A few weeks ago I was on a plane having an epiphany about second chances and perfectionism while watching a film.
The film was Burnt and the story was about a star chef (played by Bradley Cooper) who had ruined an amazing culinary career at a young age. Adam Jones, played by Cooper, was trying to make a comeback in the restaurant world. Stakes were high, tempers were inflamed, and this film was sending me a profound message about my career as a writer.
Maybe it was the rum and coke or the fact that I was sitting next to the world's grumpiest man, but Bradley Cooper's role as Adam Jones was making me emotional and speaking to me like I was on a yoga retreat.
It's rare I connect to the protagonist of a film in such a powerful way. The last film I'd deeply connected with was Waltz with Bashir, a film about a soldier suffering from memory loss and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had never been a soldier, but my therapist had diagnosed me with PTSD and prescribed a litany of medications after I started seeing her for sleep disturbances after leaving a religious organization she later labeled a cult.
My connection with Bradley Cooper's character felt profound in this moment on this plane. Like Cooper's character, I had walked away from a once in a lifetime opportunity. We'd both found some success at a young age (he with cooking and I with writing) and squandered it. He to drugs and I to my fears.
Prior to getting on this flight, I had just sent an essay to my editor; the first essay that I had written and sought to publish in nearly two years. Not only was it the first essay I'd written in nearly two years; it was an essay on why I quit writing. I had included a candid look at my debilitating anxiety and made myself vulnerable to readers: sharing that medication didn't "fix" my suffocating fears. "Success" only made them worse. I was paralyzed by paranoia and isolated myself from nearly everyone I knew. The essay made me feel vulnerable and it illustrated how deeply troubled I had felt (and still feel) about writing.
I didn't just identify with Adam Jones. I was Adam Jones, sans drugs.
In Burnt, Chef Jones explains what happened to him: "At sixteen I quit school, I saved just enough for a one-way ticket to Paris. And maybe I just wanted it really badly and when I got it too early I didn't know how to hold onto it."
Like Chef Jones, I knew what I wanted an early age and went after it. I wrote my first novel in elementary school and sent it to a publisher only to have it rejected. When I began to write in college, I wanted nothing more than to publish and have the byline of my dreams. I did everything I could to make that happen: I got a degree in creative writing, wrote as often as I could, sought out mentors, read obsessively, and perfected my query letters.
I wasn't even thirty and felt I'd "made it." To some degree I had. Publishers were, and still are, publishing books by popular bloggers and I had the kind of publicity requests most people with PR teams have. Blogging, and a compelling story, had done the work for me.
I had the life every young writer aspires to have: some publications under my belt, a prominent literary agent courting my memoir, and interview requests about my writing occurring regularly.
And then I got stuck. Very badly. I couldn't finish my memoir. I wrote tens of thousands of words many times over and none of them seemed right. This wasn't the story I wanted to tell and in part, it wasn't the whole story; I wasn't finished healing from the time I'd spent in a cult so how could I write about my grand epiphany if I hadn't had it yet. Memoir is about revelation; it's about the hero's journey, what they learn and how they change. Sure, I had changed. I had changed into a paranoid agoraphobe. How's that the happy, revelatory ending readers long for?
I struggled and struggled until I finally put my memoir aside. Promising queries with several agents didn't matter as much to me as writing the right book did. I was proud of that decision, even though it wasn't an easy one.
One day I was chatting with my friend Traci Foust, author of Nowhere Near Normal, about my issues. She suggested I try writing a novel before my memoir, maybe even a novel about cults. It had worked for other writers, she said, and named a few. So eventually, the idea for my current novel was born. Within weeks I had a smart female protagonist that even I wanted to be like. She was the start of something fantastic. I could tell by the way she pulled me into her world and into her mind and didn't let me go. She was the kind of lead every author hopes for and she was right here in front of me.
Unfortunately, after finishing the first and second drafts, something didn't feel right with this book. I started doubting the setting and storyline. The villain wasn't quite believable even though he was based in reality.
Still, I sat down day after day to work on what I've nicknamed the Novel That Is Giving Me An Aneurysm and nothing came out. It was the most frustrating feeling in the world and I finally quit.
