Disappointed Writers by Johanna Harness

09 May

Baxter the houselamb, sheepI’ve heard it said that sheep spend their time at pasture looking for ways to die.  They’re relatively stoic creatures, so by the time they act sick, it’s often too late. They seem fine one day and they’re dead the next.

Writers are apparently the same way with disappointment.  While not writing, we look for ways to feel bad about ourselves.

Last week I attended a conference with a wildly-successful writer who just turned in her eighteenth book.

“Wow,” I said.

She held thumb and forefinger barely apart. “They’re thin,” she answered.  “I’m actually getting dumber with every passing day.”

She’s not, of course, but she swears she is.

Another writer on twitter tells stories that tunnel right through to my heart.  I laugh out loud.  I cry.  His explorations change the way I see life and enrich my perceptions of my Kansas heritage.

And yet he worries about apostrophes and sentence structure.  He thinks he’s not good enough to be a “real writer.”  I tell him that he damn well is and that writing is so much more than a sum of grammatical parts.  Any editor can fix those tiny things.

And I’m sure he thinks I’m humoring him–because he is, after all, a writer.  The only thing we fear more than rejection is false praise.

Another friend confesses that, despite glowing reviews, she worries because she’s been often nominated, but never selected, for any prestigious award.

Another with a Ph.D. worries she’ll look stupid because she does not have the vocabulary to talk about novel writing.

I can shake my head, but who am I kidding?  I’ve been writing long enough to survive multiple episodes of dark days and doubt.  My last had me wondering about famous writers and that stroke of genius that makes them who they are.  No matter what they write, we hear that quality in their voice and we love them.  And so, just like a sheep contemplating lethal ways to get her head stuck in a fence, I ask myself, “What if my writing has an opposite effect on readers?  What if that thing that makes me special is the one thing no one wants?”

And yet we persist.

This week at Idaho Writers and Readers Rendezvous, Mary Clearman Blew reiterated the importance of tenacity for writers.  She said you can often tell when writers are going to give up.  “You can just feel them veering off and thinking they’d rather have a life.”

I laugh because I’ve cornered myself into such a negative ending.  As a writer primed for disappointment, having a life sounds amusing and fun. So what was my point?

Oh yes.  Not every stoic sheep is dying.  And not every disappointed writer wants to quit.  Some of us are just really good at getting our heads stuck in fences and wailing about it. It’s what we do. And then we write about it.


Posted by on May 9, 2012 in conferences, writers, writing


Tags: , , ,

54 responses to “Disappointed Writers by Johanna Harness

  1. Liz Flaherty

    May 9, 2012 at 5:09 AM

    Wow, this is really a good post. It fits so many of us, doesn’t it? But I sure never thought of it that way.

    • johannaharness

      May 9, 2012 at 6:27 AM

      Thanks, Liz. I think it’s easier to minimize those thoughts when we realize most writers have them.

  2. Liz Fredericks

    May 9, 2012 at 5:14 AM

    IMHO (note the necessary qualifier upon which I rest, research indicates this occurs because of my gender socialization, but I’m inclined to writer dna after reading your blog) anyhoo

    IMHO the ‘stroke of genius’ lies in someone’s ability to capture a universal point/emotion that the reader is left thinking – wow, she wrote about me, she’s in my head, I feel that too – You do this, Johanna, in every single dang post. You do this. ‘The only thing we fear more than rejection is false praise’, nails the high wire. All of us teeter on this, closer to one side or another. So, as one writer to another, you’ve got it. And let me offer my capstone disclaimer (yes, gender socialization, but who am I to cull the trend), no bs, no false praise, nothing but joy in reading your words.

    • johannaharness

      May 9, 2012 at 6:30 AM

      I hear you, Liz. And yet, it is so difficult to take kind words to heart, isn’t it?

    • John Ross Barnes

      May 9, 2012 at 10:24 AM

      Well said and “well met”, Liz. Nailed it on the head(I think, at least looking through the scratched lens of my mind, and through The Fog of my own dubious perceptions) – “I’m up on a tight wire, one side’s ice and one is fire.” – Leon Russell

      • johannaharness

        May 10, 2012 at 5:52 AM

        You would have loved this, John. Yesterday I took my mom to her eye doctor and the tech person stopped him at the end of the appointment and asked him to explain what she’d seen on my mom’s cornea. She said she thought it was something on the mirror or the lens of the machine, so she’d cleaned everything really well.

        The soft-spoken doc (wearing a bow tie) turned the machine around toward his assistant. He raced through a recitation of each of the parts of the machine (with proper names) and described the function of each one of those parts (in scientific language). He ended by saying, “The machine actually works better when the mirror is cloudy.”

