By Angela Meyer
The morning after the Stella Prize was awarded, writer and reviewer Angela Meyer blogged about her own feelings of writerly inadequacy and being at events where fellow writers wear their ‘envy on their sleeves’.
We asked her to explore the nervy underbelly of the writing life for Dailies - and she has, speaking to various writers, including Krissy Kneen and Max Barry, along the way.
A writer’s life is fraught with fear, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. These feelings cluster around desires and ambitions, arise at the desk itself, hover about at festivals and events, attach themselves to advances, grants and prizes, lurk in one’s inbox and on social media, and pop up in one’s daily life. Even Sylvia Plath wondered about whether both her and Ted Hughes’ writing was ‘good enough’: ‘We get rejections. Isn’t this the world’s telling us we shouldn’t bother to be writers?’
Today, writerly anxieties may be amplified by exposure to others’ successes on social media, and by the difficulties of making a living (ie. smaller advances) in contrast to the wild success of a handful of local authors.
And then there are those like myself who have been writing for many years, whose umbrella profession is in fact ‘a writer’, but who haven’t yet released a book, and are aware of our perceived place on a lower rung of the professional ladder. Krissy Kneen, acclaimed author of Affection, Triptych and Steeplechase, said that prior to publishing her first book, Affection, much of her anxiety was about not feeling as good or as capable as the writers around her.
‘I had had ten years of trying to get something published and I had made a deal with myself that if I got to 40 and nothing was happening for me I would quit. I remember one night talking to another writer who had just won a major award and he said that good work always gets noticed and published and if I had spent ten years trying and still no dice then it was most likely because I was a bad writer and I should start to admit that to myself. I hated him more than anything when he said that to me. I went over to the bookshop where I work and put his books straight in the returns section. I was so upset by this because it was what I thought about myself in private. I felt like a failure.’
Max Barry unknowingly played on my own feelings of inadequacy in the area of publishing a book when he noted that he didn’t call himself a ‘writer’ until he had a novel accepted for publication. ‘Until then, I took writing very seriously, but it didn’t seem right for me to take that label just because I wanted it; it seemed like a label other people gave you.’ Unlike the other writers I spoke to, Max doesn’t seem to suffer much anxiety over being a writer at all (it doesn’t necessarily come with the territory, then!). Any doubts, for Max, are handled within the confines of the desk itself.
‘I write because I want to create a good story. I don’t care much what other people think … people who dislike what I do, or don’t respect it, I don’t worry about at all. There’s not much anyone can do about that.’
Many writers are more sensitive to the opinions of others. Prolific dark fantasy, sci-fi and horror author Alan Baxter (who has run a series on his blog called ‘The Ongoing Angst of Successful Writers’) says he is constantly filled with doubt about his own abilities.
‘While I’m actually in the process of writing, I’m usually transported and enjoying the process. But when I’m trying to polish and edit something into shape, or submit it to a publisher, I’m wracked with concerns of inadequacy, that it’s not good enough, that I’m making a fool of myself.’
Even now, Kneen sometimes feels fraudulent, a feeling shared by many of the writers and postgrad students I’ve spoken to. ‘I feel like I have somehow tricked people into thinking my books are good and that one day they will realise and it will be like The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ she says. ‘I will be naked with everyone shaking their heads at how ugly my work is.’
Nightmares and anxiety
For a long time I’ve suffered from nightmares and anxiety, to the point of being (at times) medicated, often before and during writers’ festivals. Much of it comes from nerves about doing the best job possible, and a fear of something going wrong. But deep down I also suffer some inadequacy about my own grasp on the label ‘writer’. I have friends who are clear about their ambitions as critical literary figures, and those who are ‘straight’ fiction writers, whereas I exist in some blurry space in between. Baxter has no issues with inadequacies surfacing at festivals and events, but when something is due for publication he experiences ‘a constant, low-level panic’.
Mel Campbell, an experienced pop culture journalist who has just published her first book Out of Shape, says that her feelings of inadequacy manifest ‘as despondency and anger at myself for being slack and lazy, impotent rage that my work doesn’t attract more attention … resentment and humiliation at having to constantly self-promote … and insane envy that people younger than me are being lauded and kicking goals such as editorships and big book deals and being invited to prestigious industry events.’
Kneen experiences terrible panic attacks nightly around 6pm. ‘Sometimes they are so bad that I feel like I have to leave the house, get on my bike or walk off into the night. It is debilitating.’ She also has horrific nightmares, which have been a constant companion but get worse when she is anxious about her work.
The lesser devils
Plath thought that the worst thing of all ‘would be to live with not writing’. So how then, she asked do we live ‘with the lesser devils and keep them lesser?’
As we’ve seen, anxieties around writing or the condition of being a writer can range from small, recurring challenges, to issues which have a serious impact on mental health. Writing, as a process, can also be connected in complex ways to one’s fears and inadequacies. Inadequacy may itself become a theme or character trait in a story. (In Kneen’s Steeplechase, for example, her character Bec suffers feelings of inadequacy.) In this sense, inadequacy can be a powerful driver of art.
You could even say that for many writers, the desire and drive to write and publish emerges from the same container as their fears and anxieties (though there could be equal parts curiosity, anger, passion and other drivers), causing a fear-ambition cycle. ‘When I write I am the least anxious,’ says Kneen. ‘If I haven’t written for a week or so I get very anxious indeed so I do know that writing helps. It is like I can outrun it all.’ Baxter is also on this particular roundabout. ‘I just keep producing, keep trying to write more, write better fiction, get better publications and more readers. Always pushing for success and occasionally seeing small achievements in that effort is what keeps me from giving in to the doubt.’
This cycle of fear and ambition, however, can also be crippling, as so eloquently put by Plath:
‘My wanting to write books annihilates the original root impulse that would have me bravely and blunderingly working on them. When Johnny Panic sits on my heart I can’t be witty, or original, or creative.’
The presence of a strong and understanding community can be vital, and inspiring, even if paradoxically hazardous (in the sense of being surrounded by people to whom we compare ourselves). Baxter feels lucky to be surrounded by supportive people. Kneen says it’s lucky she has surrounded herself with writers ‘so I never feel like a freak for doing what I do’.
Franz Kafka felt inadequate in every area of his life but literature. He struggled against the fact that daily life required his presence, that he could not devote his life to words: ‘I lead a horrible synthetic life … How this possible life flashes before my eyes in colours of steel, with spanning rods of steel and airy darkness between!’
Many writers may relate to this, that the worst situation of all, as echoed by Plath, is not writing. That no matter what happens externally (publication, prizes, reviews, others’ successes) we can only return to the thought that we can’t not write, and this will always be both magical and torturous, and at times the only ‘truth’ in our lives.
Angela Meyer is a Melbourne-based writer and reviewer, who has published in the Australian, the Big Issue, The Lifted Brow and many other publications. She has a chapbook of flash fiction coming out with Inkerman & Blunt in early 2014, and is currently editing an anthology for Spineless Wonders.