I won a national short story competition at the end of last year. How exciting! Did I tweet about it, blog about it, text my friends, phone my parents, shout it from the rooftops?
I told absolutely no one. Not a person
I did mention I’d ‘won a prize’ to my parents and boyfriend but I downplayed it as ‘nothing major’ and they thought no more of it. Yet every time I’ve been shortlisted, or come as a runner up, I’ve nearly burst with excitement. Not this time though. This time it was just too big, too scary, too real, to share.
For years I’ve entered competitions with, of course, the intention of winning. But when I actually won it was like hitting a brick wall. A mental, emotional and creative brick wall. What now? I had written a story that other people loved. I was a winner! It almost felt like an insult to the other entrants not to shout about it. But I couldn’t.
My reaction was not what I would have expected, but I understand why I behaved like this. The age old problem of not really believing I’m good enough played a small part, but I can short circuit this belief. I liked the story. I believed it deserved to do well and I had every right to be proud. No, the issue wasn’t that I didn’t deserve it, the issue was that I couldn’t handle the fear.
The fear that the bar had been set and that people now had expectations of me
The fear that I had reached my pinnacle and that nothing else would ever measure up
This could my defining moment, and it would only be downhill from now on. What if I could never write another story as good or as successful? What was the point in me even trying? What would people expect of me? Were there jealous-type folk who were now waiting for me to fail? Would those who wished me success make me feel like I was now under some sort of pressure to perform?
Of course, none of those issues are ‘real.’ The only person waiting for me to fail is me. The only person putting me under pressure to perform is me. The only person who expects anything from me is me. It’s always easier to assume that the pressures come from other people though. As for having reached my ‘defining moment’, who knows? I wanted to win a competition. And I did. Now, I keep trying, to see if I can win another.
A couple of weeks ago, a local reporter called. Cue a large article and photo in the local paper. Cue texts and emails from colleagues, friends and family. Cue people I know coming over to me in the street and congratulating me. Not much else goes on up here, I might add, and I felt like a minor celebrity for a couple of days. And to my surprise, I didn’t feel like a fraud, I didn’t feel under any pressure. I accepted their kind words, told them that yes, I’m working on other stories and projects and no, I’m not at the stage of making millions from my writing. The fear of my own success hadn’t gone, but it had lessened, as I came to terms with the fact that other people don’t have expectations of me. At least not that this stage, and even if they did its my own expectations of myself that matters.
I will write more stories. More good stories. I have achieved a dream and I need to let myself celebrate it, then move on. I don’t stop writing when a story is turned down for a magazine or doesn’t get shortlisted. I dust myself off and keep going. So why on earth would I let a success paralyse me? I still don’t feel comfortable shouting about it, but that doesn’t matter. All I can do is keep writing and keep trying.
How do you cope with success? Do you have fears?