Success Sickness, by Eric Witchey


Fantasy Silver Medal, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards


Success Sickness

Eric Witchey

Last weekend, I supported a local mini-conference here in Salem, Oregon. The conference made use of the Parallel Play program psychologist Brian Nierstadt helped me create sixteen years ago. Parallel Play has been the subject of other articles and will be again. For now, I want to focus on the fact that the conference was all about production and overcoming obstacles.

Aside: Special thanks to Chris Patchell and Debbie Moller, who did the bulk of the work to create the very successful, sold-out weekend. Special thanks to Willamette Writers: Orit Ofri, Kate Ristau, and Summer Bird. Also, thanks to the other professionals who donated their time to help the local community of writers: Rachel Barton, Erica Bauermeister, Elizabeth Engstrom, Devon Monk, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Natalie Serber. My deepest apologies if I’ve missed anyone.

Now, it happens that on the Wednesday before the conference one of my novels received recognition from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPYs). Littlest Death, cover show above and available in print or ebook on Amazon from Shadow Spinners Press (grin),  received the silver medal in the Fantasy category.

Result? I can’t write.

This is not a new experience. I know I’ll get past it, but I thought I’d take a second to write about this particular form of writer’s block because of the inspiring mini-lectures I was honored to listen to over the weekend. However, before I really get going, I want to point out that this is sort of a violation of certain social mores. In our culture, we accept that people can talk about the struggles, problems, obstacles, and especially the solutions encountered while striving to achieve our dreams. The gods know, I have done plenty of that both verbally and in writing over the years. We are much less accepting of people exploring the struggles, problems, obstacles, and solutions that appear because we achieve the things we strive for. Nobody wants to hear about how annoyed you are about the misleading Engine Warning light in your new Rolls Royce, but everybody wants know how you managed to, and by extension how they can, get a Rolls Royce.

So, at the risk of social shunning, I offer these insights into a problem I hope everyone has already overcome or gets the chance to overcome.

First, I’ll point out that there are two types of success sickness. They are “Anticipatory success sickness” and “recent success sickness.” They pretty much work the same way, and the treatment is pretty much the same, too.

Here’s how success sickness, which I sometimes erroneously call award sickness, works.

  1. The writer either anticipates or has received some new success—any new success. It can be as simple as a compliment from a teacher, a friend, or someone in the family.
  2. The writer sits down to write.
  3. The writer starts wondering either what they should write to succeed or what they did when they wrote the material that succeeded.
  4. The writer can’t figure it out, so they scrub the bathroom floor instead of writing.
  5. Repeat 2-5 until suicidal or new floor tile is required in the bathroom.

I first encountered success sickness after selling my first short story in 1987. I didn’t sell another story until 1997.

Well, that sucked.

Then, I won a slot at Writers of the Future and a place in the top ten from New Century Writers. New Century was a big deal then because Ray Bradbury was involved. Now, sadly, both Ray and New Century are gone. About the same time as the above two awards, I sold my first short story to a national slick magazine.

All good, right? I figured I was off to the races—a made man in the fiction family.

Then, number 2, I sat down to write and…NOTHING…3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5…

Well, that sucked.

After about six months of cleaning the bathroom and chatting with my new phone friends from the suicide hot line, I realized that I was in the loop of trying to recreate the success without understanding that the success had been created by not trying to create the success. In short, I had just been practicing my craft when I wrote the stories that won the awards and sold.

Sure, I wanted to sell stories and win awards, but I hadn’t been working on each story with the idea that I would do certain things in order to sell the story or in order to win an award. I had just worked on each story to make it the best story I could make it. I had practiced craft without regard for outcome.

That realization led to the idea that I needed to just work on stories and stop thinking about the successes, which of course is like telling yourself to not think about the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sigh… Well, that sucked.

Once the tile in the bathroom had been replaced and I had tattooed the suicide hotline number on the inside of my wrist, I decided I needed to figure out how to trick myself into not paying attention to what I may or may not have done to contribute to the success I wanted to repeat.

