About three years ago, I hit a wall in my professional career. I was working as the VP of Operations at an events company, and while I loved everyone I worked with, I was on-call during every waking hour, developing major anxiety due to the crippling stress of the events world, and having way too many issues in my personal life due to my inability to leave work at work. Needless to say, I stayed on edge. Regular massages, meditation, exercise, and acupuncture were not enough to keep me from crashing and burning, and I eventually hit a wall. Emotionally and psychologically exhausted, but unable to just up and leave the security of my day job, I did something that I recalled often bringing me comfort in tough times growing up: I wrote.
What began as a stream of consciousness morphed into a strange sci-fi/horror story about trauma, technology-based psychotherapy, and demons (of the literal variety). It was a frenetic exercise in channeling my negative energy into art, and after a few days I actually found myself feeling both relieved and surprisingly productive. In this moment, I had a refreshing idea: I could start managing my negative emotions by pouring myself into creative writing in my free time, carving out a world of escapism that would make living in my “real” life just a little bit easier to deal with.
Within weeks, I completed my first work of fiction—a short psychological horror story title “Latency” about a struggling author who attempts to fill in the missing gaps in his memory after strange events start occurring around him. Feeling particularly proud of it, I immediately sent the story out to a few horror publications, and it was ultimately picked up as part of an e-book anthology. With this news, it dawned on me that maybe I could actually pursue work as a professional author. I began plotting out a number of other works of short and long fiction, all firmly rooted in the horror and suspense genres, my personal favorites. Fueled by pure passion, I felt like my life was heading in new and exciting directions. At that rate, I could surely publish at least another four to five stories within the year, couldn’t I?
As it turns out, I could not.
Despite multiple attempts, I have published zero additional works of fiction to date since my first story. As I make this statement in writing for the first time ever, it is likely unsurprising to hear that I feel like I have essentially failed at being the author I planned on being three years ago.
I am obviously still writing these days, but certainly not in the same capacity that I had dreamed of when I first imagined myself becoming the next Barker, King, or Ketchum. As I think back on my yet-unrealized dreams of living as a successful—or even just relatively active—dark fiction author, it’s difficult to ignore the pangs of disappointment that these thoughts stir up in me.
I am not one who enjoys dwelling on what has transpired in the past, but a part of me has often wondered if pinpointing where it all took an unexpected turn might bring some meaning to what has until now felt like a ever-present, but oddly disembodied feeling of failure in my life as a creative individual. In reflecting on the last few years, I would no doubt find many moments of note that I could potentially hold responsible for this sense of disappointment that has seemed to follow me like a faint shadow, even as I pursue active work as a part-time journalist.
I could harp on the fact that I jumped the gun pretty quickly when I started writing my first story. I decided to immediately work on fleshing out my online persona as an up-and-coming dark genre storyteller. Believe me when I say I spent a lot of time doing this. My rationale was that if I was going to be a successful author, I had to look the part. It’s worth noting that I was working on all of this—from creating my official (now temporarily defunct) website to getting headshots made to developing a legitimate social media presence—before I had even finished writing “Latency.” It was a classic case of putting the horse before the cart, but I was just so damn excited to hit the trail that it was difficult to really think through the proper steps of this process for an aspiring author.
I could mention how I decided to get way too involved in the writers’ community before actually having much writing to my name. After officially selling my first story, I joined a prominent organization that was essentially a support system filled with resources for new writers. While joining the organization was not a mistake (I rather enjoyed what it offered and the folks in it), I attempted to immerse myself in it far too quickly by jumping on an organizational committee, seeing it as a means of “getting my name out there.” Almost immediately, I took on a host of committee tasks that took significant time away from writing. I knew this was a bad idea almost immediately after doing it, but for some reason I convinced myself that it would be great for my career in the long run. It wasn’t, of course—at least not for a writer who had nothing to promote.
I could certainly focus on how I tried to better my career as a fiction writer by inexplicably putting it to the side altogether, taking on work as an entertainment journalist (hello!), once again in the name of exposure. After weeks of failing to make any real progress on my follow-up story ideas, I decided to try to at least remain active in the medium by reaching out to a prominent online horror publication and inquiring about any openings for contributing writers. There were (see: no pay), and thus I began immersing myself in the world of journalism. Naturally, I thought this would be another brilliant way for me to keep writing and also connect with a base of supportive genre lovers who might one day appreciate my own brand of dark fiction—once I actually finished more stories, of course. However, I soon found that the life of a journalist, even a moonlighting one, is a chaotic whirlwind filled with its own set of politics, social codes, and expectations. Wanting to make some sort of name for myself in the field nonetheless, I spent much time engaging with other writers regularly, watching a ton of movies and television shows, attending regular film screenings, and conduct interviews during my free time. This was all, of course, to the further detriment of my personal writing projects. At this time, I was still actively calling myself a “dark fiction author,” but more and more I found it difficult to utter these words without feeling like an outright fake.