        I’m thinking your maker is sitting somewhere, possibly wearing a bow tie, explaining to his assistant: “This one? John Ross Barnes? He actually sees things more clearly with the scratched lens.”

  3. April Brown (@AprilBrownWrite)

    May 9, 2012 at 6:34 AM

    I agree on how easy it is to get stuck sometimes.

    However, we do it to each other too.

    I had a beta reader tell me I had no right to think I was a writer because I did not realize that wander and wonder were two different words, and not different spellings of the same word (like grey and gray). Honestly, one means to physically explore, while the other is mentally exploring. Not everyone would realize they were different. They sure sound the same.

    Of course, we have disgruntled editors and writers on writing boards who bash writers who make a single grammar mistake, and promise them they have no right to write if they don’t have every rule memorized.

    Sadly, at times, it really seems to be an all or nothing approach.

    One of the hardest aspects to overcome is realizing the subjectiveness of the whole process. Several agents have blogged on this recently. What will excite them one day, they may not even be able to slough through another day. What sounds great, they may think the market doesn’t want. Or they just don’t have the time and energy to take on another client at the moment.

    • johannaharness

      May 9, 2012 at 7:03 AM

      I hear you, April. I once had a contest judge count the number of times I used pronouns. I’ve had agents tell me they couldn’t represent my writing because it was too different–and then spend two pages doing a reader response because they were so involved in the narrative. One New Yorker told me that Idaho couldn’t possibly be the way I described it and I should visit to see what it was really like before writing more. Ooh–and recently? I had a contest judge call and play phone tag with me for three days. Everyone said it had to be good news. Magazine editors don’t call to tell you that you’re a loser. Except this one did. She called and said, “You’re a loser.” I’m not kidding.

      It is subjective, but it’s also a little crazy.

      Sometimes you have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Or better yet? Put it into a story.

      • John Ross Barnes (@BarnestormJohn)

        May 10, 2012 at 12:35 AM

        The examples you’ve given couldn’t possibly be from real humans. I think you should actually visit the home planets of these misanthropic hooligans before further attributing such hubris laden antics to actual real people(I mean human people, as opposed to fur, feather, or wool people, who are often more discerning thinkers) 😉 The alternative for them – git a rope.

  4. tduiv

    May 9, 2012 at 6:36 AM

    It seems to be a big part of creatives – the endurance and determination to go through hell, then write about it. While we never quite believe we’re deserving, we’re always looking to that half empty cup we continue on. Maybe it keeps us grounded and striving to constantly improve, so not all bad.

    • johannaharness

      May 9, 2012 at 7:12 AM

      Yes. Maybe we prepare ourselves for rejection by pre-rejecting ourselves. Being grounded isn’t such a bad thing.

  5. Patsy

    May 9, 2012 at 6:58 AM

    I totally know this feeling!

    • johannaharness

      May 9, 2012 at 7:15 AM

      I want to say I’m glad I’m not alone, Patsy—but in this case, I don’t know. It is a little crazy the lengths we go to discount ourselves.

  6. ramblingsfromtheleft

    May 9, 2012 at 7:09 AM

    Why not, Johanna … what good is the comedy and tragedy of life if we can’t use it as fodder for our stories? Me? I’m too darn old and stubborn to give up … glad to hear you won’t either 🙂

    • johannaharness

      May 9, 2012 at 7:22 AM

      Wait—that’s mature and tenacious, right? Excellent qualities.

  7. Janis McCurry

    May 9, 2012 at 7:10 AM

    I always figure I’ll wait until all of the sheep die and then the publishers will have no choice but to accept me. Yeah, I’m one of the ones who feel there is no one to champion me and it must be because I don’t have “it.” It’s very easy to become discouraged.

    • johannaharness

      May 9, 2012 at 7:35 AM

      Writing is such an act of bravery. We’re baring our souls and making targets of our deepest hopes and fears. Of course we get discouraged.

      It doesn’t help that there are so many intelligent, thoughtful people surrounding us. Before I started hanging out with writers, I had some notion I might be special and witty. Now? Dang. You’re all good. And when I say all, I’m looking at you, Janis. You’re not alone.

  8. Tony Noland (@TonyNoland)

    May 9, 2012 at 7:14 AM

    Interesting post. In fact, just recently I was thinking that I might like to have a life, too.

    • johannaharness

      May 9, 2012 at 7:45 AM

      Ah–life–it’s tempting, isn’t it? Conferences are strange experiences for me because I have to take time away from family to do the writing thing, but I’m not actually writing. I see all the things I’ve done wrong with my stories, I miss the support of my loved ones, and I’m not getting the high from scribbling words. It feels like a strange choice to be a writer during those times. Then I come home, write about it, and—just like that—I slip back into madness. Having a life is probably overrated.

