Wednesday, December 29, 2010

At Least You Have...

...A finished manuscript.

...Partial requests.

...An agent.

...A book deal.

...A published book.

...A spot on the bestseller list.

...A nomination for a major award.

I'm sure you've heard many or all variations of the "At least you have" statement. Gotta admit, I kind of loathe it. Not to say I'm innocent, but let's think a little bit about what it's really saying.

I've come to a strange point in the writing world. Sometimes I feel like I'm straddling a state border line—I'm in two places at once.

You see, I'm not published, and I know a lot of great writers who are in the same situation as me. I know many aspiring writers, from those just starting out to the agented. BUT. I also know many published writers, some who are very successful, all who are my friends. I hear a lot of stories, guys, from both sides of the border.

And guess what? The stories are shockingly THE SAME. Whether my friend is published or not, I often talk them through writing struggles and doubts. Will this story ever come together? Will anyone care about it? Will this be the book that ruins me? The one that makes me? Do I suck as much as I think I do? Why does this agent/editor/reviewer hate me?

As far as I've seen, writing is writing no matter where you're at. And we all know how tough it can be. I'm reminded of a post by Sarah Dessen—an extremely successful author with a gaggle of published books—where she talks about some of her struggles. That's just one example, and I assure you there are many more.

So, is it really fair to negate Sarah Dessen's struggles because "at least she has a wildly successful career and several published books"? Yeah...that doesn't sit well with me. I know that when people say this, they don't intend to hurt people. In all likelihood, I'm sure they are trying to point out the silver lining, look at the positive, and all that. But having been dealt the "At least" statement a lot over the last couple years, I can tell you it doesn't quite feel like encouragement. It feels like "Oh, stop whining because you have no right to and there are so many, me included, that have it worse than you."

As I watch my friends get book deals, hit lists, and get recognition from prominent authors, I can see how easy it would be to think they shouldn't have anything to worry about. Oh, to be stressed over such things! Right? But here's the thing: Past success doesn't nullify current struggles.

In the end, writers are writers, and we of all people should acknowledge the pain and struggles of other writers, not marginalize them because we may see other situations as worse. I, personally, am trying to get rid of "at least."


  1. Now that is a New Years resolution I can get behind.

    Reminds me of the old "starving children in Africa" line. Yes, that's terrible, and it should give us some perspective. But it doesn't change the fact that there are problems and stresses in our lives; it doesn't make those any less legitimate to us.

    Here's to getting rid of "at least"! And working towards a more positive outlook for ourselves and our peers. :)

  2. I feel the same way about writing, as well as other things in my life. Yes, "at least" I work from home and have the luxury to be able to do what I love, but that doesn't mean it's not hard for me.

    I think people have this strange need to make themselves feel as though their situation is worse than yours in some strange attempt to make themselves feel better.

    I think everyone would be a lot happier if "at least" occurred less frequently in conversation.

  3. So true, but still, each of those is a rung on a ladder, a step closer to our ultimate goal of being published. It's something we each aspire to, so I think it's all right, if for no other reason than to be of some comfort to another "aspiring" writer.

  4. Every time I read this blog I'm pleasantly surprised at the unique and useful views you express.

    Way to go!

  5. I admit I'm guilty of this. I never thought of it this way before. It really does belittle the other person's struggles. Sometimes it's just better and more real to say: THAT BLEEPING SUCKS.

    Because it does. Big time.

  6. I agree for the most part. I think we should be sensitive of other's struggles, no matter what successes they've had. For sure.

    However, I think the "at least you have" statements SHOULD be said. To ourselves. I think we should never let our self-worth or happiness get so tied up with this business that we forget the triumph's we've had, or forget how far we've come. And I know (and you know) that I'm not always good at this, but hey, what is New Year's for? :)

  7. Amen. I addressed this in my own blog post (see #4) recently. I can't deny that I've had a lot of success this year, but there are still going to be rejections or bumps in the road that will make any writer worried about her abilities/career/future/talent/skill and so on.

  8. I like this! We're allowed to have struggles and stuff, and acknowledge them, no matter what level. Everybody needs their precious wallowing time, and companionship within said time. In full agreement on this!

  9. please accept my apologies for saying 'at least you have an agent.' It in no way was meant to belittle the struggles you've gone through or are still going through. Nor was it meant as a poor me I don't have an agent yet. I meant my words to be a reminder of something to be grateful for but who am I to tell you what to be grateful for? How presumtuous of me! Again, my apologies.

  10. Mshatch, please, don't worry! I wasn't offended and I knew you didn't mean it in a rude way—it just always makes me think. It's more about my reaction to the phrase than what people intend. I really do think people mean the best when they say it.

    And I'm certainly grateful for where I'm at. I've had a lot of amazing opportunities and experiences that I wouldn't trade, even if it's been hard too. Perhaps that's part of my personal tick about the phrase: It assumes I'm not grateful because I still struggle, which isn't true.

    Again, it really wasn't you! I've been hearing this for a couple years at this point.

  11. Exactly! No matter what position a person is in it usually took some effort to get there. It's like fat women comparing themselves to thin 'at least you're thin..' Seriously people need to focus on their own lives a little more rather than sooking over what they haven't yet acheieved - if it were dead easy we'd all be doing it..

