No, It's Never About What A Writer Doesn't Have

I try to take my summers off from digital media when I can, because it helps me re-center myself and excavate what I want to do. I'm happy to report I did complete almost everything on my pandemic to-do list; a few lingering projects to rebuild and challenge myself, but nothing I can't finish this Winter.

I had some anxiety about this upcoming winter because of the pandemic, but also because rebuilding my career feels like a solitary fight. Part of this is due to the fact I’ve learned I write better alone, but it's also because of the battles I lost. I was discussing this with a friend recently, who pointed out this was coming from a scarcity mindset. Can't argue with that. But, they also pointed out this scarcity mindset is a problem in the broader industry as a whole.

Some thoughts on this…

While each facet of entertainment has its own flavor of this, in publishing the peer pressure around what we don't have or that we’re doing something wrong is omnipresent. Take writing advice, for example. "No, don't do that. You must do this." How many conversations have we had about the right way to build a career, submit, market, publish, even structure a writing routine?

Even before social media, this mindset boils down to an impersonal formula for success that doesn't take into account luck, timing, privilege, etc. How much of this advice actually works for your writing practice? The answer, outside of common sense mantras like "read the submission guidelines", is simply that you have to do what works for you. This is not new. When I used to consult, my approach was not to make definitive statements, but to ask questions to figure out what someone wanted before guiding them toward their true destination. Not so on social media. Ask a question, and you're told the answer—the messy journey of personal growth is rarely the point.

I do believe writing advice and social media in our industry can be sources of the scarcity mindset, especially if we take that advice and think "we're not enough"—but it's not the cause. The cause is the staggering amount of unknowns creating art in a late stage capitalist society. We literally don't know what's going to happen with the work we're creating. Will it resonate? Will it fail? Will it win awards? Will we be able to pay our bills? We don't know.

Because of this, when someone else signs a six-figure deal, wins accolades, etc. the scarcity mindset kicks in. That other writer is doing something "right". Or, they've taken away from our chance for success. (Even when space is created for marginalized voices, there’s often a backlash because it’s perceived as reducing opportunities instead of expanding the field.) Sometimes, math sets in. There's only so many books that can get those big deals, so clearly they've 'reduced' the overall pool of what we can earn. Often, another author's perceived success, polished for marketing purposes, reminds us of what we don't have. And, sometimes socially, we are unwittingly ranked according to someone else's opinion of what we lack. Our track record doesn't line up with someone else's expectations. Our follower count isn't high enough. Our online engagement becomes an indication not only of our self-worth, but our submissions'. And so on, and so forth.

When we, as writers, are diminished by wrapping paper-based judgments, we approach a dangerous line. We turn back or stop on our journeys. Maybe we don't write. Maybe we right our proverbial ships by writing out of spite—which works for some authors. It does not for me. Maybe we switch mediums. Or, maybe we "say" we need to refuel the well, when what's really going on is that our anxiety was triggered by another round of the scarcity mindset. If I just get that one award, my sales will be higher. If I just “at” that famous author on Twitter, they'll help boost my profile. If I sign with this bigger publisher, it'll validate my career. If I get an agent, my career will progress. If I just get enough likes or follows...

The scarcity mindset creates a list of what we need to be a writer that never ends. We become Sisyphus. This can, unfortunately, lead to more comparisons with other writers—which, let me tell you, never ends well. Someone always gets hurt in the process, because those comparisons often "punch down" to make someone feel like they're not enough. And then, when another writer is successful, we think it's okay to "punch up" never realizing that we could be either one of those people one day.

I'm rambling a bit here, but hopefully I'm getting across the message that scarcity mindsets are bullshit. They don't build us up as writers during every stage of our career, every natural ebb and flow. They don't help us when our career stalls, either, because a scarcity mindset doesn’t allow for “shit happens”. They just reinforce what we don’t have. Worse: A scarcity mindset is never gentle. It cannot reassure us that, quell surprise, we are enough after all.

And, that we have been enough all along.