  9. kristina

    May 9, 2012 at 7:32 AM

    “Veering off to have a life”…well that’s a line of brilliance. It seems we writers are all on the cusp of giving up the angst of our craft. And yet the words call us back.

    I’m glad you had a wonderful time and hope it refilled your passion and excitement. And if you find yourself lolling about the fenceline, give a bleat. We can keep each other company. 🙂

    • johannaharness

      May 9, 2012 at 8:56 AM

      Thank you, Kristina! Both Mary Clearman Blew and Kim Barnes were wonderful. Also? Kim Barnes kind of reminded me of you–smart, funny, talented, loves her students, loves tragedies–and you kind of look alike. Eerie.

      • kristina

        May 9, 2012 at 9:47 AM

        Hmmm…must google now. 🙂

        • johannaharness

          May 10, 2012 at 5:20 AM

          Kim’s memoir, Into The Wilderness, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She grew up in and still lives in Idaho.

  10. Peggy Staggs

    May 9, 2012 at 7:40 AM

    Good. I’m not the only one who’s afraid they’re getting dumber every day, or stressing over words and sentences. I too, go through stretches of what-do-I-think-I’m-doing? Only to come out on the other end sure I’m beating my head against a stone door.

    • johannaharness

      May 9, 2012 at 8:58 AM

      You’re definitely not alone, Peggy, but you are *not* getting dumber every day. No way.

  11. Viv

    May 9, 2012 at 7:47 AM

    Life is what happens around you when you’re waiting for the shepherd to get the wire cutters…
    I tend to end up ramming my own head in the fence now; it’s great when it stops.
    Joking aside, I do believe we need those hiatuses of confidence for a number of reasons; one is to help us remain grounded in reality and keeping on at growing. The other is because those who are always uber confident and certain of their own talents really invite others to wish for them to experience the doubts (and a bit of failure). Human beings do rather enjoy schadenfreude.
    I also love sheep.

    • johannaharness

      May 9, 2012 at 9:15 AM

      Viv–lol at the wire cutters. And of course, you’re right. Without humility, writers set themselves up for all kinds of bad wishes. Oh–and bad luck too. Not that we’re superstitious. . .

      (That’s another blog post, isn’t it?)

      • Viv

        May 9, 2012 at 9:24 AM

        I didn’t think I was superstitious at all until I started letting my birds fly. Now I do wonder about bad luck and also about karma. What goes around, comes around. Writers supporting other writers, if only as cheerleaders at times, well, it beats the alternative hands down. 🙂

        • johannaharness

          May 10, 2012 at 5:22 AM

          Yes. There’s so much mean in the world. It makes no sense when writers refuse to provide shelter for one another.

  12. stephanieberget

    May 9, 2012 at 10:20 AM

    Johanna, I love the Idaho story. I’ve trained, competed on and sold top level barrel racing horses for thirty years. I once had a contest judge tell me I needed to find a barrel racer to explain how it’s done.
    She didn’t rodeo but was sure I was wrong. Her suggestions on craft were good however.

    • johannaharness

      May 10, 2012 at 5:30 AM

      I love this comment, Steph. People are fallible–writers, agents, editors, contest judges–but one misstep isn’t enough to negate all the good. It says a lot about you that you were able to respect the writing suggestions despite the fact the judge made herself ridiculous with the rest. Maybe it’s a little like panning for gold. We have to swish the lighter stuff out of the pan to see the gold at the bottom.

  13. John Ross Barnes

    May 9, 2012 at 10:45 AM

    The concept of you having the same kind of doubts that I have regarding my abilities or worthiness seems both laughable and sad – at first. And then it begins to sink in that as unfounded as i perceive your self doubts to be, perhaps my own are not as well founded as I often believe them to be.

    There is that “Indescribable Wow” that keeps us going, Huh? That feel when it’s flowing and your fingers have a mind and a story of their own you didn’t know a thing about until you read it and think “I almost got it that time, din’t I?”

    And yes, I think I got that thing you said up in there.;-)

    Once again, you’ve managed to put the universal into very personal terms and back again. Innit what great writers do?

    Man, do we all Luvs yoo…

    • johannaharness

      May 10, 2012 at 5:55 AM

      “I almost got it that time, din’t I?” Yes! Yes yes yes yes yes. That’s it exactly.

  14. Amity Grays

    May 9, 2012 at 5:23 PM

    It’s obvious this post has struck the hearts of many. It certainly did mine. Baaaa

    • johannaharness

      May 10, 2012 at 5:58 AM

      Baaaa back atcha, Amity. So glad you stopped by.

