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Why Is Publishing Making Authors So Sick?
Sharing their work with the world leaves many writers feeling alone. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
One of my early mentors at Random House told me that writers write for four different reasons: They have something they need to say; they have something they need to shed light on; they have something to teach or a way to help others; they want to have something to talk about at dinner parties. Over the years, I’ve also learned that writing to be published requires a certain reckless internal impulse to share your work in the world, despite the perils. It’s not always logical or sane and it’s rarely easy. It’s like the Kurt Vonnegut quote: “We have to be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”
Knowing all of this, when the time came earlier this summer to publish my first book, Narrative Healing, I approached the release date with the confidence of a fool. It turned out everything I thought I knew had not prepared me for what I didn’t know: namely, that knowing how things work does not release you from the big feelings that come with sharing vulnerable work into the world.
Writing a book has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl, and yet instead of feeling elation when the book came out, I felt pure dread and acute anxiety. I developed a rash and had a constant stomach ache. The tape running through my head was I’m not doing enough and time is running out. The worst part was my expectation that I was supposed to be having the time of my life, like all the touring authors I saw on Instagram, grinning next to piles of books and adoring fans.
Why is the experience of publishing work so upsetting? There’s quite a bit of anecdotal evidence and scientific data proving that there is something harmful with how we share work in the world. One career publicist I spoke to said, “What I tell every author is that publishing is an extremely underwhelming experience.” A literary agent I spoke to went even further and described the publishing experience as “truly traumatic.” I asked my mother, who has published dozens of books, if this ever gets easier and she answered without dropping a beat, “No. It’s like undressing in public every day.”
Part of what makes publishing so traumatizing is that most of the time authors are alone.
The Bookseller ran a survey earlier this summer exploring the negative consequences of publishing their work for authors. The survey concludes that more than 54% of authors face severe mental health struggles after publishing their first books. They cite exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and lowered self-esteem, to name a few symptoms. I felt so seen.
Part of what makes publishing so traumatizing is that most of the time authors are alone. There are many writing communities out there that provide different kinds of support for the creative process, but once work moves towards publication, it’s mostly just strategic advice, expensive digital marketing and publicity services, and to-do lists. (The vulnerable heart doesn’t respond too well to to-do lists.) Most writers have no authentic creative community, instead they are surrounded by followers, likes, tags, reviews, and clicks. On the level of your nervous system, this means that while you are caught up in a stress response, you are alone and isolated. This is very challenging for us humans. We are social creatures, and our nature is to seek safety, comfort, and ease by being in groups with others who can protect us.
To make matters worse, our publishing system systematically isolates authors when they are at their most vulnerable. Even in the best-case scenario (and I had a wonderful publishing team), as an author you are passed from person to person, from agent, to editor, to publicist, to marketing team. One way of understanding why this is so harmful is to look at the psychological theory of attachment developed by John Bowlby in the 1960s. He breaks down the types of relationships people need to thrive and posits that babies need to form a secure attachment to their primary caregiver in order to grow up with confidence and ease. Secure is described as safe, consistent, loving, and available. Birthing a book is commonly compared to birthing a baby and authors need this kind of relationship to thrive, too.
What happens in the absence of a consistent, reliable source of care? We try to avoid and escape, build up walls and defenses, and make decisions based on fear. This is often the point when authors fall mercilessly into a spiral of comparison and despair. What’s worse is that in this state we are unable to take healthy risks, which is required for a thriving marketing and publicity campaign.
Resmaa Menakem, a trauma expert and New York Times-bestselling author, believes most of his clients come to see him to benefit from being around his regulated body, not to hear his expert opinion. So, in order to relax, we need to experience the energy of a grounded person who understands us when we are in a heightened state of alert.
Likewise, I find the solution to publishing anxiety is to find somebody who makes you feel safe and then keep them close. While it is helpful if they are in front of you — a live, breathing, three-dimensional body — they don’t have to be in the same room to be effective. Your person can be on the phone, or text, or zoom. (My publishing experience changed for me with a single text from a sweet friend I trust.) They can even be a powerful memory.
This experience of connection can also occur through a mindfulness practice. Dr. Herbert Benson, pioneer of mind-body medicine, coined the term Remembered Wellness, which essentially means once you experience a feeling of being fully secure, safe and happy in your body, you will be able to return. There are many ways to return to this feeling; one tried and true method is meditation.
As authors, we can get so hasty about who we let close to us during this vulnerable moment.
I was recently reading Grief Is Love by Marisa Renee Lee and in it she describes that you need a grieving buddy. She suggests finding someone of your choosing to mirror love back at you, remind you that you’re not alone, give you nudges to slow down and take care of yourself. It got me thinking that the same is true for publishing. As authors, we can get so hasty about who we let close to us during this vulnerable moment. We quickly outsource it to people we may not even know that well — publicists, colleagues, marketing consultants, social media — in a way we would never do during other vulnerable moments of our life or during the creative process. What is critical here is that the person needs to be someone you really trust and feel seen by.
So, as I’ve moved through this summer, I’ve slowly gone through a process of reparenting myself as a writer. I have lovingly child-proofed my desk with gentle reminders to ask for help from people I trust and value and to simply not do this on my own or solely seek out professional guidance. My workspace is covered in photos of people who make me feel loved and objects of meaning and beauty.
According to Bowlby’s attachment theory, once you establish that safe, secure connection with one person, the child (the author) can roam out in the world and take risks, experience joy, growth, and even twirl. Joy is a practice, and it requires safety and strength from within. A few months ago, I signed up for beginner ballet classes. It was something I always wanted to do. I was drawn to taking classes because it was unrelated to work, required a little bit of bravery and was born from a desire to practice delight and joy.
The highlight of publishing my book so far was not the day I received a starred review or secured a New York Times-bestselling blurb. The moment I really felt acknowledged was the day in class when my ballet teacher gave me a tiara, just for fun. It sits on my writing desk next to my to-do list reminding me I can choose where I look for validation and where I experience joy.
At the end of the day, publishing is a bit of a rollercoaster and what constitutes success can come and go, but if you set your gaze on people, places and things that mirror back love and security, then you’ll be much more able to show up for the big opportunities as they appear. You will be primed to take that risk, joyfully.
I know I’m talking a lot about publishing work here, but the point is whether you are publishing a book or not, you’re always sharing stories. You do so by the way you are breathing, or moving, typing, or tapping, and how you feel when you share your story and how you are received matters. It will determine your success and sense of wellness. The point is we’re not designed to do this alone, and we don’t have to. Find a practice or experience that reliably brings you joy and do that action more often. Find a person that makes you feel heard and seen and connect with them more often. Build a soft layer between you and your audience, your reader, the world. We may all have different intentions for why we are sharing our stories, but at the end of the day we all share our stories for one reason: we have to. Sharing our stories is how we make sense of the world, seek safety and connection, it’s how we express ourselves, and give and receive love. It’s often challenging to share our truth, and our raw personal experiences in the world in any format — whether it’s a book, or a post, an article or a conversation on the phone — but we all have the same opportunity to coat the experience with the support we can rely on, so we can thrive, help and inspire one another.