Are anxious writers more successful?

I am my father’s daughter.

I’m reminded of that as I read the comments and emails that have resulted from my last blogpost about how I stress out on Wednesday afternoons, waiting for the latest New York Times bestseller list.  Why can’t I just relax and enjoy my success?  Why can’t I count my blessings?  Why can’t I pause and look around in satisfaction and say, “Okay, I’ve made it”?

I think of my dad, who died earlier this year.  Let me tell you about my dad.  He worked two jobs for most of his life, and accumulated enough money for a very comfortable retirement.  He had no debts, he owned his own home, and he probably could have sat back and taken it easy. Instead, he continued to work like a dog until Alzheimers crippled him.  Why?

Because all his life, he never felt secure, and was continually terrified that he’d lose it all.

I used to think that maybe it was because he came from a generation that was too close to the Depression.  But there’s also a cultural — perhaps even a genetic – component to his obsession with security.  And I think I’ve inherited it.

My dad was the son of Chinese immigrants, and he had good reason to never feel entirely secure.  He’d watched Japanese-Americans herded off to internment camps during WWII, and many of them lost all that they’d worked for and saved over the years.  My dad also understood the value of hard work and practicality, and so when he came home after serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, he threw himself into work, both as a restaurant chef, and as a contract estimator with an aircraft company.  He never stopped feeling he could lose it all.  He always believed that you couldn’t trust anyone else to take care of you, that you, and only you, were responsible for your own future.

I know several people like him.  A friend of mine is a songwriter and performer, one of the most successful songwriters ever in the U.S.  He started off middle class, worked his way to the top by performing in bars, and now he’s made a fortune.  Whenever we get together, we talk about how much we have in common — both of us from middle-class roots, both of us obsessed by our work, both of us amazed by how far we’ve gotten.  But neither of us will ever feel entirely secure. We’re both terrified we could lose it all overnight.  And so we keep striving and obsessing over our work.

Anxiety, I’m convinced, is a large part of success.  The strange thing is, I’m not an anxious person in every other aspect of my life.  I fall asleep on plane flights and in dentists’ chairs.  I happily travel to bizarre places.  I accept most of life’s frustrations with a resigned sigh.  But when it comes to my writing career, I can be as high-strung as a racehorse.

I once read an article written by a literary agent who represents some of the biggest names in publishing, and she said that her most successful clients all seem to have one thing in common: they’re insecure.  They don’t quite believe they’ve really made it.  They believe their bestselling status could vanish overnight.  In some ways, they’re probably right; success in publishing is frighteningly ephemeral.  But a lot of their fear is unfounded.  Even though they’ve made fortunes and they’re household names, they focus on their careers with the anxiety of the hungry new author.

And that may be exactly what made them successes in the first place — that neurotic need for security and for acceptance. 

It won’t matter how successful everyone else thinks I may be. I’ll always be trying to write a better book, and achieve better sales.  It’s a form of insanity, perhaps, but an insanity that other writers seem to suffer from.

And weirdly enough, it may also be the reason I got to where I am today.

 

23 replies
  1. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    Having confidence in what you do well is not the same as collapsing on your laurels. Recognizing, and finding comfort in your success will not make you write badly. 🙂

  2. Gerald So
    Gerald So says:

    BernardL wrote:

    “Recognizing, and finding comfort in your success will not make you write badly.”

    I believe that being too comfortable when writing does make you write badly. A little fear of failure keeps you on your toes, more able to anticipate and deal with obstacles along the way. The key is not to let in so much fear that it keeps you from writing.

  3. therese
    therese says:

    There is so much truth in this post Tess!

    You do count your blessings, in regards to your father, your career and all aspects of your life.

    Why should you become lazy and less passionate for a career you love? What’s wrong with striving to gift readers with something even better than before? Would you give someone a crappy gift because you gave them a really nice one last year?

    I feel you are right on – those that retain a sense of anxiety to improve are more successful. I’ve seen examples of the reverse, those that have published one, two or more novels then suddenly can’t figure out what happened. As their reader, I can tell them exactly what happened.

    No jeopardy. The last published book was fraught with all types of drama and conflict but the characters themselves really weren’t in any jeopardy, even though death and defeat hung over them.

    If you lose that sense of anxiety as a writer, your characters may lose it. So retain that hungry new author focus and count that as a blessing too.

  4. childofthewilderness
    childofthewilderness says:

    i think there’s a difference between healthy pressure and undue tension. obsessive worrying and excessive insecurity can actually put you in a bad state, i guess. but i’m a pessimistic optimist too, and though this doesn’t work for everyone i think pessimism keeps me on the ball and working hard to avoid what i see may come. it’s not so much success by ommsion of failures and can be just as much goal-driven, just that i think there is a positive point about pessimism – you’re always either pleasantly surprised or proven right. having said that, i don’t think it’s the anxiety that brings success, it’s the conscientiousness that comes with the awareness of impending failure that really stirs you up. so either way, anxiety or not, it’s the attitude that matters, yet at the same time, whatever you do to ensure success you really have to know where you are headed, that’s more important that any other forced attempts because it’s spontaneous. either way don’t worry about how to worry because it’s normal to worry (in varying degrees), just that you’re insightful enough to notice it.

