Difficult as it can be intellectually, I think I find book writing even more challenging emotionally. It seems to bring to the fore all my fears and insecurities: about failure, about what other people think of me (or don’t think of me), about who the hell I even am (it happens when you spend day after day locked in a room, thinking about one thing), and yeah – mostly about failure.
The hardest thing for me, as I hinted on Twitter last week, has been batting down my ego. Fighting the urge to poke my head above the pulpit, to say, “hey, I exist,” to release my work before it is ready in the name of external validation.
None of that comes easily to me. I’m a freelance journalist by profession, and part of the reason I’ve been pretty successful at it is because I love the “ping” of dopamine I get whenever I sell a story, whenever I get good feedback from an editor, whenever I see my work in print. It’s not a pretty trait, but there you go. It’s a trait.
Book writing, by comparison, feels invisible. It is countless hours spent alone, perfecting ideas that are too complex to explain to strangers you meet at cocktail parties. It is enforced humbleness (or at least enforced daily stomping on that ego and desire for affirmation); being willing to continue toiling when you’re pretty sure anyone else would have shipped by now, because you and the gatekeepers you’ve installed around you want to make sure you get the damn thing right.
(It is only because of the gatekeepers that I’m not convinced I’m in the grip of some sort of excessive perfectionism. They tell me to trust my instincts, to not submit until I think I’ve ironed out every last visible flaw. Then they will go looking for the ones I didn’t find.)
Writing isn’t the only thing that is like this. I believe that most really good things – whether they be books, causes, companies, or relationships – require this kind of constant chipping away. Most moments of seemingly sudden success have months (usually years) of invisible work behind them. It was the same with my book contract last year. Years of research, months of revisions, and then BAM – seemingly overnight success.
But I won’t lie to you. It kind of sucks. Not just because of the ego (although yes, because of the ego), but because there’s not many people I can really talk to about it. I’d like to be able to talk about the ideas themselves, when I meet strangers at cocktail parties, or friends’ friends at dinners.
I’d also like to be able to talk about the sense of stagnation I feel. The sense that while all my high achieving friends around me are scaling peaks, winning accolades, I’m like a duck in the water: peddling furiously beneath the surface, but seemingly standing still.
Like I said: ego. Squash it like a fly.