Kakorrhaphiophobia. It’s a great word, isn’t it? No, it’s not the title of a song by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. It’s a condition that we all suffer to some degree. If you write, you probably live with it every day.
Kakorrhaphiophobia is fear of failure, albeit it to an extreme degree.
But what does failure mean for a writer? Is it not getting published? Not making the bestsellers’ lists? Not being as famous as JK Rowling?
None of the above. In fact, failing as a writer has little or nothing to do with fame or money or publishing. Thank goodness. Failing as a writer — drumroll, please — means not writing. Or not writing to your full potential.
The true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence. — Cyril Connolly
That’s a bit of a yikes quote, isn’t it? If we took this as our standard of success, the question isn’t how do we succeed, but how can we do anything but fail.
While I think Connolly’s mantra is aspirational, it is also terrifying. Producing a masterpiece may your ultimate ambition, but you won’t get there overnight. Furthermore, if you think you must constantly produce masterpieces you probably won’t produce anything at all. So, for now, stop worrying about being the next Dickens / Tolstoy / Fitzgerald and focus on being the best you. Remember you? You’re pretty great, you know. Like Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, you have a voice. Say it. Say it loud.
I HAVE A VOICE!
Yes, you do.
The true failure is to have a voice and keep silent.
Unfortunately, we writers have a positive genius for sabotaging ourselves. We put obstacles in our own way and then blame the Universe for our lack of success. Shame on us. The Universe doesn’t work like that. She gives us back exactly as much as we give her. She’s like mum, but not such a soft touch.
With a little self-awareness, we can identify those Self-Created Obstacles (SCOs) that we put in our way and we can avoid them. Again, and I cannot stress it enough, we are talking about writing, not publishing. Of the two, it is writing that matters. Writing is the thing you can control, at least to some degree. Publication, on the other hand, contains too many variables. We’ll get to publishing success / failure at a later date, but for now, let’s look at how you might be sabotaging your writing.
SCO #1: You never finish anything. You just start over when you get stuck
There are a number of possible reasons for this: You get bored; you let the project go ‘cold’ by waiting too long to pick it up again; you don’t know how to resolve a technical problem once you meet it.
You can succeed here by sticking with the project and seeing it through to the end. Even if it’s not the greatest literature ever written, you’ll learn so much from just finishing it. Who knows, it may turn out to be a masterpiece after all.
SCO #2: You keep writing the same story over and over
Does this seem familiar? You finish your stories, dozens of them, but they’re all identical. They all involve the death of a child, the coldness of a parent, being a victim or misunderstood.
You may have some issue that requires professional help, but sometimes it’s just a failure of imagination. If all your stories end the same way, perhaps you don’t have enough life experience yet to imagine alternatives. Or perhaps you haven’t read widely enough to see how others resolved the problems that tie you in knots.
You can break out of the cycle by changing points of view. If all your stories are about a harsh parent, try writing something from that parent’s point of view. Write in a different genre. If you’re constantly rewriting Cinderella, then try to produce something literary, or science fiction. In other words, break out of the mould.
SCO #3: You refuse to rewrite. Your work is perfect, dude.
Unless you’re a genius, you can be pretty sure your work is going to need some work. In fact, according to Thomas Edison, the definition of a genius is someone who keeps trying and doesn’t give up. Remember that expression about genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration? Well, this is what he was talking about. In other words, get over yourself. No, no excuses. If you have blind spots and really cannot see the howlers in your work — I give you my word they’re there — have someone you trust, someone who is not your mother, critique it. Yes, it’ll hurt, but you’ll be the better for it.
SCO #4: You only write when you feel like it. You’re an artist.
Here’s a newsflash: A real artist works every day. A real artist doesn’t lie to himself about angels or muses or needing the spirit of his great-aunt Anastasia to come and inspire him. What you’re really saying is ‘I’m a lazy cow and can’t be arsed.’ The solution: Stop. Just stop. The world isn’t waiting for you to produce life-altering copy. We got along without you before now. But at least stop lying to yourself and us by saying you’re an artist. The jig is up.
