What Should I Do If I’m Ashamed of My Published Work?

The Blunt Instrument, our advice column, on dealing with writing that’s embarrassing in hindsight

The Blunt Instrument is an advice column for writers. If you need tough advice for a writing problem, send your question to blunt@electricliterature.com.

Dear Blunt Instrument,

I am back with a sadder question. Since publishing my book, I have come to hate it. Hate is maybe the wrong word. I am ashamed of it, and in turn, myself. I believe now that I rushed into publishing it because the opportunity was there. I got swept up in the excitement. Part of me knew I wasn’t ready, but another part of me thought, go for it. I went for it and now when I even think about it, I feel terrible. I never received any negative feedback about it (I received quite a bit of positive feedback about it, in fact, including some decent coverage on websites and such — ew sorry), but the small press world is kind, for the most part (unless it determines that you are deserving of less than that, for say, being an asshole). All of that said, I can’t seem to get over it. I think the book is juvenile and confused, and I am not a juvenile. I am in my 30s. But I am confused.

I saw a tweet a little while ago from someone who said, “I would never forgive myself if I wrote a bad book.” I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself, either, and I can’t figure out how to move on. For a time I thought that I would just work hard and write something else that would be so much better and erase the collective memory of my first book (I think I flatter myself to even think there is a collective memory), but I remain filled with doubt. And self-loathing. This might be a better question for a therapist, but here’s the short version: how do you recover from publishing shame?

I am sure many people feel this way, but I never see anyone talking about it. Shame is shameful.

Thank you xxo

Hi Blunt Instrument,

I’m a fiction writer and have been publishing online and in print for about 5 years. When I look back over my past publications, there are a number that just mortify me. In some cases, I just submitted too early, too eagerly (especially at the beginning). In other cases, I just feel that I’ve evolved, and my tastes are not the same as they were, say, three years ago.

I don’t really hear writers talking about this phenomenon. Maybe because it’s so obvious that this is part of the whole deal, or maybe because writers don’t feel comfortable admitting to having negative thoughts about their work. Either way, I often feel really alone in this. I worry about not being able to recover from work that now embarrasses me. Sometimes I wonder if it’s narcissistic to think that anyone gives a shit what I published three years ago, but there’s also the matter of just feeling disappointed in myself.

Anyway, all of these thoughts and feelings breed a neuroticism that can feel paralyzing and dooming at times. Would love your thoughts.

Thanks very much,

Jenny

Dear partners in shame,

I was struck by the similarities in your two letters. Both of you note that the embarrassment you’ve been feeling isn’t something writers often talk about, so there’s a meta-shame in even acknowledging writerly shame. (“Shame is shameful”!) However, I am sure you’re not alone in these feelings. One writer I know was quite proud of his first novel, until recently; he only regretted that it didn’t receive more attention. Now, more than a decade after he finished it, I’ve started to hear him say, when people tell him they plan to read the novel, “I’d sort of rather you didn’t.” What was our life’s work eventually becomes our juvenilia.

What was our life’s work eventually becomes our juvenilia.

There are two problems we need to address here: One, how do you deal with the shame you’re feeling now, so you can feel good about writing again? And two, how do you avoid feeling that kind of shame in the future?

To figure out a solution to the first problem, we need to talk about the idea of progress. Is or isn’t it illusory? As a writer, you’re going to be more or less cognizant of your progress on two different levels. One level is really about your private experience with your own development. Do you feel that you’re getting better? Is the writing you produce getting closer to the ideal of what you want to write?

It makes sense that young people, because they lack experience, would tend to undervalue experience and overvalue talent, which may be all they have. It also makes sense that older people would place a higher value on experience, now that they have it. I am not especially young, so you can take my bias into account, but I believe that experience is important, and that more life experience, reading experience, and writing experience are going to make you a better writer. Oddly, though, writers don’t talk a lot about this kind of progress. I’ve heard lots of writers say that “you can’t teach writing” — i.e., you’ve either got it or you don’t. This seems to be based on an assumption that writing ability is something static and unchanging, like a gene. Some writers, perhaps, don’t want to admit that writing can be taught (which is to say, that writing can be learned), because admitting that you can get better at writing means admitting there was a time when you weren’t a great writer.

