aspiring writers

On Authors, Vulnerability, and the Importance of Honesty

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This morning I read a guest post from a few years ago on Writer Unboxed by YA bestselling author Robin LaFevers. It’s about the expectations aspiring writers put on ourselves and the importance of not giving up (but not delivered in a hokey way at all).

It gave me pause to think how grateful I am every time I read a blog post from an author like this who, instead of claiming that she never endured heart-wrenching struggles like the rest of us, chose to be brutally honest in sharing her journey. Every time I read a blog post like this it makes me feel inspired to keep going just when things seem like they’re at their worst.

One of the things I hated about the old model of author promotion, the one I viewed as a kid and teen, mostly pre-Internet and before I ventured into the wide world of publishing as an employee, was the illusion that authors created.

You know the one I’m talking about. This mask they used to don of public confidence–a mask that made it seem like they were invincible, like they could do no wrong, like they had no fears and no insecurities and that they were perfect. They perpetuated popular myths and made it seem like they never had any trouble coming up with ideas, they never struggled with self-doubt, they never struggled to balance work and family.

This old style of author interviews created a ridiculously unrealistic image that no one could possibly ever live up to. But in the past five to ten years, there has been a huge shift in terms of an openness that writers haven’t displayed before with the advent of blogs, conferences, podcasts, and more. Even Stephen King said in a hot-off-the-presses Rolling Stone interview that even he still fears failure.

Him! Stephen King! One of the most successful, mega bestselling, top authors IN THE WORLD. And he still has to grapple with the fear that his next book may not be as good as his last one, or that it won’t sell as many copies, or that he’s “losing it” with each year that goes by.

We need more writers to be like this. We need more authors like Chuck Wendig who get into the nitty gritty, who reveal to us their most profound joys but also their darkest sorrows because it helps to show us that in many ways, they’re just like us. It reminds the rest of us that we are all vulnerable and flawed, that we all grapple with our inner demons, that we all have issues.

I used to venerate authors in what I can only describe as borderline deification. I looked to them as gods who could do no wrong and myself as one insignificant puny little mortal (I still do, but that’s a different story).

One of the most profound experiences I had was being in attendance years ago when Stephen King came to Canada to receive an award from the Canadian Booksellers Association. Strombo was the emcee, Margaret Atwood spoke, and Clive Barker spoke.

That was the first time I heard the famous story about how Stephen King said in the 80s that he had seen the future of horror and his name was Clive Barker (he was right). But what resonated with me the most was how vulnerable Barker seemed on stage when he was talking to the audience–not in a shy, introverted way or in a way that suggested he was afraid of public speaking (nothing like that at all).

It was more of an understated quality that reflected his gratitude at having been put on the map in large part due to that King quote. And although a King quote still carries huge weight these days (just ask Nick Cutter), at the time he said this about Barker, it was different–it was like he was decreeing some kind of prophecy that no one could have predicted.

But what struck me was Clive Barker’s intense display of gratitude, that sense that even today he counts his blessings and that he knows that although he is in a league of his own when it comes to writing talent, he’s still incredibly humble and doesn’t take any of what he has for granted. Every writer in the audience that night shared that moment with him. It resonated with all of us and had a global, sweeping effect.

I like seeing vulnerability in an author and not for negative reasons. I’ve met some truly vile and despicable people who feel good about themselves not by elevating others but by dragging people down.

They get their jollies by kicking others while they’re down. These people are douchenozzles. No–the reason I like seeing vulnerability in an established “top of their game” authors is because it’s a reminder that they don’t take anything for granted.

It’s a reminder that they aren’t trying to put aspiring writers down. They’re being honest with us and saying “I know how you feel, and despite all my success, I still feel that way, too.” Granted they probably don’t feel it nearly as much as we aspiring writers do, but it’s reassuring to know that even they, at that top level, don’t strut around with confidence all the time.

By contrast, there are some authors I know who, despite not having success that reaches anywhere near the mega bestselling authors of the world (or even mid-list authors, for that matter) insist on strutting around like they are all that, flaunting themselves and their successes in other people’s faces.

They insist on acting like narcissistic jerks who are somehow “above” other aspiring writers. They act like arrogant knobs whose social media profiles are a junkyard of posts all relating to how “awesome” they are, and how everyone else should envy them. The guest posts and blog posts they do are a ragtag collection of “me, me, me.”

Yawn.

So, authors, whether you’re mega superstar bestsellers or someone at the bottom of the totem pole just starting out, do us all a favour and keep showing us your vulnerability. Show us your scars. Show us your battle wounds. Break the cycle of feeling like you have to pretend that everything is okay and that you’re perfect all the time and that you never go through self-doubt or panic.

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