    The Arrival, book one of the BirthRight Trilogy, available on Amazon 1.1.2011

  12. I love this post. Thank you for writing it.

    I think the best solution to this mindset is to live in the moment. Saying "at least" makes us look at the past or the future, instead of saying, "This hurts NOW." It doesn't matter what has happened to us before or what will happen to us later, we should only think about what we have to deal with NOW. You can be the happiest and most successful person in the world, but we all have moments that suck.

  13. Oh. So. True.

    I feel compelled to warn writers now, that the way ahead is as tough as the road behind. And that's not to say that I don't have moments of overwhelming gratitude for the successes I've had. But this is a really hard business, and one that demands a lot from those of us who pursue it.

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  15. Wonderful observations. We think the grass is always greener, and sometimes we grind our teeth wishing that green grass was on our side of the fence.

    But no matter how green the grass, you can always want that perfect hue somebody else has. And what a waste of our energy!

    In a reverse sort of way, I sometimes go around the house, trying to touch up the paint in the area that is most scuffed, chipped, and worn. And guess what? As soon as that job is done, I look around -- and another wall is now the most scuffed, chipped, and worn.

    There's always another hurdle. Let's just all hold hands and jump over them together.

  16. Ooo yes, I confess I've done this, when someone who has more books or higher sales or better reviews than I is despairing.

    But sometimes I flip it around--I look at my own current fretting and then start counting my blessings, and I realize many people could say it to me.

    And really, as you say, it's not a competition or a race. There are challenges at every phase of the writing & publishing journey. Meet one goal, and six others pop up before you. Solve one problem, and new ones arise. Ultimately, we're all in this together, and none of us is lazing around on a bed of laurels, laughing triumphantly! Though we do get some good moments. :-)

  17. "At least"... two words we can strike out of common use of the English language for a good decade or two...

    Good blog!

  18. Great post, Natalie. I know I've said this or thought it when I'm in the "lick-my-wounds" phase of writing and feeling ever so slightly envious of someone. The best way to get beyond that stage is to stop whining and do something about what you lack, so this is a resolution I think I can manage. ;D Have a great New Year!

  19. Quite true. I believe this relates to the hedonistic effect -- a person's happiness tends to normalize relatively shortly after a success or failure.

  20. It's beginning to sound that being a published writer isn't always about being good at your craft--and I don't mean that published authors aren't good at their craft--but that being successful can be a lot of sheer, dumb luck. If you happen to get the right agent right up front who will fight for you book you've got a better chance than if you can't quite connect with the right agent. It makes me wonder how many fabulous writers are out there beating themselves up when it's a matter of syncing to the right agent.

    And it sounds as though being a published author is like constantly re-creating your self worth with each new book (or lack of one).

    Wow. I never thought about all this.

  21. It's interesting how our If Onlys never seem to change as much as we would wish.

    Once we arrive at our new destination it's often a surprise to find...we're still us.

    And that, O Cheerleader Sublime, is why someone invented chocolate.

  22. That's so true. And I hadn't really thought of it. I'll have to try to get rid of "at least" too.

  23. Great insight. And what a great post.
    Writerly angst is one of the more fascinating psychological phenomenons I think.

  24. I think the main thing is to not skip the "acknowledging the suck" that needs to come before "at least". Because all suck should be acknowledged, as should all progress.

  25. at least you have a TON of blog followers. :) i'm joking. i hate the "at least" statements too. you don't know me but i just found your blog and i love it. thanks for the good reads and the laughs! :)

  26. I love this -- "writing is writing no matter where you're at."
    It reminds me that no matter where I am in the process (which never ends), the writing is what matters. Thanks for another great post Natalie.

  27. I agree with everything you've said, especially the resonant part about how all writers struggle with the craft and industry, no matter where they are on their journey. But I do have a slightly different take on the "at least" part - although it may not be exactly what the speaker is trying to say, it does remind me to be grateful for what I do have, the accomplishments (whatever they are) that I already have made. Because it is so easy to get mired in the hugeness of the struggle, and so easy to forget how far you've come. And being in a grateful place, for me, makes all the struggles easier to endure.

  28. amen, natalie. it's so easy to fall into jealousy and despair, but to essentially let it out on other people is crap. everyone has worked hard to get where they're at, and to be published and working with editors is often a daunting pressure not so easily imagined (according to my published friends.) i am very aware that right now, i am working with the luxury of not having a deadline, maybe for the last time in my life. published authors frequently miss that time.

    anyway, thanks for your frank and candid posts!

  29. "But here's the thing: Past success doesn't nullify current struggles."

    Ab-so-lutely. And that applies to everything for me, not just the writing!

    I am on the brink of being published, having started my blog two years ago when I was about to give up trying. And you know what? I'm still just as scared and doubtful as I was back then. The blogging has become a lot easier, but the writerly doubts have not - in fact the stakes just keep changing and in some cases getting higher.

    Each milestone on the path brings both old and new fears with it. Instead of "Will I ever see my book in print?" I'm at the stage of the journey in which I'm breaking into a cold sweat (literally) about my first book reviews.

    So I am 100% behind you - having gone through many milestones with still more ahead of me - and being connected to many other writers all at different places. It's scary, but having a supportive network of fellow writers who really do understand what it's like is critical.

  30. This is such a valid point. And add to that, we all have our personal levels of success in mind. "At least..." is usually a response to us feeling like we haven't gotten 'there' yet. e