The other kind of progress is more external — essentially, are you becoming more successful over time? I once asked a question on Twitter of writers with multiple books: Do you think your most successful book — the one that sold the most and got the most attention — is your best book? Most authors said no. As for me, my second book got a lot of attention, at least for a small press title, so I expected my third book to get even more. Well, that wasn’t the case. Careers do not inevitably progress according to some natural law. Success is mostly a matter of random luck; hard work helps but is no guarantee of success.

I think writers’ expectations of these two kinds of progress are usually backwards: They believe their talent is basically static, and progress will come mostly in the form of their talent being gradually more recognized. But the healthier and more realistic way to think about your career is that your writing will probably get better over time — if you work diligently and consistently, along with doing ancillary writing work like reading — whereas your publishing success will follow a much less predictable trajectory. Sometimes the writing you’re most proud of will get minimal attention, whereas things you barely care about, or that you don’t feel are representative of your style, might find a large audience. Once the work is published, it has a life of its own.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out this way; some people write a great first book, immediately experience explosive success, and then write crap for the rest of their lives, because it sells anyway and they can get away with it. But my point here is this: It is natural and normal and good, or in any case perfectly fine, that you should feel a story or poem or book you wrote in the past is not your best work. That means you’re getting better as a writer, by your own standards, and why should there be any shame in that? I want you to feel that what you’re writing now is the best thing you’ve ever done — and, moreover, that your best work is coming in the future. That kind of progress should excite you and keep you going.

It is natural and normal and good, or in any case perfectly fine, that you should feel a story or poem or book you wrote in the past is not your best work.

So how should you think about that older work? You should try to feel good about it. Remember that someone thought it was good enough that they spent time and energy and money to share it with the world, knowing their name would be associated with it. Remember it might be finding the right readers at the right time; just because your own tastes are evolving doesn’t mean there aren’t readers out there who are falling in love with your earlier writing the way your editors and publishers did. But go ahead and use it as motivation too — finish that better book you’re working on so that your readers can follow your progress.

(One quick aside: I don’t think it’s pertinent to either of your situations, but I feel I should mention this. I can imagine a scenario where you might want to take more aggressive action — for example, if you realized that something you published years ago was unforgivably racist or sexist. If something you published online is now morally repugnant to you, I think it’s fair to contact the editors and request that they take it down. They might not, but it’s worth a try. If the same thing happened with a book you wrote, you could talk to your publisher about it; they might agree to pull the book. At the extreme end you could try to buy all the extant copies, an expensive but viable solution. But I wouldn’t pursue these options just because you don’t think your old work is as good as it could be; it would be an insult to the people who published it.)

Now let’s get to that second problem: How to avoid future publishing shame?

Unfortunately, you have no guarantee that your future selves will feel the same about anything you do as your current self does. Your style as a writer and your tastes as a reader will evolve over time. But you can mitigate discord between these versions of yourself by practicing generosity and patience. Be generous toward your past selves; forgive them their writing and publishing mistakes. Those mistakes are part of your personal progress, and you’ve learned from them. Further, just because your tastes have changed doesn’t mean your old writing is bad; I often enjoy writers’ earlier books for their impulsiveness or loose ends, qualities that get ironed out as the writer matures.

Be generous toward your past selves; forgive them their writing and publishing mistakes. Those mistakes are part of your personal progress, and you’ve learned from them.

And be patient about your publishing success. Give yourself plenty of time with a piece of writing before you send it out. Try to find at least one trusted reader that you can share your drafts with before submitting them to publishers. That trust component is important — make sure you can count on your early readers for an honest opinion, not just empty encouragement. Remember that once published, things can stick around for a very long time, so be sure that a piece of writing is as good as you can currently make it before you set it free. But understand that there is no perfect amount of time to wait that will protect you from all possibility of regret; you won’t get a sign from the universe that your work is done; it’s a decision you need to make on your own.

Finally — let’s do our part to end the culture of meta-shame. If you hate a thing you published, go ahead and say so, but then let it go. Feeling a little bad about something — who says we should feel good all the time? — is not as debilitating if you take away the part where you feel bad about feeling bad.

Best of luck to you both.

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