  15. alisonwells

    May 9, 2012 at 11:56 PM

    Super, super Johanna! It’s often also once we have finally achieved something that we begin to wonder if it’s good enough. There has to be a balance between enjoying the striving and yearning for the rewards. There will always be something we haven’t achieved and people who are doing better than us and projects that didn’t quite live up to what we wanted but there’s also the satisfaction of the well crafted paragraph and the unsolicited email where we have touched someone with our writing.

    • johannaharness

      May 10, 2012 at 6:05 AM

      “the satisfaction of a well crafted paragraph”

      Mmm. I could live in those words.

      It is the writing itself that always pulls me in–that feeling of putting the world right through words—if only for a moment—of saying well that thing the heart must say.

  16. Mariam Kobras

    May 10, 2012 at 12:12 AM

    You’ve put your finger into the wound. There is never any security. We do what we have to do, and hope for the best.
    I’d like to ask you this, though: could you REALLY leave off? I mean, permanently? Could you? Would that even be a “life”? Because I don’t think you could.
    My firm belief is that writers have one thing that separated them from others (well, maybe with the exception of other artists), and that’s the gift of observation. And somehow you have to PUT all those impressions somewhere, share them and your thoughts on them with the rest of the world. Johanna, if you didn’t use a computer to write you’d probably shear your words into your sheep’s wool. But write, you would. 🙂

    • John Ross Barnes (@BarnestormJohn)

      May 10, 2012 at 12:27 AM

      I too, Mariam, have a difficult time conceiving of a Johanna capable of permanently hanging up her writing shoes. I really don’t think Ms “let’s sprint” could do it – and I’m very happy in thinking that.

      • Mariam Kobras

        May 10, 2012 at 12:38 AM

        *high five*, John! 🙂

      • johannaharness

        May 10, 2012 at 6:25 AM

        I could probably lose myself in reading for a year or three. I wouldn’t mean to quit. I’d just lose track of the time.

    • johannaharness

      May 10, 2012 at 6:22 AM

      Yes, Mariam. You’re right, of course.

      My daughter is a writer and I saw this in her temperament from an early age. At a time when most kids were learning how to share, grabbing toys from each other, my girl would stand to the side and observe. Other parents thought she was shy or that she couldn’t figure out how to play.

      Then the dear girl would run back to me, describing epic battles: beginning, middle, and end w/ full attention to detail.

      Another parent thought my daughter was a tattle-tale, but I knew. I felt it in her descriptions. For some of us the experience isn’t complete until it’s turned into a story. It’s how we are.

      • Mariam Kobras

        May 10, 2012 at 6:25 AM

        How lucky your daughter is, to have you as a mother, and recognizing that talent in her. 🙂

  17. Jen Brubacher

    May 10, 2012 at 12:36 AM

    This is brilliant, and I love it, even though it makes me so very sad to hear about your friends who are losing confidence. I’m proud to be a sheep stick in a, er, fence.

    • johannaharness

      May 10, 2012 at 6:49 AM

      Thank you, Jen. I’ve been thinking more about the loss of confidence and I think that’s only one aspect of it. Writers question life. They analyze. They observe. They tear things apart and put them back together again. Sometimes the focus turns inward and it makes sense to me that those moments are full of doubt. It’s such an honest reaction that it lends credibility to the rest of the author’s work.

      That’s not to say that we should be all gloom and doom all the time, but knowing dark days come and go might actually increase our confidence. We weather a few bleak times, keep writing, and the next experience doesn’t worry us so much.

  18. Kathy

    May 10, 2012 at 5:43 AM

    Johanna — what a great post. And can I add, you’ve really changed my thinking about sheep. Thanks for the morning inspiration.

  19. Maria Kelly

    May 10, 2012 at 5:50 AM

    I feel like almost every person you mentioned in this post. We’re always beating ourselves over the head about our writing. I think I’ll learn to keep my head in the fence more. 🙂

    • johannaharness

      May 10, 2012 at 6:55 AM

      Yes–wanting to improve is good, but there’s a fine line between what motivates us and what devastates us.

  20. johannaharness

    May 10, 2012 at 6:56 AM

    Thanks everyone for all your comments here. I feel so lucky to be part of this community. You’re amazing.

  21. ganymeder

    May 11, 2012 at 6:20 AM

    Great post, very perceptive.

  22. Clarissa Southwick

    May 11, 2012 at 6:24 AM

    Great insight, Johanna. It’s that “having a life” part that makes me so slow to comment on wonderful posts like these. Let me know when you find the secret to balancing the two. Meanwhile, I’ll be here with my head in the fence, baa-ing.

  23. Red Tash

    June 17, 2012 at 7:40 PM

    I’m adding this one to my queue to post later, after my book release. I have SO many writer friends who channel angst very often! They need to read this. Thank you, JH.


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