excuses that mask deeper motivations.
We resist writing for deeper reasons.
“It just feels so selfish, I have a responsibility to my kids, and the house is a mess.”
We resist craft for deeper reasons.
“That teacher doesn’t know what she is talking about, all of my beta readers loved it.”
We resist aspects of the publishing process for deeper reasons.
“Are people who self-publish really that desperate?”
We resist marketing for deeper reasons.
“Marketing doesn’t work. I tried it once and didn’t sell one additional book. Same thing happened to my friend.”
We resist social media for deeper reasons.
“I don’t have time to share photos of my lunch, I’m too busy for that.”
We resist success for deeper reasons.
“I grew up in a family where you didn’t gloat about what you are doing. Besides, I don’t deserve it.”
Do you see how these are surface level excuses masking deeper emotions? You would never get rid of your phone because you once received a call from a telemarketer. You would never give up email entirely because you once received a spam email. You would never stop going to stores because you were once overcharged. You would never entirely stop going downtown because there was once a rude person in front of a store.
Yet so often, our decisions about the practice of our craft and how we manage our careers are based on flippant decisions that FEEL right, but we don’t dig deep enough to uncover why we feel that way.
Shame and Asking for Help
A couple weeks back, I signed up for a personal trainer at my local gym. Toward the end of our first session together, I got light-headed. I ignored it, but it persisted. As the trainer was showing me the final cool-down exercise, I had to stop him, walk to a nearby hallway and sit down. I felt like I was about to pass out.
He sat down with me, employee after employee asked if I was okay, a nurse checked me out, and they brought me a juice box.
So here I am, sitting on the floor like a child, drinking a juice box, in the middle of a gym filled with other adults who had bigger muscles than I did.
When I began to feel light-headed, I first experienced the shock of being in a very public place, my body not functioning correctly, and someone [the trainer] is looking right at me, still talking. After shock, my next instinct was denial.
Ignore the light-headed feeling.
Why? Shame. Shame that I wasn’t as fit as I thought. Shame that I had to openly admit that I couldn’t hack the workout. Shame that I couldn’t live up to the standards the trainer set.
That is one of the biggest insights I took from this experience: Here I was, feeling so light-headed that I felt I was about to pass out, and I am staring at this personal trainer silently. He is still talking, showing me the next exercise. Yet, I keep staring at him, shocked that he doesn’t see that I am light-headed.
I am literally waiting for him to offer me some water, and to sit down.
When I needed help, I was waiting for others to offer it. And that isn’t how it often works. How would he know I felt as though I was going to pass out? He only would have known when it was too late, when I physically dropped to the floor unconscious.
Why did it feel like the hardest thing in the world to open my mouth and say, “I’m just going to take a few minutes to have a drink and sit down”?
I had to ask for help.
As I sat on the floor, drinking my juice box, I kept telling myself to not be embarrassed.
Lost in the Woods
What did I think about while sitting on the floor? A story a friend told me like 17 or 18 years ago.
He was out hiking by himself, and got lost in the woods. He began trying all of the obvious solutions — backtracking, looking for landmarks, noting the placement of the sun, etc. Nothing worked; he was in the woods without any clue how to get out.
He explained that something happened in this moment that he didn’t expect — an overwhelming sense of shame.
He began to take dangerous actions, moving more quickly, which of course led him to walk in circles, tire more quickly, and waste valuable time and energy as night approached. He realized he didn’t have extra water or any other survival tools. This was the days before mobile phones were a standard piece of hiking gear.
As he told me about the shame he felt, and how it led him to act to cover it up, he told me that this is what gets you into serious physical danger.
This is how people die.
You reject that you are lost because of the shame, and then you do a bunch of ill-advised things, which means you are further from being found before dark.
In the end, my friend knew that portions of the woods were reserved for hunting, and that he ventured into it. He finally had his bearings, so he walked in straight line towards the exit. Because he was in the hunting area, he flapped his arms and kept yelling “I’m not a deer!”
This is how he found his way out of the woods. In total embarrassment.
I was thinking of that while on the floor in the gym, drinking my juice box, with other adults looking down on me as they walked past. I kept thinking, “Don’t be ashamed.” Also: “Don’t apologize.” Don’t be sorry for being honest about what was really going on with my health.
Which is why I sat down in the first place, instead of just “manning up” and waiting to pass out. I had found my limits and had to communicate them. In doing so, I wanted to avoid true physical danger.
How did things turn out after that? Good. I am taking the following proactive actions:
- This may seem obvious, but I’m not going to overlook it: I went back to the gym. Part of me did think, “Gee, I wonder if the staff was talking about me, and when I return, I will be known as The Guy Who Almost Passed Out.”
- I now eat an apple and a banana an hour before my personal training sessions to give myself the energy I was likely lacking in that first session. For that first session, I had last eaten 4.5 hours prior. My body likely needed more fuel.
- I now go to the gym 5 days per week, with weekly sessions with the personal trainer. When we are working together, he checks in with me a bit more often now to ensure I am feeling okay and ready for another exercise.
It would be so easy for shame to lead me to stop. To make decisions about important things based solely on emotions or half-considered justifications. For instance, “Personal training isn’t for me,” because of one experience. But I realize that there is a long-term price to that decision. I want to be healthy, not just for this week, but two decades from now.
Rejecting Shame in Your Craft and Career
I won’t pretend it is easy to reject shame when it crops up. And it’s worth noting that what I am not a trained mental health professional, just someone reflecting on the experiences around me. (If you are going through heavy stuff, please consult a trained professional for competent medical advice.)
When shame crops up in your craft or your career, here are some things I have found work for me and others I know:
- Ask for help. As I indicated above, this sounds so simple, but is so easy to resist. Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking is a good primer here, as is Jennie Nash’s blog post about lessons from that book for writers. To me, asking for help starts with the words “Hi, I need some help…”, not a big bold move such as enrolling in graduate school, assuming this will magically solve your problem without you ever having to overtly ask for help. Even saying those words feels difficult sometimes. If you need it, practice saying it.
- Get a second opinion. When shame crops up, it can seem as though you are uniquely trapped in a situation, and that talking about it will only expose your shame to the world. In that moment, get a second opinion. Talk to someone. Oftentimes, you find that they pull you out of that dark place, and you realize that others struggle with the same thing you do every single day.
- Make experimenting a habit. Too often, we trap ourselves in a narrative of what “is” and dogma of how “things really work.” Oftentimes, this is simply one of many possible perspectives. Make it a habit to push yourself outside of your comfort zone once per month, or once per quarter. Apply for an award, participate community writing exercises (writing prompts, flash fiction, etc.), attend a conference or meetup, join a writing group, interview a successful writer, etc. What you want here is to avoid being a focus group of one, whereby your singular experience encourages boundaries that are actually pretty subjective.
- Always ask questions of others. Especially if those questions seek different conclusions than you current have. If you think indie publishing is silly, get in the habit of talking to successful indie published authors. If you think traditional publishing is silly, then make it a habit to talk to traditionally published authors.
- Address mental health concerns. This is again where I have to remind you that I have zero credentials for health advice. If you struggle with any kind of anxiety or other concerns, there are so many professionals who are trained to assist. Seek them out. EG: Support groups, therapy, doctors, friends, colleagues, etc. Mental health is not some big scary distant topic, it is something that needs to be proactively addressed in the nuances of our everyday lives.
Is shame a motivator for you at any level of your writing career? Do you make decisions in order to protect yourself from narratives of shame? Please share your thoughts below.