Are You Telling Yourself the Wrong Stories?

Are You Telling Yourself the Wrong Stories? by Tiffany Yates Martin

Photo by Pablo Hermoso on Unsplash

I’m not talking about the stories that you write. I’m talking about the ones you tell yourself: while you’re writing, when you can’t write, after you write, when what you wrote doesn’t get an agent or publisher, or isn’t well reviewed, or doesn’t sell well.

Our attempt to find reason and logic in what is so painful to us—rejection, disappointment, setbacks with our personal creative work—often results in finding reasons that don’t actually exist. “Reasons” that decimate our confidence and self-image and equanimity, the very elements we need to most freely create our best work.

It’s not these events themselves that can derail creatives, but the storytelling around them that we choose to subscribe to: Failure. Lack of talent. Hopelessness.

I’ve written a lot about this kind of destructive internal messaging and how to deal with it. But in this post I want to examine the premise of that story itself.

The Fallacy of the Story We Tell Ourselves

Usually it goes like this: “If I work hard and learn my craft and write the best story I am capable of writing and keep doing that, then eventually if I am good enough I will get published, my books will be hugely successful, and I will be a working writer forever and ever, amen.”

Unfortunately that’s just not how this career works. It’s not how most creative careers work. It’s not actually how any career works.

Interestingly it’s story itself that teaches us to think of it this way: The hero valiantly fights battles and ultimately he succeeds because of his skill or talent or goodness or strength. Humans are almost hardwired to believe this, and no one more so than writers, who live it every single day they practice their craft and try to incorporate some version of this idea into the narratives they’re creating.

It’s satisfying and tidy, but it’s not what happens in our writing—and it’s not what happens in life.

I regularly interview successful authors for a monthly “How Writers Revise” feature I write on my blog, and there’s not a single author I’ve spoken with who hasn’t talked about this business’s ups and downs, obstacles and setbacks, crushing disappointments as well as heady successes. There’s not one of them who hasn’t ridden a roller coaster between them all.

This is a business of ups and downs. Of seemingly random outcomes from decisions made based on the most subjective of criteria. Even factoring in that it is a business (and many times whether or not you get an agent, or whether or not you get published, has less to do with your talent or your story than it does the current market and the subjective preferences of a handful of individuals), after that it’s anybody’s guess what may capture a reading audience and what may not. What may sell well and what will not. What may be critically well received and what may not.

An author may struggle for novel after novel to even make a dent—a process ever more challenging now in a fast-moving industry that quickly moves on to the next shiny new debut author—and then suddenly break out. Ask Katherine Center, whose sixth novel was the one that catapulted her from the midlist to the New York Times bestseller list.

An author may succeed wildly with one title, only to stumble and fall on subsequent releases. Ask Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke, whose fourth novel was a breakout smash, but whose seventh novel’s underperformance led to their being cut from their publisher. They feared for the survival of their careers before ultimately selling their eighth to another publishing house. (They talk about their travails in their wonderful “rejection series” of podcast episodes starting here.)

Ask indie-publishing juggernaut Joanna Penn, who was “treated like a lot of crap” as an early adopter of self-publishing before going on to create an empire of podcasting, blogging, publishing, and speaking that reaches literally millions of writers in hundreds of countries.

None of these authors are any different in the moment of their successes than in the moment of their failures. They may grow and deepen and develop their skills, but their essence and worth as creators—the foundation of their work—has not. These ups and downs are simply a product of the vagaries of an incredibly subjective business with an unfathomable number of moving parts.

So how does this affect the story you tell yourself?

Often the stories we believe about ourselves, our writing, and our careers involve elements over which we have no control: If your idea of fulfillment and success involves, say, publishing with a major house, making big advances, receiving unswervingly good critical reviews, or attaining stratospheric sales—book after book after book—then the chances are pretty good you are never going to be happy. That’s a minuscule fraction of authors (and I’m betting zero who unfailingly achieve all these metrics).

If you want to increase your chances of finding satisfaction and building and sustaining a long-term creative career that is meaningful to you, maybe it’s time to reexamine your premise and redefine your definition of what being a successful author is.

What is it about doing this work that does make you happy, truly, at the core? Or maybe a better way to think of it is what can make you happy? What can you be happy with? What will make every day spent as a writer potentially rewarding and fulfilling for you?

Author Vaughn Roycroft, a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, not long ago published a beautiful post about his journey to redefine what fulfills him in his writing career. After struggling for years to get traditionally published and “failing,” he decided to abandon that goal.

But he doesn’t think of that as failure. He began to reframe it when telling a friend his story about starting a particular manuscript when he was an adolescent and finally resolving to self-publish it when it didn’t find “success,” and his friend said, “Let me get this straight. You first envisioned doing this when you were eleven, you went back to it in your 40s, and now—at 60—you’re about to start publishing the damn thing? That’s remarkable.”

Vaughn had been telling himself the wrong story. His friend’s comment shifted his perspective and let him redefine himself as a writer even though he wasn’t a traditionally published author. It let him believe in himself; relish and be proud of his creative product, rather than waiting for some external metric of its worth; and redefine how he approaches his career going forward in a way that offers him more fulfillment and joy. And that is remarkable.

These stories that you have been telling yourself are not you. They are merely unexamined external messaging mistakenly interpreted in a negative way that does not serve you.

So the next time one of these stories begins to play in your head—when you struggle to finish a draft, when you get editorial notes back and are looking at a much longer climb up Revision Mountain than you hoped for, when your dream agent rejects you or you don’t get that publishing offer, when your book doesn’t sell well or isn’t well reviewed, or you’re dropped from your agent or publisher, or any of the myriad other setbacks that are constant uncontrollable factors of any creative career—stop and reexamine your story premise.

What fictions are you accepting and retelling in your mind? That this agent’s rejection means you are not talented or your work sucks? That if you haven’t made it by now you probably never will? Even that “making it” is some distant future external goal…one that has nothing to do with your creative work itself? That you’re through, a failure, that you don’t have what it takes?

Those stories are true only if you believe they are.

Examine your assumptions and retell the story you want to tell about your life and your art. Make yourself the engine of it, the protagonist who drives it, rather than a passive bystander buffeted about by the whims of a subjective and often inadvertently cruel business. Tell a better version of it, one that gives your story a more satisfying journey and a happier ending.

And then go be the hero of it.

How about you, authors: What kind of messaging do you find yourself accepting–or telling yourself–about your writing career? Are you able to notice self-sabotage before it derails your creativity–and if so, what techniques do you use? Have you consciously given thought to what you want your career to look like, and how do you stay focused on that amid the many vagaries and disappointments of the publishing business?

About Tiffany Yates Martin

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and NYTimes, WaPo, WSJ, and USA Today bestselling, award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the Amazon bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She leads workshops and seminars for conferences and writers' groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers' sites and publications. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels.