Ecological catastrophes, global pandemics, endless armed conflicts … With the world in a constant state of turmoil, sometimes I wonder what the hell I am doing and if it matters even one iota.
If you have ever wondered something similar, we are fellow members of the Existential Crisis Club. The club has welcomed many new members since a spikey little coronavirus forced millions of people to evaluate their lives and what they were doing with them, sparking the so-called Great Resignation. In 2021, 47.8 million Americans quit their jobs, and the quitting continues as people tire of doing something they consider valueless and search for something more meaningful. In Europe in 2022, citizens facing the renewed threat of a cold war are also pondering the point of it all—life, that is.
For some, this existential panic takes a serious toll on their mental health. For me, it’s simply a constant hum of anxiety, like mild tinnitus of the soul that increases in volume every so often before subsiding again into the background: ever present but not debilitating. As a writer, the anxiety is partly about the legacy of my creativity.
Writers (all artists, of course) often suffer a lack of confidence in their value as a creator and the worth of their work in the world, especially when the daily struggles of everyday people are so blatant. What’s the point of asking people to buy our stuff when so few people can afford to properly heat their homes? Maybe they can burn the pages in the grate …
But writers don’t need a global pandemic or enemy invasion to be thrown into existential despair; frequently all it takes is a single rejection from an agent or publisher. Just one ‘no’ can make us question the value of every word we’ve ever written. With a rejection/acceptance ratio of several billion to one, it’s amazing any writer has any self-belief at all.
So, how do we as writers deal with such crises of self-worth? As far as I’m concerned, we could all take a leaf from the Stoics’ book. Here are a few basic tenets of Stoicism to keep in mind when the going gets tough existentially speaking.
1. Focus on what you can control. That means ignoring the vagaries of the publishing industry and concentrating on putting words on paper. Continuing to take action is crucial here; simply giving up with a shrug and a night of Netflix is not being Stoic … that’s just being lazy.
2. Be virtuous. Okay, this might seem like a stretch, but stay with me. Writers can spread happiness through their writing. So what if Harper Collins gives you the bum’s rush? Sharing your work with your friends, family or other forums makes your work valuable, and being an active and generous member of a writing community will help you and your fellow writers feel seen, heard and valued.
3. Limit your ego. Remember that A) Rejection is 99 times out of 100 about the rejecter, not the rejected, and B) You are not entitled to success because, as noted in point 1, there are too many variables to contend with. Behaving like a moody teenager when you don’t get what you want or being jealous of another writer’s success isn’t a good look, and you’ll only perpetuate your existential misery … follow point 2 instead!
4. Build resilience. For Stoical writers, this means managing your emotions and channelling them into action. In his book on modern Stoicism, The Obstacle Is the Way, Ryan Holiday writes: “Under pressure and trial we get better—become better people, leaders, and thinkers. … See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path is now a path. What once impeded action advances action.” In other words, learn to see setbacks as opportunities. How we feel about rejection and our self-worth (indeed, everything in life) is ultimately a choice, but that type of decision-making is a learned skill for many of us, so be patient and practice resilience daily.
5. Practice gratitude. Ah yes, where would the pep talk be without the platitude of gratitude! This is hard, but try to find things to celebrate every day on your writing journey, from the smallest achievements to the biggest successes. Perhaps you’re simply grateful for the fact you own a laptop! Recognise the fact that writing is a privilege and not everyone has the luxury of sitting down each day for an hour to work on their opus. Don’t abuse that privilege by giving into bitterness or self-pity.
Finally, when I’ve got my head firmly up my butt in a bout of existential angst, I remember that D.H. Lawrence said it best: “Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything. Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve, which flows on, pointless.”
For some, this quote might make matters worse. For me, I am soothed by the idea that we must simply enjoy life in the moment without the expectation of reward. After all, if tomorrow never comes, none of our work will matter, period.
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith