You are not your work

It has your name on it. You struggled to produce it. You gave years of your life to it. It was your idea, your story, your characters, your plot. It has your heart and soul tangled up in it.

But it is not YOU.

Separating yourSELF from your work is essential to surviving any creative career, particularly writing, where your words are put out there to be dissected, reviewed and critiqued. 

When you write a novel, it is completely yours for the first draft. It is private and personal and kept under lock and key. When you are editing it with your agent, it’s still fairly safe and protected. It’s still behind the scenes, so to speak, and at any given moment you can clutch it back to your breast and beg it not to leave. Once it goes to a publishing house, however, it leaves your world and enters a new one. It is off to boarding school and kind of on its own. 

At this stage, more people will start to have an influence on its life. Your editor will probably want to polish it in places; add bits, remove bits. If you’ve already been through a rigorous editing process with your agent, there should be relatively little left for your editor to do, only minor adjustments. However, your editor and publishing team could do things like change the title of your book, and they will have control over the book’s cover and its general look and feel. They will start to turn it into a product, and it will no longer be your baby. 

Eventually, when it has been meticulously fussed over and knocked into shape, it will be allocated a slot on the publisher’s agenda and it will be presented to the world on its pub date.

When this happens, you are effectively letting go of your baby and sending it off into the world to do its thing. It is now ‘out there’ and it can be a terrifying experience. One of my friends described it as feeling like a public hanging, and I know what she meant. When your book is published, you feel horribly exposed and vulnerable. You’ve bared your soul and now the world is going to scrutinise it. When this happened to me, instead of enjoying every second of it, I had to cut short a day of signing with my publicist because I felt so sick, (even turning my nose up to an enormous glass of wine). I spent two days lying in bed ahead of the (very small) launch event, while the rest of my family went off to enjoy London.

After a while, once the book had been out in several different countries and received its various reviews, I learned that it was just a book that I happened to have written. Yes, I made it; yes, it was my story, but it wasn’t actually me. There is a difference. 

When I trained to be a creativity coach, I learned that even if I wrote a bad book, it wouldn’t make me a bad friend, a bad mother or a bad wife. In fact, it wouldn’t make me anything other than someone who’s a bit shit at writing, in the same way that some people can’t draw, or can’t do maths, or can’t do the splits, or can’t sing. This doesn’t make them bad people. We have a certain skill set but those things don’t define who we are. 

Although I knew this, I found it impossible to believe when I was lying in bed, sick with nerves, prior to that launch in London. However, time and experience have showed me that my book really is simply a product that’s out there, a story for people’s entertainment, and they either like it or they don’t. As long as those whose opinion I respect (for example, my agent and my editor) like it, and as long as even one reader has been touched by it, the rest simply doesn’t matter. I never thought I’d become a resilient person but the majority of my reviews have been positive and, through my book, I have met lots of wonderful people all over the world. The experience has been enlightening, rewarding and connective, and the pros far outweigh the cons. I have learned that rather than facing the gallows, you are contributing something to the world, giving a part of yourself, part of your imagination, maybe even part of your soul, but you are not giving you. The hardest part of the process isn’t putting the thing out there, the hardest part is getting it to the point when it is ready to leave. 

This is the same whether the creative ‘thing’ is a song, or a book, or a painting, or a performance. Making it is when you need to engage your skill set and throughout that process you spend every single day with the harshest critic of all – yourself. You strive to do your best work, to stretch yourself, express more authentically, be more real – those are the things that put heavy demands on your skills. But at the end of each day you are still a parent, a wife, a friend, and a family member, as well as an author.

It can be hard to keep perspective when you are buried in the creative process. When a story is close to your heart and the quality of your work matters so very much to you, it’s difficult to extricate yourself from it. Of course, there will always be a part of you in your book but it will never be you. You are not your work. You produce work, it is a by-product of you but it isn’t actually you. You can’t send a book to pick up your kids, or have a book listen to a friend who needs help, or get a book to make dinner. It is only a book, a work of fiction, a story.

Once you get used to this, the publishing industry becomes much less daunting. Launches become celebrations, regardless of the questions asked or the profile of the journalists present. Reviews become part of the process. The book going out there and living its life without you becomes a natural conclusion to the writing cycle. Pretty soon you’re back there at that blank page on your own, staring at the screen, starting to create something new, and the entire struggle begins all over again. At that point you will be begging publication to return again, no matter how scary it all was the last time around!

For more information on surviving the emotional side of the writing process, please visit www.healthysanenovelist.com

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