My solution was to practice craft in a way that made it impossible to write a story that would sell. If I knew it couldn’t sell, then I couldn’t expect anything from it other than experience and words through the fingers.

Clever monkey.

So, I went back to the basic concept of practicing craft. I went back to my personal simplest form of practicing craft. I picked random topics to bind together into silly stories. That way, it would be impossible to believe I was creating saleable, award-winning material. Then, I picked a craft concept to practice. I called what I was doing my morning warmup, and I sat down every morning to a speed writing session in which I attempted to execute the craft concept I had selected while also incorporating the stupid random topics.

No pressure. No bathroom. No hot line. Just silliness and practice.

We are talking seriously random, here: My orange coffee mug; Mrs. McPharon’s black gravel driveway; The stinging fur on a caterpillar I found on Hogue’s barn. These are things from my desk and my childhood—totally unrelated. The concept to practice was, conversely, serious. It might be any of a thousand things, but it is always specific—something like “deliver implied intentions through indirect dialog.”

Five to fifteen minutes of speed writing attempting the concept and including the random topics was all I had to do. I started with one minute based on the belief that I can always sit down to do one minute. In a week or so, it became five. Later, and to this day twenty years later, it is fifteen.

Way back then, it took about six months before I stopped second-guessing every word and my writing became about the story on the table again. And, oddly, once I forgot to worry about how I had done what I had done, I did it again.

Well, that didn’t suck.

Except, then, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and…

And begin again. New tile. Reacquainted with the hot line people. And back to five minutes and random topics at speed.

About six weeks passed, and I forgot to worry about how I did what I did, so I did it again.

… and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, …

You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2018 Silver Medal in Fantasy IPPY award, and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3,4,5, and…

And back to five minutes of speed writing at the mini-conference. I did manage to put in several hours of productivity at the conference, but my stupid brain kept returning to what I had done to make Littlest Death an award-winning story.

Well, that sucks.

I’m hoping it will only take me a week or so to get to the point where I forget to worry about how I did what I did so I that can do it again. However, since I’m hoping that will happen, it will probably take longer since I now also have to forget to hope that I’ll forget to worry about how I did what I did before I can do it again.

Silly monkey.

The moral to this whole convoluted story is that sitting down to write something silly for one minute will lead to five will lead to fifteen will lead to an inevitable focus on the story at hand instead of what it might do once it’s finished because of what other stories have done in the past.

I will point out at this point that many of the stories I have sold were born during my warmup and became the story at hand. It turns out that choosing random topics to make it impossible to write a story is nearly impossible because the brain can, if given the freedom to do so, make a story out of pretty much anything. Sadly, that adds a whole new layer to this insanity of not thinking about what you did while you are doing what you are doing now so that you can repeat what you did. I think that’s another article.

Success sickness is the mind attaching itself to what was and what will be instead of resting in what is. Playful experimentation will bring the mind back to the here and now in which all successes are born.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.


Living With the Gap: Or, Embrace the Suck

by Eric M. Witchey

Desperate Writer: “Hi! My name is Eric Witchey, and I’m a writer.”

Chorus: “Hi, Eric.”

I was in graduate school studying theoretical linguistics when I decided to attend my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily if you have a different perspective than mine, the meeting was at a church, and the church was full of in-your-face Evangelical Christians who took it upon themselves to attempt to convince me that my only hope was to embrace the only higher power that was worth a damn—theirs.

Yeah, I now know that’s not supposed to happen, but I didn’t know it then.

So, my exposure to their 12 step program was very short. I was desperate, so I went to three whole meetings before I choked on their attentions and assertions.

I decided to break my bad habits my way, and I immersed myself in work. I traded one addiction for another. I’ll talk more about that problem in some other post.

About my fifth day rededicated to my new focus, I was sitting in a linguistics class in which we were exploring the relationship between vocabulary acquisition processes and their possible implications for brain structure (Ugh). That’s what theoretical linguists do. Anyway, in that class, I learned about the relationship between recognition vocabulary and working vocabulary.

