Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Introduction: Finding happiness as a writer...

This is not a New Year's Resolution post. I don't make resolutions because I feel like if you want to do something, go do it. Why wait for the beginning of the year? Why turn it into a ceremony? To me, January is the worst time to shine up some new goals because the classes are all filled up, the gym is too crowded, etc.

But like many authors, I've struggled in the past with being happy. Compared to other occupations, writers are at a higher risk for problems such as alcoholism and suicidal ideation. Some of that is probably due to the sensitive people drawn to the field and/or the fact that a lot of us can't afford good health insurance so we don't get help when we need it. 

But some of that is because writing is its own kind of punishing work. Not punishing like ditch digging or trail building, which I've done. Not punishing like cooking 386 omelets to order in five hours for Easter Brunch, which I've done (and am weirdly proud of). Not even punishing like giving someone chest compressions and then watching them die. Yep, you guessed it--done that too. Writing is punishing in an isolating, self-doubting, creatively sapping, judged harshly by strangers, always uncertain, financially capricious kind of way. 

Then again, writing is the best job I've ever had, and one of the only things that makes me truly happy. When you land your agent or a book deal, when you wake up to a message from a fan who found your story to be heart-healing, man it doesn't get much better than that. 

Check out this picture:

This is coarse ventricular fibrillation, a heart rhythm we medical types like
to call "incompatible with life."

Unfortunately, this graphic is also a pretty good depiction of how my emotional status used to fluctuate on a regular basis. I was going to fill in some points:

  • Several editors pass on a submission.
  • I struggle to complete revisions on time, doubting the quality of my manuscript. 
  • Publisher buys two books for slightly more money than previous deal. 
  • Bestselling writer pal opts not to blurb my book.
  • Blogger emails me to tell me my book helped her get over a breakup.
  • Total stranger reviews my book in a 4000-word diatribe, implying I'm racist, intolerant, and a bitch. 
  • Kirkus gives me a starred review. 
  • Foreign publisher buys rights. 

But do I need to? You can see where those situations would fall on the chart of highs and lows. Sometimes several moments like this can occur in a single day. And note that all but one of these situations involves my feelings being altered by the actions of others, people over which I have no control. 

This kind of emotional rollercoaster is also probably incompatible with life, at least with any life I want to live. And a lot of people need four or five high points to mitigate the pain from one low point (think about it--the last time you read a scathing review, how many good reviews did you need to read before you felt better?), which means even when we're doing pretty damn good in our writing lives, we're still predisposed to feel unhappy. 

Last year I sold four books...and I still wasn't happy. (And I know how messed up that sounds to most of you, believe me). I was good for a while. They all sold in the same month so I felt like quite the rock star for a few weeks. Sure, some people had much bigger advances and fancy bling that I didn't have, but I had four more chances in 2016 and 2017 to build an audience backed by the support of major publishers.

And yet after the congratulatory tweets and glow of the new books deals faded, I felt vaguely...uneasy. Don't get me wrong, I knew I was in an enviable position. I knew that even though I'd busted my ass writing and promoting to get where I was, there had still been an element of luck involved. I was grateful for everything that happened and recognized the roles that other people--from bloggers to beta readers to editors--had played in my success.

So then, what the hell was my deal? I think, for me, it was that I still didn't feel stable. Even with nine books under contract, I still didn't feel like a career writer, like I had job security, like I could downshift from overdrive into a gear that allowed me a little more time to breathe. And honestly, I still don't feel like that. What the publishing industry giveth, the publishing industry sometimes taketh away at the worst possible moment. [ETA: The same day I posted this, I learned of Egmont USA's closing, which means several of my friends have just had their contracts canceled and their 2015 books--already edited in many cases--won't be distributed.] I live with that knowledge every day, and the only way it doesn't make me crazy is because I channel it to make me work harder and be better.

And I'm proud to say I did recapture my joy last year, and aside from occasional bouts of fleeting anxiety I would now describe myself as happy :) I decided to share part of my process, partially to help other writers who might be struggling, and partially to reinforce things for me. 

My original plan was to organize the posts into twelve steps and post once a week from now until April. But that felt kind of rigid and overly structured. Besides, who am I to tell people not only what to do, but also in what order to do it?

So instead I'm going to run this blog series as a collection of happiness-seeking tips until I get bored or run out of things to say, posting roughly once a week, at intervals that don't hamper my creativity, make me excessively cranky, or prevent me from going outside to chase sunbeams on those rare winter days when they scamper past my window. 

We love sunbeams, yes we do. We love sunbeams, how about you?

There are awesome bloggers who can handle a topic like being happy as a writer in a single blog post, but for me this was a process that took months--I didn't just choose to be happy and turn off my self-destructive feelings like a light switch. There was a lot of introspection, reflection, and admitting to myself that I needed to make changes. My process was about self-awareness and seeking balance and pitting reason against emotion repeatedly until reason won. 

We're all different, so not all of my tips will work for everyone, but if you're struggling right now, I hope you'll come back and check out more of the series. Please feel free to share some of your own tips in the comments. We're all in this together. 

And on that note, if you've arrived at this post and feel you may be suffering from depression or anxiety, or are engaging in self-harming behaviors, please seek the help of a trusted friend, family member, or clergyman. If none of those are options for you, you can also go to the closest emergency room. They will treat you and get you resources even if you don't have medical insurance. I'll try to find some reliable online resources to post at the end of the series, but right now I don't want to post links without vetting them. Just know that you're not alone, and there are people who will help you.