I don’t know about you, but I’m always a bit relieved when the holidays are over. Sure, I enjoy them, but I much prefer the fresh start of January and the promise of new beginnings. For me, the end of the old year and start of a new one means clearing away mental baggage, letting go of old disappointments, and focusing on new goals with replenished optimism. In fact, I can usually feel myself working up to these things in the last week of December.
However, this past December, I found myself struggling. Stuck in a rut. Not just with writing, but with so many things, in general. My optimism was severely waning and I was instead sinking into a hole of cynicism and despair. In short, I didn’t feel like me and I didn’t like how I was feeling.
I’ve struggled with the idea of writing this post and sharing such personal feelings because I don’t want to sound like a whiny, unappreciative twerp–especially in light of the fact that 2021 was a dream come true in so many ways. My long-awaited goal of getting traditionally published was made a reality. We put in a pool. I made numerous connections with writers, readers, and students at libraries, schools, and bookstores. I spent cherished time with family and friends. I traveled back to the beautiful Pacific Northwest where I saw Twilight movie sites, traversed rainforest trails, and did a book signing in Forks, WA. 2021 really was an amazing year in so many ways.
But unfortunately, human nature and the publishing industry, itself, tend to foster the ideas of toxic comparison and constantly moving goalposts. Before I was published, I’d heard other authors talk about the notion of shifting or moving goalposts, but honestly I hadn’t given much thought to it at all. Then after my debut novel, NOT OUR SUMMER, came out last May, boom! I immediately knew what this whole thing was all about. Where I once thought I’d be happy just to get published and see my book on a bookstore shelf, my sights were now set on more seemingly monumental things: making bookish lists, getting glowing reviews, selling large volumes of books, winning awards, etc. I’m embarrassed to even admit this, but I also know that I’m not alone in feeling this way. It’s all too common, probably in more than just publishing, and social media only amplifies the problem.
Please don’t get me wrong: getting a book published is a wonderful, thrilling achievement, and I am still fully aware of this. Release day and some of the days following were truly some of the best days ever. But once you do have a book out in the world, you can’t help but look around at other authors who appear to be achieving more than you are. Those who have two or multi-book deals. Those who are selling new books to new publishers. Those whose books are featured in list after list. While I am truly happy to see most any author finding success, it’s hard not to constantly carry around a measuring stick and feel completely inadequate. This constant comparison is not only exhausting, but also degrading. It’s a battle I realized I could never win.
By the year’s end, all I was seeing on my social media feeds were the achievements of others while I was left feeling like my own book had been, as one writer so hilariously and candidly put it, “a fart in the wind”. I must note that I was not at all upset that other authors were shouting about their achievements. I definitely would be, too. Who doesn’t love to share their joys and accomplishments? I was well aware that it was a “me” problem, not a “them” problem.
To make matters worse, as 2021 was drawing to a close, I realized there was no way I was going to meet the goal I’d set for myself with my newest project; I was not, in fact, going to finish my revisions and have book 7 ready to send to beta readers by the first of the new year–not if I was going to have a book worth reading, anyway. As a very deadline-oriented person, this was difficult for me, but I realized it was just a fact I would have to deal with.
Because of these “me” problems, I knew I was in need of a social media break, especially from Twitter–my main connection to the writing community. I knew I couldn’t return until I had a better grip on my own outlook and mental health.
During this break, I purposely sought to re-mold my perspective on writing and life, in general. I did this by seeking joy in small moments and focusing on the many good things in my life. I re-read books that had brought me happiness. Took hot baths. Spent time with my family. Watched movies that made me laugh. Sought more time outdoors with my animals. I’m not saying that it was easy or some kind of magical solution. It was a daily battle. And I’m sure there will be relapses. But ever so slowly, I did begin to find pieces of the old, optimistic me.
The funny thing is that I can credit two specific art forms with helping me over this hump, and they both have to do with an actor I’d never given much thought to before: Matthew McConaughey. I mean sure, I loved his performances in Dazed and Confused and Magic Mike but I never expected him to help pull me out of a rut. However, I can affirm that listening to the audio version of his memoir, Greenlights (narrated by Matthew, himself) and then going to watch Sing 2, in which he is the voice behind the main character–the lovable and unstoppable koala, Buster Moon–had a powerful impact on helping to shift my perspective. I found both to be very inspiring. So thanks for that, Matthew.
Now, here I am on this third day of January in a much better place than I was a month ago. I know I must continue to make my mental health a priority, take breaks from social media as needed, and focus only on what I can control. Comparison truly is the thief of joy and as long as we’re aware of this, we can take measures to counteract it. Everyone’s on their own journey and I can respect that.
For me, personally, I need to be mindful of three things:
1.) Moving goalposts are a normal part of the publishing process, but they should never refute or diminish a person’s previous accomplishments.
2.) It’s okay to take a break and do whatever you need to do to focus on you and your mental health. As the old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup.
3.) And finally, when in doubt, find inspiration from others, whether it be Matthew McConaughey or someone else. In other words, seek out new perspectives and art that can inspire and spark joy.
Wishing you all peace and love in the new year.