Overcoming Atychiphobia Regarding Our Work... And Ourselves
By C. F. Barrows
Note from Emily: C.F.'s original title read "Failure-Phobia," not "Atychiphobia." I thought it'd be cool to use the actual word that means a failure phobia. So there you have it.
Anyone who has ever published a book and is honest about it will tell you this: it is a terrifying experience. We take great care to ensure that the characters are relatable and realistic, and that the plot flows well and makes sense. We polish our prose so as to make things clear and understandable for the reader. We pound our heads against our desks and struggle for half an eternity with our work, until we reach a point where there is little else to do but to take a couple of aspirin and declare the project "Finished."
But even after all this work and agony, we are afraid. Petrified, even.
Whether we like to admit it or not, each of us weaves a bit of his or her soul throughout the pages of each book, and as such, publication means baring our souls to you, the reader, and awaiting your judgment on whether or not we have succeeded. I know I am not alone in this, because I have heard the echoes of many an author's terror as they throw their "babies" out for others to read. Even best-selling authors, whose works are read and loved by millions, struggle with fear to at least some extent. And although this fear is, of course, terrible with the first novel (or poetry collection, screenplay, short story, etc.), it does not disappear quickly, if ever.
One might think that after the first book has been published -- and especially after the author has gained a loyal following and received many positive written and oral reviews of their work -- the second one would be no problem. We should be able to ride the wave of excitement from the first book through the next, right? We've proven ourselves already, so what can be left to worry about?
The simple answer? Everything, and then some.
Speaking from personal experience, I broke what some may consider to be one of the first rules of publication: I self-published the first novel I ever completed. This only added to my terror, as not only was I tossing my "baby" -- my novel -- out there for only goodness knows how many people to read and judge, but I was also "breaking the rules." Add to this perfectionism, insecurity and the fact that people tend not to expect much of teenaged authors, stir it all up, and you have a recipe for an instant ulcer. I was sure that my efforts would tank, and my reputation as an author would be irredeemably tarnished.
Miraculously, though -- or at least it seemed so to me -- nothing tanked. I didn't make the NYT Bestsellers List or even become a well-known author, but my readers on the whole enjoyed the book, even with its imperfections. Where I saw only a 360-page mess, unfit for human eyes, much less human enjoyment, my readers saw something worthwhile. They saw the good in my work, where I -- as a perfectionistic, paranoid author -- could only see every flaw I had failed to correct before publication.
To a certain extent, being a perfectionist aids my work. It helps me to get past the "my work is perfect" syndrome and cut to the nitty-gritty of fixing it to make it readable. It helps me to edit more easily and effectively, and dissolves any illusions I have of coming up with a perfect first draft or producing a best-seller within my first few years of serious writing.
But there is a flip-side to every coin. There is a difference between being realistic about one's work and constructing doomsday scenarios based on everything that has even a remote chance of happening. (For example, it is unlikely that if my readers don't like something I've written, they'll drag me out and burn me at the stake using my own books for kindling... unless I kill a favorite character. In that case, I might make tracks for Antarctica before they have a chance to gang up on me.)
I can talk all day about how you shouldn't put yourself down, how focusing on the negative only brings you and your work down. And all that is important to remember, too. You can be critical of your work without making yourself feel like a failure, and it's important to find that balance. Ultimately, the old saying is true: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
But what I've found is that my own insecurity regarding my work stems not from a lack of confidence in my own ability, but from a feeling of inadequacy regarding my efforts in general. I fear making a mess of things. I fear offending someone. I fear facing another person and hearing them tell me, "You are not good enough. You are a failure. You should just give up."
This fear, my friends, is not healthy.
My self-worth should not be found in how well or badly I am received by others. It should not depend upon the tone of that most recent review, or upon another person's judgment of whether I've worked hard enough, whether I am too vocal in my opinions or something about my appearance doesn't match with their concepts of perfection. Other people do not define me. And my work, as much as I love it, and as much I hope it will be well-received by others, does not define me, either.
I am an author. But I am also God's child. I am fearfully and wonderfully made, loved by the God who created me. I am worth something not because of my own efforts, but merely because He loves me. In fact, I am worth so much to Him that He was willing to send His only Son to die for me. He knows me better than I know myself, far better than anyone else will ever know me. He knows what I am, and what I am not. Every shortcoming, every failure I have ever made or ever will make is known intimately by Him, but still He loves me for who I am. And even if that first book tanks, or the second one fails to live up to my readers' expectations (or even if I take a sudden trip to Antarctica to escape an angry mob), He will never stop loving me.
In short, dear reader, go ahead and edit that manuscript. Submit it to critique partners. Take their feedback for what it is and thank them, then turn a discerning eye on the piece and implement changes as necessary. There is nothing wrong with improving yourself and your work. And indeed, we are told to do whatever we do heartily. But we should also remember to always do it for God, and not for men. Because ultimately, if we do it for the approval of others or to prove our own worth, we will always fall short of others' expectations. And if you are a perfectionist like me, it is unlikely that you will ever live up to your own expectations, either.
But if you commit yourself and your work to God, and remember that you don't have to be perfect to be worth something, everything will change. The stress of baring your soul to a reader will not go away, but your own worth will not be tied up in whether your efforts succeed or fail. People will still say things that hurt, but their words will not cut so deeply, because in the end, it is God's word that counts. And you can feel confident in the fact that, if you focus on God and pleasing Him, it will be worth it. Even if it doesn't go the way you planned, trust Him. He will strengthen you, and He will always love you.
"For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind." - 2 Timothy 1:7
"I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well." - Psalm 139:14
"And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ." - Colossians 3:23-24