It wasn’t a new idea for me, nor is it a new idea for you. We all have the experience of learning a new word then suddenly seeing it on billboards, in books, in newspapers, and in blogs. It’s like, “Wow… Nobody ever used that word before, and now everybody is using it.” Of course, that’s not really what has happened at all. The only real change is in our brains. We have learned to recognize the pattern of the new word. Later, if we practice with the word, we begin to be able to use it in normal conversation. It enters our working vocabulary.

We learn new words all the time. We add them to our recognition vocabulary. Then, with use, we add them to our working vocabulary, which means they have become part of our fluency in the language. Frustratingly, we can always recognize more words than we can comfortably use.

Back to grad school.

My new addiction to work, and perhaps the fact that the concept described above came to me during one of those first, blissful days of post-withdrawal health, left me with a predisposition to see the vocabulary acquisition concept functioning in my life with every new idea to which I was exposed.

Go figger. You use the same brain to learn words that you use to learn everything else. For example, you can see and understand how a clown juggles three balls long before practice allows you to do it yourself. Same concept.

So, it wasn’t long before I started to feel depressed.

Yes, depressed.

Okay, the bliss of newly found health probably wore off, too. However, that’s another post. The important thing here is that I noticed a pattern. It went like this:

  • I learned a new concept. Yeah! I’m brilliant!
  • I suddenly saw the concept reflected in life all around me and realized that everybody else on the planet already knew it. Boo! I suck! I’m sooo far behind.
  • I practiced using the new concept in order to catch up with everybody else. Yeah! I’m doing okay!
  • Just when I got caught up, I learned a new concept. Yeah! I’m brilliant!
  • But wait… The new concept shows up everywhere. Everybody on the planet already knew it… Boo! I suck!

The pattern repeated. It repeated again. What a bloody rollercoaster. Pretty soon, I could see that it would never end. Everything I tried to do would always suck. This turned out to be especially true for my writing.

Fast forward 25 years and thousands of hours of learning, practicing, and publishing.

The bloody rollercoaster never ended. It just kept on and on and on. The thing has been relentless. I swear, it was like no matter how hard I worked, I could never ever catch up.

And that’s the point this convoluted post is trying to make.

Writers learn new techniques all the time. We learn to recognize a new pattern for creating an effect in the mind of the reader. For example, this sentence opens with an introductory element offset by a comma in order to create a transition that marks an example of a point being made in the text. We recognize that pattern and begin to see it around us in use. Then, we practice it. Eventually, our hands can produce it without the intervention of careful thought. We express ourselves through the pattern without considering the pattern itself. The pattern becomes part of our working fluency.

However, we also always experience a gap between what we can recognize and what we can execute. The gap never goes away. The more we can execute, the greater the potential we will encounter new patterns we will learn to recognize. Once you can juggle three balls, you can see how it might be possible to juggle four or five.

Over time, our recognition and execution skills both improve, but the gap between what we can recognize and what we can execute always exists. It never gets smaller. Not ever. No matter how skilled we become, the gap is forever.

So, everything we do sucks because we can always recognize our failure to execute.

In fact, if our writing stops sucking, we’ve stopped learning.

And that brings us back to the early days of my recovery. In spite of the good intentions of the not-so-helpful Christians at my first meeting, I eventually learned that recognizing my addictive tendencies and understanding the potential benefits of clean living were very different from actually living without self-medication. No matter how detailed my understanding of a drug-free life became, the reality of the physiological underpinnings of my abuse meant that living clean was existence in a state of constant discomfort. With practice, discomfort became the proof of my health. Later still, I embraced the discomfort so completely that it became comfortable.

Writer lesson learned?

If I wanted to survive as a practicing writer, I had to learn to embrace the gap. Trust it. Believe in it. Feed it new patterns. Practice and improve. I had to learn to recognize that the important thing is not that my work sucks. The important thing is that I know I am improving because what I write sucks in different ways as I improve.

We’re all stuck with the same brain whether writing, juggling, or getting clean.

Embrace the suck.