Amanda Luedeke

February 25, 2016

Thursdays with Amanda: Writers Put Way Too Much Pressure on Themselves


amanda-squareI think we can all agree that writing is an art form. It’s an expression of oneself, after all. And it requires a huge dose of raw talent—talent that must be refined and polished and crafted over years of study and dedication.

It’s no different than dance or ceramics or music or any of the other arts. And sure, sometimes it comes in the form of a nonfiction how-to manuscript. Sometimes it comes in the form of a news article. Sometimes it comes in the form of a really splendidly written Tweet. But it’s still art even if it’s not hanging in a gallery or moving people to tears.

And yet have you ever noticed how, unlike other artists, most writers put pressure on their art?

They expect it to be profitable.

They expect it to advance them.

They expect it to become that side business that eventually becomes a full time business.

And if they don’t see any of these things happen, they wonder why they’re writing at all.

Why do we do this? Why do many writers (especially newer ones) look at their art like they would investments or a retirement plan? Why do we expect so much out of it?

You don’t see this with most dancers. Most dancers are happy to dance and for them that happiness is enough. They don’t have this need to justify their art by pointing toward how much money it’s made them or how often they’ve been part of a professional production. They just like to dance. And dancing is enough.

You also don’t see this mentality with many potters, either. Sure, they might have Etsy shops and they set up tables at farmer’s markets, but they don’t look at their yearly earnings and question whether or not thy should be doing what they’re doing. They just do it because they love it.

So why are writers different? Why do we need to have the bylines and the royalty statements and the publishing contracts to justify our art? Isn’t the fact that we love doing it enough?

I want to hear your thoughts on this topic … and I know you might be thinking “mortgages don’t pay themselves!” but we’re not talking about whether or not you should turn your writing into a business. Every artist needs to be smart about how they share their art with the world.

Instead, we’re talking about how writers put pressure on themselves to be profitable, successful, published. It’s something that I’ve rarely seen in other art forms, so I’m curious to know your thoughts.

Is there too much pressure on authors to be successful? If so, what can be done about it? And yes, I’ve blogged about this before but I think it’s worth discussing again.

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  • Julie Jarnagin says:

    Have you read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert? She writes about this same point. Parts of the book were a little out there for me, but there was so much of it that had me nodding my head in agreement. I loved this part:
    But to yell at your creativity, saying, “You must earn money for me!” is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about and all you’re doing is scaring it away…
    Ha! I’ve wasted too much time yelling at my creativity.

  • Andrew Winch says:

    Because I’m pretty sure you wrote this post specifically for me, I’ll respond 🙂
    I think such accomplishments are always rooted in doubt. Potters don’t expect to hit it big because they don’t have a J.K. Rowling to live up to. So when a writer doesn’t continually see success, it’s in greater contrast to those uber successful writers, thus adding to the doubt of, “Is all this a waste of time.” If no one buys a pot, at least the potter can put flowers in it. If no one reads a story, it’s feels like maybe the story never existed in the first place.

  • Sheila Deeth says:

    I suspect in most arts we get a faster response from observers – viewers can say how beautiful a painting is, and you can see on their faces that they mean it even if it’s priced way too high for them to buy it. But a book needs to be a read – a much slower process – before any feedback can be meaningful. To be read, it needs to be sold. So we price it low and hope, then judge ourselves, in the absence of any other feedback, on whether anyone’s buying it.

  • I just really like this perspective! Thanks, Amanda!

  • simonepdx says:

    Perhaps it is because, unlike dance or theater or music, the only way to know that you have an audience for your writing is through sales figures. I disagree with the sentiment that dancers or writers or artists create art only for themselves. Art is a communication. Communication requires an audience.

    As far as business success goes, the pressure there for me is purely personal. I would like my novels to someday sell well, because I would like to be able to devote more time to creating them, and also have more time towards meeting other writers and developing my craft. That said, I won’t stop because of any lack of business success. If I thought I would never have an audience to communicate with, though, writing wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding for me.

  • PeterLeavell says:

    When I started writing, I wanted the prestige. People looked up to writers! Prestige might get a publisher to look at your manuscript. Prestige might convince a buyer. I’ve discovered, after some success, prestige can be found on the ground in a cow pasture. It’s all relative. I’ve learned to write because writing is where I make sense of what I observe and feel.

