Status Anxiety and the Semi-Successful Writer

My first pro sale was just about four years, to Nature. Then I didn’t sell anything else for the better part of two years, until I sold a story to Redstone in March of 2010. Since then I’ve been selling stories at a gradually accelerating pace. And that’s been pretty nice, actually. But it’s also led to at least three bouts of fairly severe status anxiety.*

The first was in November of last year, when I looked back on the year and thought, “Yes, I’ve sold a number of stories…but still nothing to match that sale to Clarkesworld way back in June of 2010”. That bout of status anxiety was assuaged by sales to Clarkesworld (on December 20th) and Apex (on January 1st).

The second was earlier in 2012 (late Jan to mid-March), when I felt sure that I wasn’t going to get into any writing programs and when I kept wondering why I hadn’t sold any stories lately. My status anxiety was assuaged by good news from grad schools and by sales (within the space of ten days) to Redstone, IGMS, and Diverse Energies. At its apex, that bout produced this blog post about worst-case scenarios.

And the third outbreak of anxiety was in May-July. It began  when I started a long-planned novel and just as quickly abandoned it. It continued as I wrote another novel. And it reached its apex as I struggled to write some stories that might be suitable for submission to my MFA workshop. Oh, and then there was a lot of stress about moving that was ladled on top of all that. Fortunately, no triumphant success arrive to break me out of this well of status anxiety. It just kept deepening and deepening. I worried about whether I’d ever be able to produce something a work that was really great. And I kept waiting for a glittering success to alight upon my shoulders and drive away my fears. But it did not come.

I’m sure it will come eventually. In Fall of 2011, I wrote a string of six stories that I thought were quite good. I was sure that they represented a breakthrough for me and that they were better than anything I’d ever written before. Recently, I had an acceptance and when I went to input it into my spreadsheet, I realized that I’d sold off the last four of that string.*

It made me realize that the stories I’m writing now (which I think are more subtle and interesting than anything I’ve written before), will probably also sell. But when that happens, it also won’t be particularly satisfying.

Oh, it will be nice. And it will make me happy for a week or two. But it won’t change the world. The day after you sell a story is almost exactly the same as the day before you sell a story. Nor does the story’s publication matter much. When a story appears, it will usually receive a few reviews. And those reviews will be nice to read. But they’re just words. The weft of my life is largely unaffected by story sales.

Of course, my life is subtly different now that I’m a person who has sold stories. I have higher status now. My parents have accepted my writerly ambitions. I can present myself to my friends as a writer without feeling silly. I can hold my head up in gatherings of SF writers. But that only affects maybe an hour out of every week. Mostly, my higher status all just hangs in the background.

There doesn’t seem to be much of an inverse to status anxiety. There’s no “status joy”. Or, if there is, it is a very momentary and specific feeling. The only joy that you can get from high status is freedom from status anxiety. But even that freedom is only very temporary (as illustrated by the diminishing amount of time between my bouts of status anxiety).

I mean, when you think about it, none of us in the writing world should feel status anxiety, because our pyramid is so incredibly broad. There are literally millions of people out there who want to be writers but haven’t done the first thing about it. They’re clueless. They scribble aimlessly. They’re terrible and they’re probably never going to get better. They’ll abandon their dreams just like people abandon their childhood dream of becoming a rockstar or an astronaut. ALL of us have higher status than them.

But it doesn’t matter. Because we always look above us on the pyramid and never below. I’ll always compare myself to people who are doing better and never to people who are doing worse. As such, no amount of success can ever free me from status anxiety. I mean, Neil Gaiman is a fantastically successful SF writer…but he’s never going to have Stephen King’s sales. And Stephen King is never going to have Michael Chabon’s accolades (and it’s clear that King desperately wants them).

