Skip to content
Home » Writing Journey » How Perfectionism & Expectations Darkened My Writing JoY

How Perfectionism & Expectations Darkened My Writing JoY
Why Tony Stark is my new model for a sustainable author life

Scrabble tiles saying refine, pause, observe, consider, repeat

I published my first book in September 2021. I had high expectations but not egregiously high. I didn’t expect bestseller status, but I hoped I could sell at least 250 books in my first year — the bare average an author can expect these days, whether traditionally or self-published. But that was not the case, and the disappointment hit me hard. It rooted its way into my soul and tarnished the joy that drove me to write in the first place.

I’ll write the next one, I told myself. Everyone says you need a backlist to be successful. To make money. To be an author. To be valued. To have worth.*

So, I wrote books two and three, but without a plan or much of a plot. It took me six months and multiple edits to get the second book into some semblance of a story I wanted to put out there. It sold even less.

And some part of my soul slunk off to the shadows to hide.

I rallied and wrote a short story, one I hoped to use as a reader magnet to entice those readers in. Once they read my story, it would spread and more people would read it. That’s how it works, I told myself. I built my email list. I engaged in promotions. I spread the word. And the word stopped at the end of my street. At the end of my family. At the end of my friends.

And another part of my soul slunk off into the shadows.

I came up with another story, another tale to tell that readers would surely love. Something easier to read, something more to market, something easier to write. I loved creating the characters, the world, the mystery. But the third book of my failed series gnawed at me from the shadows, much like my failure and my inability to be seen, to be heard, to exist.

Old wounds resurfaced. My inner child cried out and hid, like it did when I was younger. A wise person** told me I needed to re-parent myself. I needed to do the work. I needed to grieve my failed series in order to find the joy to write again.

And so I did. But I struggled with how to grieve a book, a failure, a joy that turned into the need to make money. To be successful. To have value.

I read books, listened to podcasts, meditated, took courses, journaled. Oh, how I’ve journaled. And little cracks appeared, not big enough for me to walk through them or even notice they all were there. But they existed in the shadows, much like my books and my soul.

The iterative shift

I had a dream last night that my sisters and I had a father we didn’t know existed, who arrived in our lives and was very strict. At some point, he pulled me aside for a conversation. We sat at a metal countertop, perched, as one does in dreams, on the fork of a tall tree, similar to the one I climbed when I was young. Precarious. Tense. Leaning in the wrong direction would mean a great fall.

I don’t remember what he said to me. I know that it was about me versus my sisters, that he psychoanalyzed me, and that I asked in German of all things (not my native tongue), “Warum denkst du dass?” (Why do you think that?).

I continued the dream when I woke up, iterating on the themes to see where my mind would take it. It’s how I usually get all my story ideas, the ones that failed and the ones I continue to chip away at. A dream or a daydream that is iterated upon, spun into a full tale or half a tale and then morphed once again when it’s in print or on a screen. The iteration ended with the father demanding perfection and overachievement, and me pushing back to say that being perfect always ends in disappointment.

Especially if what you’re perfecting is not something that brings you joy. Like writing a book to make money, to be successful, to be seen. Or trying to edit a third book that brings you pain because everyone says you should finish the series first.

You’re doing it just to do it because it’s what you think others expect of you. It’s a routine, a rote, a thing you do to please others. But living up to the expectations of others will only bring disappointment to both parties, especially to you. We do it in small ways and in large ways and all the ways in between.

And every time we do so, a little of our soul slinks away to hide in the shadows.

Life isn’t about perfect, it’s about living, experiencing, playing. The most famous men, the ones who rose to the top out of nothing by creating something new, understood that. It’s why, I think, I love Tony Stark. He is intelligent and built something first out of need, then out of fear, and then because he could. Because it was a puzzle to solve, a challenge to undertake, a toy to tinker with. He is, in a way, the archetype of a child who parented himself. He moved from acting out and caring for nothing to caring for everyone enough to make the ultimate sacrifice, so that the rest could live.

He invented and tinkered because he couldn’t not do it. It fed his soul, calmed his brain, gave him something cool to show off with. Because he still needed that external validation. Until he didn’t. When he lived in a cabin by the lake, he tinkered and played. His focus was on his family and enjoying it, but his passion for creation and hard problems remained.

That’s the key to life.

I know many people have said it in different ways, but I needed to see it in my head in order to be true. Money is just energy. It doesn’t give me value or worth. It doesn’t make my books good or bad. It has no ability to judge me unless I give it the power to do so.

I didn’t sell that many books because I didn’t push hard enough, or I didn’t find my ideal reader, or I went about it wrong, or I didn’t write a book that thousands of people wanted to read, or I need to practice more.

Good idea, wrong package. Or, good idea, not quite the right package. Or, good idea, first iteration. My writing just needs more tinkering to end up like Tony Stark or my version of it.

Just like me.

*These sayings are not what the other authors said. They are my perceptions of it, warped in my wounded inner child lens.

**Becca Syme, author and creator of the Write Better Faster Academy. She cares about the health of the author and the unique way in which we all approach this writing life, which is why her programs are about the author, not the writing. I highly recommend her courses and books for writers.

Note: I know I used a lot of rhetorical devices in this essay. Maybe too many. But I’m iterating and practicing. And also not perfect. Which I’m okay with now. Sort of.

I’m still working on it.