Q: How do you handle fear of success?
A: I have to be honest here: not too many people approach me and say they’re worried they won’t be able to handle their success. Most are focused on getting there at all and are truly petrified they won’t reach the goals they’ve set. Among those who have achieved what could be conventionally called success, such as widespread recognition and awards, many are terrified they will backslide into a less well-respected position if their work falls out of favor. In other words, they’re worried their successful work will suddenly be judged “unsuccessful” and they’ll lose their status and the platform for their voice that comes with it. So let me answer a question with a question: is the fear of success you’re talking about really different from a fear of failure?
Fear of success is a symptom of Imposter Syndrome, which manifests as a collection of feelings that can include tremendous self-doubt, a sense of worthlessness, and an inescapable fear that you are a failure, to the point of being unconvinced you deserve help, support, or the accolades you’ve garnered. This is accompanied by an underlying worry that others will discover you aren’t really a “good” artist. Imposter Syndrome presents in people who have already achieved success in some way, shape, or form—from acceptance into an arts program of study to receiving big awards and grants—but believe secretly that they are failures, because they think their work isn’t “good enough.”
The most common advice given to sufferers of Imposter Syndrome is to “fake it till you make it,” meaning to go about pretending you are more confident or successful than you really are, until that success and the accompanying feelings of loving yourself eventually become a reality. The problem is that those with Imposter Syndrome already feel like posers in danger of being found out. Advocating for further performing won’t always help. Sometimes, the stakes just keep getting higher. Instead, you have to come to accept your own worth. The first step is to separate your identity from your work.
Here is some of the best advice I’ve ever received: I had a painting teacher in college who told me I should never alter my work just because she said so. (She also told me in her adorable Swiss accent, “These brushes already know how to paint, so they will help you!” And so they did.) She wanted me to make my own art, whether she liked it or not. In grad school, whenever everyone praised her work, she would intentionally alter it and take it into a less likeable direction. By then, I’d studied with perhaps a dozen arts instructors, most of them writers, and this was the first time anyone had told me point-blank that I shouldn’t work for their approval. I was flabbergasted but also inspired.
To be honest with you, I didn’t really learn the lesson. Not until several years later in grad school when I became so fed up with having my work judged through the lens of what fiction is “supposed” to be like that I began to ignore critics in my workshops whose comments didn’t resonate and instead created the kind of stories I wanted to read. I developed enough confidence to decide for myself what was “good” and worth pursuing. My painting teacher’s advice came back to me then and I realized how brilliant and daring it really was to challenge a college student to defy convention and resist the set standards to follow her own inspiration, or genius.
Art is subjective, so if you work for praise, you will always be chasing down someone’s approval while simultaneously hating yourself for it. Try making/writing/composing something you actually think others will hate, not because it’s offensive—that’s too easy. Don’t make racist/sexist/phobic art. But because it’s different and challenging and uniquely yours. Remind yourself that a negative reaction to art is perhaps more powerful than a positive one because people dislike work that challenges their assumptions about themselves and the world and that impression usually sticks with them, producing passionate responses. Remember an artist’s role is to further discourse and hold up a mirror to society. You can’t always do that nicely, or prettily. This is why visual and performing artists sometimes shock their audiences on purpose.
If you can produce a piece of unlikable art, it’s easier to see the line between your identity and your work, because you yourself are probably not that unlikable as a person. Toni Morrison, a favorite writer of mine, may she rest in power, sometimes mused about the strength of her own books, as if someone else had written them. She had a sense of self outside her writing that enabled a healthy distance. She wasn’t necessarily objective, but she got that her work existed apart from her-self. Indeed, she is gone but her novels live on.
Next, rest assured that everyone feels like a big phony sometimes, even your artistic heroes. They’re all just people, not gods, which means they make mistakes. (Well, actually, even gods make mistakes, they just don’t have to apologize for them). I recommend looking at some of your favorites’ earlier to work to see if you can map their progression. It's likely someone told them along the way that their work was no good. Did they become a more valuable person as their work changed, or as it received attention? Or did they always have talent and, separately, value as a human being?
Lastly, it’s corny but you have to believe in yourself. This does not mean convincing yourself that you are perfect. It’s about believing your voice has value, just as you think other people’s voices are important. You have a right to express yourself creatively, and that that action is beneficial to you and the world. (Even if no one “likes” your stuff, you are still contributing to the conversation. You can still push boundaries, raise issues, portray beauty as you see it). While your work is separate from your identity, being creative is not—it’s a key piece of your makeup, so embrace it. If saying “I’m an artist” makes you squirm, try saying, “I’m a creative” or simply “I’m a creative person.” Or, even better, "I'm an instigator."
Fear of succeeding and all the attention—and scrutiny—it might bring may never entirely go away. After all, who doesn’t want to be liked and praised and eternally popular? As you progress, there will be new challenges, new hurdles to clear. But you can get more comfortable if you can separate your identity from your work, acknowledge lots of people feel this way, including probably every artist you know, and accept that your voice is valuable, even when you think no one wants to hear it.
Q: My first pitch just got rejected after I answered a call for submissions at a magazine. I don’t know where else to submit and I’m feeling discouraged. Can you recommend something feminist and forward-thinking?