I could definitely mention how my role as a film critic essentially started to make me terrified of ever writing anything original again. As a contributor who covered lots of independent and festival films, it became part of my job to regularly weigh in on the quality of the work of other aspiring creatives. When I attempted to set aside time to work on my own creative projects, however, I grew fearful and hypercritical of the quality of stories I was producing. I spent far too much time imagining how Critic Ari might pick apart Author Ari’s stories, and I found myself facing greater writer’s block than ever before. I often became outright embarrassed by some of the ideas I tried to bring to fruition, convinced that nothing was ever reader-ready and scrapping just about everything with haste.
I could stress how my persistent inability to finish anything I started ultimately had me convinced that I had no real talent as a creative writer. I recall four months ago attempting to work on “Sundown,” an homage to Lovecraft and The Wicker Man that made it further along than most of my other writing attempts. For hours, I tried painstakingly to finish a pivotal sequence in the story leading up to its finale; it was maybe a few hundred words worth of scene that I needed to get together, but I just couldn’t bring myself to make any of my prose work effectively. It was as if I was writing for the first time ever, and in a moment of unnerving self-deprecation, I looked at everything I had written with utter disdain, deleted all 6,000+ words of it, and almost completely trashed my entire “Works-in-Progress” folder altogether. I didn’t though. Instead, I chilled out, CTRL+Z’ed, closed my laptop, grabbed a beer, and watched TV with my husband and dog.
When thinking back on the many wrong turns that might have led to various failures in life, it can be tempting to try and hunt down and harp on the single decision or even lone thought that ultimately led to shortcomings in our careers, relationships, self-appraisals, and so on. It is as if identifying the responsible party for these life-plans gone awry would change the course of history, but I have to wonder these days what good ever comes from wishing longingly for all that never was. Inside the most self-critical of us, feelings of failure can be debilitating and unnecessarily cruel sometimes, but they can also be enlightening, showing us who we don’t want to be any longer and giving us an opportunity to stop the damaging cycles we perpetuate, a chance to try one more time.
While I could be bitter at the world or angry with myself as I reflect on each of these moments that failed to lead me to the life of a successful author, I also have the choice to stand firm in the resounding echo of subjective failure and say, “OK… what the hell happened here and how can I start changing it?” Perhaps with a closer look and an open mind, these perceptions of bad decisions, wasted time, and outright professional faceplants can transform into something far more complex or meaningful. Even if not, I still believe there is something to be said for making peace with the emotional repercussions of personal letdowns before they cause any further damage to one’s self-worth or sense of self-efficacy. It’s a simple—if not somewhat hackneyed—observation that although many of us fail quite frequently, we are not the embodiment of our failures. Still, given my propensity for falling victim to self-loathing and doubt, it’s one I feel is worth considering often.
As a writer, I will admit that unlike the more immediate sharpness of being met with rejection letters and harsh criticisms, there is an insidiousness to the dull ache of disappointment that accompanies the seeming inability to create—the ultimate failure for any artist. Without warning, this ache makes a home in you, slowly causing you to question your abilities and your resolve, planting seeds of anxiety deep within the core of your creative processes, making you fear ever writing another word, sending you into a spiral of existential crisis, and so on and so forth. It’s not fun. When it comes down to it though, a feeling of failure is not, nor does it have to be, the final nail in the coffin for a writer, or any creative in general—at least not if you don’t want it to be.
These days, I still aspire to write the novel I mapped out three years ago and believe that I will carve out space in my life to do so when the time is right. Of course, I remain active in my work in journalism for the time being, and have come to focus on writing pieces that resonate with me on a deeper level, even within the scope of entertainment. As an author, I have also recently begun working on one of the dozen story ideas in my “Works-in-Progress” folder.
Despite the fact that I am clearly not a famous horror author, delving into writing again three years ago ultimately restored a balance to my life that had been missing for far too long in early adulthood. It also instilled a boldness in me that allowed me to make big moves more recently in regard to my day-to-day professional life, and I am currently en route to (finally) leaving my day job and returning to school to pursue a graduate degree in a helping professions field for which I care immensely.
As I move forward, however, I will continue to make space in my life for creativity. No matter how often anything I write is ever read, the act of putting the whole of my energy into a story or an essay or a stream of consciousness, even for a brief moment, is one of the most freeing and deeply personal experiences I have ever encountered. I am learning every day to thrive in that freedom as much and as often as I can, and though I still have days when I feel like I have failed in reaching many of my creative goals (I still only have one story published to my name, mind you), I cannot imagine a life in which I am content with letting this all go.