Wednesday Write #47: The Emotional Life Of A Writer

Note to Brilliant readers: A little less than a year from now, my book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter will be published. Each Wednesday between now and then I’ll be posting on my blog about the writing and publishing process—a kind of behind-the-scenes look at the journey of a book from manuscript to publication. The posts are numbered starting with #52 because I’ll be counting down each week all the way to (gulp) 0, Pub Day. (The first five Wednesday Writes are collected here.) As the manuscript of Brilliant becomes a book, I’d like to take you along—and I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions as we go.—Annie

As writers, we’re used to thinking of our work in intellectual terms: the interest we take in our subject, the challenges of putting together a well-crafted story.  We probably think of our work in instrumental terms, too: How much can I get paid for this article? How will writing this book advance my career?

What we think about—or at least, talk about—less frequently is the effect of our work on our emotions. And yet, looking back over the nearly 20 years I’ve been writing professionally, I can see that some of my highest highs and lowest lows have been associated with work. I know from private conversations with other writers that this is true for them, too. Though we don’t often acknowledge it in public, writing can be as emotionally fraught as any love affair: full of nervous anticipation, soaring hopes, and glorious triumphs—and also stunning disappointment, painful rejections, and soul-crushing self-doubt.

If you’re going to write for a living, learning to manage these feelings is just as important as learning how to write a well-turned sentence or navigate the baffling business of freelancing. Here are a few things I’ve learned about surviving the emotional side of being a writer:

Savor your victories. I’m a superstitious person by nature, and in the writing business, expecting the worst is often justified: your “cover story” gets buried in the back of the magazine; your appearance on a late-night talk show gets bumped by breaking news (or worse, a celebrity with a movie to promote). But I’ve learned that enjoying the small triumphs along the way—the really good question asked of an interviewee, the glowing comment from a usually taciturn editor—makes the whole, hard process of writing and getting published more pleasant.

Don’t take it personally. In magazine and book publishing (the two worlds I’m most familiar with) there are usually multiple people involved in every decision, each with his or her own agenda. (Sometimes this is all too apparent, as when you get back a draft marked up with contradictory comments from multiple editors.) Having worked as a magazine editor, I know about all the behind-the-scenes machinations that can produce such confusing and confounding feedback to the writer, the only one not in on the intrigue. When you land in the middle of a skirmish among editors, don’t take it as a judgment on your talent: it’s not you, it’s them.

Adopt the long view. Especially when you’re starting out, every piece you write feels like a really, really big deal: the difference between languishing in obscurity and “breaking out” (whatever that may mean). The same with your first book (and, I’ll admit, your second and maybe your third . . . ). Once you’ve been at it for a while, though, you realize that it’s the accumulated weight of your work that matters—the way you conduct yourself in print, the reputation you build up over time among readers who appreciate what you do. In the moment, that article that got killed or the book idea that didn’t work out feels like the end of the world. Fear not: You will live to write—and to thrill, and to suffer—another day.

Wednesday Write #52: Coming Out Of My Writers’ Cave

Wednesday Write #51: In Defense Of Self-Help

Wednesday Write #50: Can You Be A Writer If You Don’t Live In New York City?

Wednesday Write #49: A Taxonomy Of Editors

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