For two years, I wrote almost nothing. My last novel draft eventually sat wide open on my bedroom floor, becoming a bed for my cat. I closed my blog and walked away from my career as a national recognized blogger about cults at the height of its popularity. I had twelve television producers interested in creating a show about my writing and I had been courted by a literary agent, but I was paralyzed. I was impotent. I felt like an utter failure.
So what happens to those of us who, like Adam Jones, want it badly and find success early? Like Chef Jones said in the film, we don't always know how to hold onto it. And like Chef Jones, when we squander the one thing we wanted most we fall into a devastating, dark place where we lose faith in ourselves and our ability to create.
I've thought a lot about why I let go of the one thing I've longed for more than anything and I don't have one good reason. In fact, I'm not even sure a person caught up in debilitating anxiety can make clear sense of the chaos in her head, but I have some ideas about why it may have happened.
Maybe the pressure was too much. As a perfectionist, I put an extraordinarily large amount of pressure on myself. The first draft had to be perfect. My book had to not only please agents; it had to please readers. Not only did it need to please readers; it needed to become a bestseller. That's an amazing amount of pressure to put on myself for my first book. I felt an insane amount of pressure in the spotlight, and amongst fans: the pressure to never have writer's block, the pressure to keep growing more successful; and the pressure to never make a mistake, not even one.
In some ways, finding success made me feel unsteady; as if my self-worth was measured by what people on the Internet thought of me. When I wrote something unpopular and people sent me hate mail, I cried. When fans disagreed with me and "unliked" my page after publicly shaming me, I cried again. I let my value as a human and as a writer be directed what people thought and said about me.
What was I so afraid of? As silly as it sounds, I was afraid of success. I was riddled with this idea that I wouldn't be able to "make it" and if I did, I would feel incredibly unstable. I can't say why this is true for me and not true for other writers, who have no trouble being insanely famous and maintaining their sense of self. I know others feel like me, though, and when I see celebrities losing their stability in the public eye it breaks my heart. I have, in some small way, felt like that way before.
I was suffocated by the idea that I might make something of this writing thing and I was afraid of the very thing I had wanted all my life. Nothing gave me respite except taking several steps back and completely retreating offline.
Like Chef Jones, I ran away from the one thing that reminded me of how I'd let myself - and in this case, others - down. During my retreat offline, I went completely silent. I ignored good people who were trying to give me opportunities for interviews and speaking engagements. I grew angry and bitter, unable to understand why I was so angry and unable to let go of it.
When I wrote about coming back to writing just a few weeks ago, I wasn't sure if I'd be met with excitement or radio silence. It wasn't entirely silent, but there weren't as many persistent fans like there were before. My fans hadn't been waiting for my return. They'd moved on and found someone else to read.
On the one hand, this sense of silence was a good thing. There wasn't any instant pressure building. I knew I needed a fresh start. I wanted that fresh space to create something new and publish whatever I wanted to publish; not what I thought I needed to publish to make a career out of writing, as I'd done before.
I knew this would be my reality; that my fans might have left or resented me or just grew tired of waiting for me. I knew it would be a slow build to find new readers. And somehow it felt satisfying.
Quitting something you're passionate about certainly isn't easy. The last two years were complicated and dark. I'd retreated into the professional world, and resigned not to write again. I wondered what I was really "called" to do.
And then as simply as my desire to quit came into my heart, my desire to write again started to take shape. It felt like hope and looked like courage. I started missing my readers and the incessant emails that had caused me to retreat.
Unlike the big splash I made in my twenties, I resigned to start over quietly. Instead of plowing through goals like the ambitious young woman I once was, I'm now working on writing my absolute best every time; thoughtfully connecting with my fans; and appreciating the moment I'm currently in.
I may have a quiet inbox and no agenda, but I have the courage to write again. Oh and the Novel That Is Giving Me An Aneurysm? It's coming along much better now.
Lisa Kerr is a California based writer whose work has been published in (the late) Milk Sugar, the Northridge Review, and the New York magazine among others. You can find out more about her on her website or find her on Facebook.