Annie Putnam and the Constantly-Shifting Goalpost

A few months ago, when I was neck-deep in new hope that I might actually finally finish this book, I was telling my boyfriend about all the things I worried might go wrong if and when I finished it, and he rolled his eyes and huffed.

“Jesus Christ, Anne, can you just be proud of yourself?”

“What?” My hand flew to my chest in an expression of defensive horror. “Of course I’m proud of myself…but I’ll be prouder when I’ve finished.”

“Oh, okay, so when you’ve finished this book, then you’ll be proud of your success as a writer?”

“Yes! Well…” Almost immediately I started thinking of all the next steps that would be necessary for me to really have succeeded: revisions; signing with an agent; getting a publisher; selling enough copies and/or getting enough positive reviews to eclipse the inevitable negative reviews…

My boyfriend was eyeing me as if he could hear my thoughts.

“So that other book you wrote – that isn’t enough to make you a successful writer.” He stated it rather than asking, and I couldn’t argue; he’s witnessed enough awkward fumbling when I’m asked about ‘being a writer’ to know that I still struggle with pretty major imposter syndrome.

“You’re never going to be able to appreciate yourself, are you? You’ll just keep raising the bar every time you get close to touching it, so that any time you might have a chance of being good enough you deny yourself that satisfaction.” He was still visibly irritated, but his tone had softened a bit, almost pleading.

I understood his distress; it must be hard to watch someone you love and admire constantly change the rules on herself. And he was right, I do move the goalpost whenever I get close to achieving a goal I’ve set for myself.

When I was starting out, I never expected to even write a full-length book; I always said I didn’t have the attention span (oh, how times have changed!). I was sure I’d earn my living in publishing or education (no change there) and maybe, if I was lucky and worked very hard, I would publish the odd personal essay or short story in a print or online magazine. So just managing to finish a whole novel when I gave it a solid effort at 23 felt like an achievement – until I shopped it to agents. When I started the query process I told myself I would be happy just to receive a request for a partial, let alone a full – I received both, but I still took the lack of representation offers as a sign that I wasn’t really a writer.

Years later, when I began my MA program, I was still concerned about writing a whole book. I started out planning to write a book of essays, but eventually those essays fit together into the full-length memoir that was Navel Gazing. I was so proud just to have finished it, and I actually didn’t have time to feel bad about myself before I had two agents offering to represent me! So I was able to revel in the whirlwind – for about five minutes, before I started stressing about all the glowing rejections we were getting. All I wanted was for the book (this book I hadn’t even thought I could write, repped by an agent I hadn’t known to hope for) to be published. I didn’t care at all about print run or advance, just that it found a home.

Then came the offer, from no less a publishing house than Faber&Faber, and I was beyond thrilled. They even wanted to pay me an advance – I was going to be paid for my writing! That high lasted for a while, and I didn’t even care that the book was going straight to trade paperback; who even wanted to carry hardbacks around anymore?

But as the fantasy became more real, I moved the goalpost ever farther. I found new, nasty reserves of envy when other debut authors were published in hardback, or paid extraordinary sums, or became bestsellers. I was never good enough for myself, no matter how clearly I could see how astronomically far I’d come in only a couple of years (and how lucky I’d been at so many points along the way).

None of this is to say I haven’t appreciated my good fortunes – I promise I can see and am so grateful for all the good things that have happened for me – but rather that I never seem capable of pausing in appreciation of my own work – and I work hard, you guys – and of my own achievements – many of which are pretty fucking impressive.

Where this second book is concerned, I’m trying to be more mindful, but I fail a lot. I am really nervous and stressed about finding another agent (who will hopefully also take on the challenge of finding a home here in the States for NG); finding a publisher; building a fanbase…but most of that I don’t control, really. All I can do is work hard, make the book as enjoyable and honest as possible, and try to not to move the goalpost too much.

I’m working on that last one.