  5. sabrinawstan
    sabrinawstan says:

    hi tess: yes, totally understand what you’re saying. in general, a lot of asians are pretty paranoid when it comes to security, ESPECIALLY financial security.

    no matter which part of the world you’re in, which country you were born in, there’s ALWAYS something in there that you just don’t quite feel so secure.

    you’ll always be the person that goes with moderation.

    if only we have more patients like you in the dental chair, i tell you this work will be a heck lot more easier!! ;p

  6. bob k
    bob k says:

    I have no doubt that the anxiety is part of what makes you consistently write fantastic books. This post made me really think though – it sure is easy to expect others to react to things differently than we do ourselves.

    Personally, I have never felt secure and have always worried about losing everything I have worked for…but when I read that you feel those same things, I tend to think “Yeah – but Tess is really successful. That could never happen like it could to me.”

    I wonder if that is part of the whole security/obsession thing. If I just was more successful – like Tess, like Oprah, like Bill Gates – then I wouldn;t have to worry.

  7. spyscribbler
    spyscribbler says:

    I relate! I swear, I didn’t read your post before I blogged today, but I was just talking about one of my piano students. He’s amazing, but he thinks he’s bad (and is fast losing enthusiasm because of it). I can’t seem to give him any realistic perspective.

    I relate to you and him, totally. But I don’t know how to fix so that he at least enjoys playing piano a little bit, you know? How do enjoyment and insecurity coexist?

  8. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Ive had to have a think about this as I thought it was quite a pertinent chain of thought. I think that the drive to do the best we can at things is something that either lead to success or madness. Its something that means we persue what we do to the end without looking at other goals. As such we might end up with tunnel vision and not take the time to look at anything else.

    The other interesting point that arises out of this dilema is that the harshest critic is always the creator of the piece, and that is as it should be, after all if we were completely happy why would we continue to strive and push ourselves to the max. However this drive (or rather as it appears to me, without any doctoring) also seems to shorten the lives of those who push themselves so hard. So you need to learn to take time out for yourself and family and relax. I know this is where the Donkeys come in for you.

    Anyway Ive rambled on enough now, so leave it open to others.

  9. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    During the Maui Writers Retreat, John Lescroart made a really great speech… He says that, during the writing process, there are two different modes an author goes into. When she’s writing the first draft, the author is in “Genius Mode,” where everything she writes is flecked with gold and diamonds. Then, when it comes time for editing and revision, she enters “Idiot Mode,” where the author realizes that what she had first taken for gold and diamonds is actually pyrite and kitty litter. It’s the worst thing she’s ever seen, let alone written herself.

    I think there is a vast difference between cockiness and confidence. I think that people SHOULD have confidence in their own work and ability, but confidence does not beget anxiety. We all know how fickle this market is, and it’s not a good idea to become complacent. Plus, I would much rather read a book that an author has thrown themselves fully into, than one that they just threw out the door because they could.

    I know I go into Genius Mode whenever I write something. But, as I look over it, revise it, and give it to someone to read for the first time, I’m always thinking it’s the worst thing I have ever written. There’s no plot, the characters are all one-dimensional, etc. I think you’re right, though… that thought does make me work just as hard (or harder) on the next piece.

  10. ultraswan
    ultraswan says:

    Great topic, Tess.

    In college I took a demonstrations class where every week we had to get up in front of everyone and demonstrate how to do something for a minimum of 10 minutes. At the time to an introvert like myself it felt overwhelming.

    Even after a semester of completing the assignments well, I complained to my instructor, “I’ve done this a dozen times and I’m still as nervous on the last one as I was on the first.”

    She said, “That’s good. That means you’ll come in prepared and you’ll do a good job. Being nervous will make you work harder and perform better.”

    I’ve found this true in about every aspect of life (for me anyway), and it directly relates (IMHO) to a writer’s sense of contintued anxiety over their career and the way that anxiety pushes them to try harder, do better, continually progress in their craft.

  11. ec
    ec says:

    In one of his ballads, the late Harry Chapin observed, “Music is my dearest friend, my fiercest foe. It can take me so high, and it can bring me so low.” When I first heard this song, I was working on an undergraduate degree in music. It made perfect sense to me at the time. Now I’m a working writer, but it still rings true. Any time you’re doing something that requires you to dig deep emotionally, you are likely to experience highs and lows.