I mean, this is pretty basic stuff. All your life, you get told that money (and, by extension, worldly status) can’t make you happy. But your own heart tells you otherwise. If high status can’t make us happy, then why do we experience this stab of hatred whenever one of our peers acquires higher status than us?***

I dunno, the brain is a quirky thing: it doesn’t always care about our best interests.

But you only need to chase status for so long before you realize that it’s not going to get you anywhere, and I think I’m starting to reach that point. Reordering my thought processes hasn’t been particularly easy, but I think it’s starting to bear fruit. Nowadays, I spend less time thinking about which of my stories might possibly sell at which market. And I don’t worry about rejections as much.**** As far as I can tell, the solution to status anxiety is to just try not to think about it.

I don’t know what the future will bring. I’m not sure how high my status will go before it starts to sink. I do have a sense that I’m eventually going to achieve more, as a writer, than I currently have. But nothing I’m likely to achieve, at least in the next few years, is likely to shake the contours of my life. There are no lottery tickets for me. No matter what, my next thousand days will involve waking up in relative obscurity and doing a little reading and a little writing (and, now, a little teaching). And I think I’m well capable of being satisfied with that.

*Status anxiety is that feeling you get when you worry that other people who basically started from the same place as you are now doing much better than you are, and, hence, that more deserving of respect than you are. When this feeling centers on a specific person, it’s called “envy.”

**”An Early Adoption” and “Tomorrow’s Dictator” have already appeared. “Man-Eater” will (hopefully) appear in an issue of Nameless Magazine. The fourth story has been sold to a market that’s asked me to remain silent on the subject for now. Oh, and the first (and best) story in the string of six, “A House, Drifting Sideways,” was one of my MFA application stories.

***This stab of hatred is amusingly illustrated by this venomous article in Salon.

****It’s crazy, for years I didn’t care about rejections at all (I have 857 of them, after all), but once I started selling, they actually started to sting a little bit…

4 thoughts on “Status Anxiety and the Semi-Successful Writer

  1. You're brother (the bad one, not Bob)

    While anxiety seems like a detrimental emotion to your writing, the complete lack of anxiety is equally disruptive to you’re progress in your chosen field. I don’t think you should be concerned with how famous you are; however, you should certainly aspire to be better at all points in your career. It’s like you told me at one point: “if someone is praised early in their career, they usually become complacent and fall to the wayside of those who have that everlasting fire in their hearts to prove themselves.” I don’t know why I put that in quotes. I guess I was just quoting my own admittedly lacking memory of what you told me when we were in Spain (I think it was Spain; again I don’t remember)

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, I am full of fraternal wisdom.

      I do think that anxiety can be a motivating factor, but I wonder whether it needs to be the only motivating factor? Maybe someone can desire excellence, but not feel all this anxiety about failure? It’s possible that those are just two sides of one coin, though…I don’t really know.

  2. Ben Godby

    Cool post, Rahul. I totally think about this all the time.

    (I was going to extrapolate, but then I realized that discussing my status-anxiety might make me appear status-desperate relative to your status-anxiety, which is a status-anxiety of a higher status, as it were.)

    I am curious, though: do you ever get… novel anxiety? I think it plagues me worse even than the desire to sell to serious pro markets. I don’t even know if I’m cut from the cloth to write good novels, but I always feel like I won’t ever be a “real writer” unless I do.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Feel free to extrapolate. My status is only a lil’ bit higher than yours =) That gap has closed mightily since you first started following my blog!

      I don’t know about novel anxiety. I do feel envious of people who have novels coming out, but not _as_ envious as I do of people who have short stories coming out in markets that I want to be in. I do write novels (as do you, right?). I don’t think that publishing a novel is much harder than publishing a short story in a pro market…it just takes longer and you get fewer tries.

      I think that I feel more status anxiety about things that I feel like I should have by now? I guess I feel status anxiety whenever I hear about someone who’s younger than me who has a novel out, but that’s comparatively rare, so I don’t feel it that often. I imagine that novel-related status anxiety will increase over time.

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