  • Diana Sharples says:

    I might have a different perspective, since I hold a degree in art and my daughter is a dancer. First, to suggest that dancers and artists don’t feel the need to be successful–or should I say, to have their work appreciated by an audience of some sort–isn’t exactly true. My daughter endures so many hours of training, blisters on her feet, backaches and muscle strains, all for those moments when she’s on stage and everything comes together. My experience as an artist, I felt it was disingenuous to haphazardly slap paint on a canvas and call it done. I worked hard to learn my craft, the techniques and the materials, so I could convey ideas or evoke emotions in people who viewed my work. For me as a writer … I might be happy, I suppose, just sitting in my office and typing my little fantasies for myself, but I’m much happier when someone reads what I’ve written and is moved by it. And as such, I strive for whatever perfection I can achieve in my stories. However, if we’re talking about the pressure writers feel to be PUBLISHED … that comes from external sources, from critique partners and mentors and agents and editors and sales figures and best-seller lists. It comes when someone says an indie author must not be good enough to be traditionally published. It comes when a traditional publisher sends out a quarterly statement that shows the book hasn’t sold well enough to earn a royalty or warrant another contract. Writers have an audience. We are rewarded for our work when someone reads it. And in this commercial environment, like it or not, it is a reflection of our qualifications to write if our work isn’t seen. I would argue, from my experience with art (I spent many years trying to make it as a science fiction/fantasy illustrator), that the same situation exists. Being told I wasn’t good enough, seeing awards given to other people, having to compete with those artists who seemed to be able to do no wrong … the pressure to succeed was definitely there and it caused me great stress. However, it also pushed me to become a better artist.

    • Tanya Dennis says:

      Diana: You’ve expressed many of my own thoughts here. There is a distinction between internal drive and stressful, demoralizing pressure.

      I agree that much of the pressure comes from external sources. When I started as a writer, I didn’t feel pressured at all. It was a release and I love the art of stringing words, the delicate composition of communication. But then I attended a writers conference and was instantly bombarded with pressure from the industry to brand myself and build a platform and prove my worth. Then friends and family confronted me with “Well, what do you have to show for it?” and “If [big name publishers] won’t sign you, you’re clearly not very good.”

      Sadly, I’ve lost much of my joy of writing simply trying to break into the industry. The pursuit argued I was wasting my time, feeding a talent I only pretended to possess.

      I have no illusions of making this my full-time job, but I would like to share what I write. Dancers don’t just dance for themselves. Artists rarely keep all their paintings hidden in a basement. Writers want to share, too. We want to interact with those who encounter our work.

  • Having been involved with both pottery and writing I would make this observation. When I throw a pot I am creating and my soul enjoys that process greatly. Feeling the clay spin through my fingers and watching it rise and take shape is incredibly satisfying. It doesn’t take very long and the cost is very low, just a bit of clay, and if I like it, some glaze and power to fire it. If I want, I can squash it and start again. Even after firing if I am not satisfied it can be smashed in the trash and its easy to walk away as its easy to make another one.
    When I write there is a different investment of my being into the process. My writing involves the pouring of my soul and my personality onto a page in ways that my pottery never requires. My novels took a decade to complete and a great deal of time and money to create, edit and print. My personal investment is much higher, there is so much more of me in those books.
    Strangely enough, what I want from both is the same. When someone picks up a piece of pottery and says, “I love this piece, its beautiful” then the creative image of God within me celebrates even if they do not actually buy it. With a book however, the person has to get inside what I have created, walk with me through the story and emerge out the other side. Only if they buy the book can I find out if the journey has touched them. My soul does not rejoice when I sell a book (my wife does) but when a young person comes up to me, as happened last week at an event and says, “I know this book, I read it as a kid and I loved it. But my brother took my copy when he moved out. I need to buy another one,” then I am so pleased that I give him free one as we talk about the story and share together in a world that I created over 10 years ago.
    Would I like that book to sell more copies? Definitely, but only because I truly believe that his experience would be true for many others and that fuels my passion.

  • Daniel Schwabauer says:

    Great post, Amanda! I agree with Kathy that writing is essentially a lonely craft. Our interaction with our audience is always unseen and unfelt. Every page is an act of faith cast into the unknown. This may be why we as writers tend to seek (and genuinely need) validation. Many writers experience a fair bit of condescension from loved ones who
    don’t understand our passion or the fact that writing, like any art,
    takes practice. They may refer to it as a hobby or a pipe dream or even a distraction. Sometimes it seems the only metric by which we can justify our solitary efforts is the one friends and family readily understand — money. I don’t think this is a healthy way of viewing our art, but it is understandable.

  • Kathy Nickerson says:

    You are so right about this. We demand so much of our art, and it is often quite unrealistic. Do you suppose it is because the writing doesn’t feel successful unless it has been read? A dancer might be fulfilled twirling alone in the studio. A potter could be satisfied placing a vase on her shelf. But we write to be read. And we judge our work entirely by the number of readers, never by the beauty of the phrase or the satisfaction of having finished. I have to work at correcting my perspective on this all the time.

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