    Finding a balance is difficult. Writers HAVE to have a certain level of confidence. The belief that other people might actually want to read what you write is Irrefutable Evidence of Chutzpah. On the other hand, I I think you need a certain level of anxiety. Too much is crippling, but a certain amount keeps you going. (Besides, an anxiety attack can be a great way to fit a brief aerobic workout into your day, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)

  12. tiggy58
    tiggy58 says:

    Tess, I just finished The Bone Garden and this is the best book I have ever read. LOVED IT!! I’ve also read Body Double, The Sinner and Vanish…they were excellent, but The Bone Garden was incredible…so entertaining, just couldn’t put it down. I can’t believe how much I learned about medicine in the 1800’s. Tess, you don’t need to worry, not when you are putting out awesome books like The Bone Garden!

  13. Tatiana
    Tatiana says:

    Heh. It’s nice to know I have the write temperament for this kind of thing. Even if that temperament drives other people crazy. 😀

  14. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    why all the concern over feeling insecure?at any moment any of us could lose our lives,health,someone we love,a job,or something we’ve struggled hard to achieve-it’s only when the recognition of the vagaries of life become an obsession that maybe we ought to be concerned-there are two very disquieting poems written years apart that address the underlying insecurity of our lives-“Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold and “The Second Coming” by Yeats-both are fairly short and seem to me to be very apropos these days-someone who never is beset by uncertainties or fears must be a nitwit or mentally unbalanced-fear can act as an antibody,helping one to perform effectively under stress in the physical sense or insecurity can help spur harder effort in the non-physical parts of our lives-when these factors cause paralysis is when we have a problem-remember that paranoids can also be the victims of plots 🙂 -tess,you mentioned the insecurity of asians-well,i was raised jewish and it seems like a lot of jews get overwrought over supposed threats,which is encouraged by ethnic pimps like abe foxman who goes into hysterics over children singing christmas carols in school-i have encountered some anti semitism in my life -i generally dealt with it head on but i never let it make me fearful-there are always going to be some people who’d like to incinerate me- my only response to them is that if they invade my space they will have a really bad day-on the other hand publicly whining about such things is a victory for those imbeciles-you play the cards you’re dealt or else you become a quivering little mass of angst

  15. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    I was with you all the way until you mentioned falling asleep in dentist chairs. I have deep rooted dental phobias in addition to my other neurotic traits.

  16. Terry Snipes
    Terry Snipes says:

    Tess,

    Your anxiety is totally understandable, mainly because you are in an industry where the most loyal fans can become outrageously fickle. This industry is ENTERTAINMENT!

    I remember the late rapper, Notorious B.I.G. saying, “You have to treat every album like it’s the first one. You gotta’ stay hungry in order to stay in the game.” I think the same is true for the publishing world. For any-damn-thing you do, for that matter.

    A great percentage of successful people, whether it be in the music or movie industry, or on Wall Street, have to continuously house that hunger in order to stay at the top!

    Director, M. Night Shyamalan said he wanted so badly to end his contact with Harvey Weinstein that his hunger to succeed tripled. He wanted to make it without giving Harvey everything he put his blood and sweat into (ewl!). This caused M. Night to work his ass off on the blockbuster (and sometimes considered hack produced material [you’ve spoken about this on your blog]) The Sixth Sense and made him an extremely successful household name.

    Hunger.

    That’s what it takes to be great and stay great. That fear of not meeting everyone’s expectations.

    An individual who’s been singing all her life and is turning 26 years old starts to panic when record labels say her sound is great, but her image doesn’t fit, plus she’s getting too old. She aint got time to sit around and cry shoulda, woulda, couldas. She’s got to develop a hunger like none other and MAKE IT! That same hunger must follow her throughout her career if she plans on making herself better and putting a dent in the industry.
    So with that said, I have three words to fellow writers on this here blog:

    Be hungry.

    Starve.

    Trew Life

  17. RH Texas Gal
    RH Texas Gal says:

    You can never take for granted anything you do as that not only breeds complacency but eventual contempt. That is why I am glad that Tess strayed a bit from the Rizzoli-Isles series and did something different. Now when she revisits the series, it will be with fresher eyes and audience. It builds anticipation, at least for me. This is one person who she will always have a built in audience with!

  18. Paula Villegas
    Paula Villegas says:

    I think anxiety means you care, and I wonder if it even contributes to your producing such wonderful authentic work. I give you a lot of credit as you continue to tour and put yourself out there for the public after losing your father so recently. I have yet to lose a parent, but the loss of a life long support I would imagine is very challenging to deal with, especially in a career that can be so demanding. I admire your writing because it is so open and you are obviously not afraid of taking risks. Your example makes it a bit easier for aspiring writers to join you in being willing to subject themselves to what must be a daily heady cocktail of criticism and praise. The Bone Garden is excellent. I enjoy all your work, mainly because of the marvelous unusual but true insights into human nature that are evident in all your work (and this blog).

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