A: First, congrats on your first pitch! Woo! This is a really big deal and deserves a moment’s pause to take it in. You reached out to an actual editor! And got an actual response! Sure, the answer was no, but you’re going to get a lot of “no’s” throughout the pitching process, as everyone does. Don’t ever let that stop you. Every “no” brings you closer to a “yes,” as cheesy as that sounds.
There are currently tons of magazines publishing feminist and forward-thinking content, like Bitch, Lilith, Bust, Jezebel Teen Vogue, and so many others. Traditional women’s magazines like Glamour and Marie Claire have also moved with the times and developed a decidedly more feminist tone. They run the gamut in terms of difficulty breaking in, so make a list of those that interest you and think of them the way you did college admissions: which are the ones you have a really strong chance at and which are the reaches? (If you’re not sure, think about the overall circulation and notoriety of each magazine). The difference here, though, is you get to attend all the schools and never stop reaching for the top tier. In fact, the more bylines you garner, the more likely you’ll be to get work accepted by the most well-respected publications, especially as you continue fine-tuning your pitches, gaining confidence, and building connections.
You’ll notice I haven’t actually told you where to submit next and there’s a reason for that. There are so many publications out there, it’s hard for me to tell you which you would like. Instead, do some googling. Look up “feminist magazine” and see what you find. Likely there will be big names you recognize, and many you don’t. Start with the unfamiliar but eye-catching ones.
Next, you have to read them. Editors want pitches that are on-brand for their magazine. They don’t want pitches on topics they published a year ago. The best way to understand a magazine’s brand is to be one of their readers. If you like what you see and it inspires you, then that’s a magazine to aim for. The “About” or “Contact” pages can tell you who the editors are and often includes information on how and where to pitch. If you can’t find info there, join freelancer writer groups on Facebook and crowdsource the info. Consider going to readings promoting collections, or other events focused on essay-writing and journalism. The people you’ll meet there could be helpful allies and mentors. Many editors’ email addresses and other trade secrets are passed from one writer to another.
In short, there’s a whole world of publishing out there for you to explore. Getting started can seem daunting, but you’ll find you ask the questions you need to ask as they arise; you don’t have to know it all from the start. For now, focus on finding magazines you love and would want to be featured in. These will help you get to your dream publications by building the path one stone at a time.
Q: My friend and her husband travel all the time. They’ve been married for two years, don’t have any kids, (and won’t be having any) he has a very flexible job, and she has a lot of school breaks as a teacher. I meet her once a week for a drink while my daughter is at karate. My husband and I are both writers and every week this friend makes a comment about how we “never” travel. It’s getting to the point where I don’t even want to see her anymore because I know she’s going to judge me about this. Sigh. And it’s such a stupid thing, right? Why does she even care?
A: Oof, death by a thousand little comments. The image of the globe-trotting life contribute heavily to FOMO because how could it not? We’re sitting here, chained to our desks, watching other people literally explore the world we can’t. Travel is about adventure and experience, we are told, which is supposed to enrich you and make you a wiser, more interesting person, even if it’s at the expense of the people struggling to live where you’re visiting. (For more on that, read Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place). There’s also the issue of how much flying on planes increases your carbon footprint, or how much waste hotels produce. In other words, travel may be great only for the traveler, while it’s a morally complicated, economy-controlling and environmentally hazardous practice for the rest. I say this not to denigrate travelers or argue for an end to tourism, (I love to travel!) but to counter the popular narrative that visiting other places makes you a better person. Maybe it does make you a more interesting person if you have good stories to tell at parties that you can deliver well, instead of just repeating the same anecdotes endlessly, but it doesn’t make you good. So right off the bat, we can reject the narrative this friend is trying to get you to buy into.
Next, you gotta wonder why your friend feels the need to make belittling comparisons about your rate of travel. Maybe the travel narrative has proven false for her. Maybe these jaunts aren’t making her feel as alive and enriched as she wishes. Maybe she is insecure about something in her own life, like her status in a child-free couple, causing her behave competitively with you. Or maybe she’s really just that oblivious.
Whatever the real reason, she is making you feel judged, and judged unfairly on top of that, to the degree that you’re considering cancelling your weekly friend date with her. Is this the only comment she’s made that gets under your skin? How often do you find yourself feeling angry or put-down because of this friend? If your interactions makes you feel bad about yourself regularly, then I agree you should reconsider how much time you spend with her and maybe read a book during your daughter's class instead. Life is too short to spend time with people you don’t like.
Whatever you decide about the fate of this friendship, a graceful pivot is an easy way to deal with the situation in the moment. If you do keep hanging out with this seasoned trip-taker, next time she makes a comment about your rate of travel, just say, “Yeah, we really wish we could get away more. I envy you!” — which is the truth! — then redirect the conversation to another, safer topic like a movie just saw or a new bar you’d like to take her to next time you hang out. The Art of Changing the Subject was invented for just this reason, so don’t shy away from using it; there’s no reason you have to endure a line of questioning that makes you uncomfortable. This is dinner, not an interrogation. And if this friend is trying to get your goat, your graceful, nonplussed response will prove her efforts fruitless.