Success – A Recovery Program for Writers

August 2010 issue of


Published by Romance Writers of America


Formula for success: rise early, work hard, strike oil.  J. Paul Getty

Searching for an editor who will fall in love with your writing is rather like drilling for oil… lots of time, effort, and dry holes. But when success finally comes, it may bring a new set of problems.

Before I began writing fiction, I was a toxicologist and university professor involved with addiction research, so I understand on a number of levels what a dead‑end addictive behavior is.  Imagine then my shock when I recognized elements of addiction in my own behavior after my first novel was published.

After years of rejection, I was finally beginning to receive positive recognition and comments. Which felt really good until, as the comments multiplied, their effect began to wear off more and more quickly.  In response, I began obsessively seeking additional positive reinforcement. I trolled internet review sites, googled my name and the title of my book, and began checking my Amazon ranking and my e‑mail multiple times a day. Eventually I was spending more time looking for positive feedback than I was writing. Worse, my imagination no longer teemed with the “what ifs” so essential to story‑telling.

Paradoxically, as the positive comments lost their potency, negative comments grew in their power to derail, undermining my confidence and adding to a growing paralysis.

I don’t think I’m alone in this reaction.  Former editor, current agent, Betsy Lerner points out in her book, The Forest for the Trees, that each day writers start anew working at a job that provides no certainty of the quality of their work.  Unlike the scientist, the lawyer, or the plumber, writers work in a vacuum where it’s all too easy to lose perspective.  We remain uncertain about our worth because attempting to judge our own writing, according to Lerner, “is like looking in a mirror. What is perceived likely has more to do with how we feel about ourselves than with how we look.”

Is it any wonder then that when we do receive positive feedback, we run the risk of becoming addicted to it? Further, I suspect the bigger the success, the greater the potential to be derailed by it—a far from original thought, of course. Lerner’s take on success is that it “…can engender a whole host of problems, perhaps most disastrously when the ego becomes so inflated that the writer can never quite hear her inner voice again.”

I believe the mix of praise and criticism faced by successful writers feeds into the insecurity that most artists suffer from to some degree. Consider, for example, Irving Berlin, one of the most prominent songwriters of the last century:  “The toughest thing about success is that you’ve got to keep on being a success. Talent is only a starting point in this business… someday I’ll reach for it and it won’t be there.”  Playwright Moss Hart, one of Berlin’s most successful collaborators, spoke of suffering from “success sickness.”

So don’t envy the author of the blockbuster. She must now deal with heightened and unrelenting expectations, not just from her fans, her editor, her agent, and her publisher, but also from her internal critic. “What will you do to top this, and how quickly can you get it done?” Words that could slay dragons, let alone an author’s fragile muse.  And Elbert Hubbard’s suggestion, “Pray that success will not come any faster than you are able to endure it,” suddenly strikes a chord.

So what to do if you are being derailed by success and an obsession for feedback? The first step is to acknowledge the problem and accept the need to change. The second to seek out strategies to deal with the problem. Here are some approaches I’ve found useful.

Step 1  Identify triggers.

My trigger was not the positive comment per se.  Instead, it was sitting down at the computer and being unable to resist going on-line, especially to e-mail, to search for positive feedback.

Step 2  Take steps to avoid triggers or to limit their power.

Since e-mail was my major trigger, I made the decision to delay looking at it until after a specific time later in the day.

To be successful this kind of decision, needs to be made and then not debated. As soon as I begin a debate, I’m lost, because recommitting to a fudged goal requires more psychic energy than the original decision.

So I don’t even go there.

Step 3  Recall how you did things when you were successfully writing and return to that process.

If, like me, your most productive days were those you began with actual writing, then that’s what you need to do. The subject is now closed.  No more debate with that internal saboteur.

The good news is that as you implement the habits that made you successful, and they begin to have a positive impact on your writing, it will get easier and easier to stick with the new (old) approach.

Step 4 Take breaks that reward your psyche but don’t feed your addiction.

Positive break activities include meditation, a daily exercise period, doing something for fun, or even doing a routine task (ironing, vacuuming, washing dishes). Completing routine tasks is an accomplishment (feels good) and because it’s routine, while you do it your imagination remains free to mull over your story and present you with new possibilities (feels even better).

Step 5  When you do go on‑line, savor the positive, eliminate the negative, and set limits.

Print out positive comments and put them where they are readily accessible to be re‑read when you need a boost.  As for rejections and negative comments of any ilk, deal with them quickly, then either delete or file them out of sight.

Setting an alarm to limit on-line time may be useful, and if you don’t think so, consider the episode last year when two pilots cruising both the internet and in a jet at 36,000 feet lost “situational awareness” and flew more than 100 miles past their destination.

Step 6  Be patient with yourself.

The process described here is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  All addictions take time to fade.  But by setting in place new habits that increase your productivity, you are giving yourself long‑lasting psychic rewards to replace the quick hits of your addictive behavior.

And if none of these suggestions work for you, consider the advice of W.C. Fields.  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”