SCO #5: Writing isn’t your priority
I’m flying in the face of common writerly wisdom here when I say that’s all right. If you have a sick child, a demanding job, or a marriage on the rocks, all these things must come first. There’s no shame in that. Yes, I have heard the stories of the great men who sat at their father’s deathbeds and wrote down every rale and moan. Or the chap who locked himself away for years, refusing to entertain or participate in society because his magnum opus was all that mattered.
I’m not asking you to be a slob or a rotten parent or an embarrassment to the human race. I’m just asking you this question:
What are you prioritising above writing?
Be honest. If it’s looking after your family, that’s one thing; but if it’s watching TV or gossiping with your neighbours, that’s something else entirely. If you’d rather watch Sherlock again — and who would blame you? — then be honest with yourself. If writing is a hobby, something you pick up when you’re bored, well, that’s OK. But don’t expect to write a prize-winning novel, get to the top of the best-sellers’ lists, or make a fortune. Stop kidding yourself.
SCO #6: You ignore your blind spots: bad grammar, weak characterisation, etc.
Would you trust a plumber who couldn’t tell the difference between a spanner and a wrench? A surgeon who couldn’t tell the difference between a clamp and a retractor? You expect other professionals to be au courant with the tools of their trade, why should you be any different? And no, you can’t expect the editor to fix it for you. Which leads me to…
SCO #7: Studying one’s craft is for other people
Studying the art and craft of writing is fundamental. I’m not saying you should sit down with a book of grammar or spelling (though these wouldn’t hurt; I own several of the beasts, myself), but read books like Stephen King’s On Writing, or any of the other excellent books on the subject. Read. Read your chosen genre inside and out. Read outside your chosen genre too. Make a list of books to read (This one on Goodreads is a great start: https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/100-books-to-read-before-you-die but you can certainly compile your own if you prefer.)
Learn how to read as a writer. Watch how Steinbeck creates characters. His men are magnificent. His women are not. Why? Read Cannery Row and figure it out. Read Daphne Du Maurier and learn how to build suspense. Start with her short stories, such as the ones that served as the foundation for the films, The Birds and Don’t Look Now. Read the classics of your own country and ask yourself what distinguishes them from the classics of other nations. Ulysses could only have been written, not only by an Irishman, but by a Dubliner; Bleak House is quintessentially English; The Great Gatsby is purely American. Why? Never mind what the experts say, what do you think?
I highly recommend Frances Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer as your starting point for, uh, learning how to read as a writer… Reading Like a Writer
SCO #8: You attribute all your failures to other people, bad luck, and other things beyond your control
You’ll probably have spotted how many of the items on this list can be attributed to immaturity. There are few to equal this one.
If you wait for the Muse you’ll wait a long time. Learn how to summon her. I covered that in a previous blog: https://rycardus.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/o-for-a-muse-of-fire/
As for luck, I firmly believe we make our own. That’s not to say people can’t have bad luck or come up against things against their control. But writing is a choice you make. All you need is paper and something to write with. No excuses. Go watch the movie Quills and see the desperate lengths a true writer will go to in order to write. If you want to do it badly enough, you won’t let anything stop you.
SCO #9: You’re trying too hard
This one is tough. You sit down every day and face the paper or they keyboard; you have a story deep inside you, but nothing seems to happen. The mistake is panicking, giving up too soon.
Sometimes the story is deep, deep underground and you must dig to find it. You have to clear the rubble out of the way first. Use writing prompts to warm up. Would a pianist play a concerto without first practicing scales? Allow your work to be bad, slow, stilted. More than anything else, you learn by doing. The more you write, the closer you’ll get to the wellspring underground and you will eventually tap into the tale you want to tell.
Writing isn’t for the weak or the lazy. Kakorrhaphiophobia is nothing to laugh at. The thing is, you can succeed if you want it badly enough. And by succeed I mean, of course, writing something that you can be proud of. Which reminds me, I need to get back to my novel…