On Publishing, Regret and that "Oh Shit" Moment
by Ethan Gilsdorf
[Another entry in the monthly column, The Freelance Life, by Ethan Gilsdorf, about the trials, tribulations, triumphs --- and tips to share --- along the path to becoming a freelance writer.]
We’re supposed to feel excitement about getting published. And I do. But sometimes, for me, that "Yahoo!" feeling of joy is quickly superseded by another, more painful feeling: remorse.
As in, “Oh no.” As in, “That thing I wrote? Now people can read it.” As in, “Oh shit.”
I feel this sinking sense of dread and tingle of regret almost every time I publish something. Happiness and thrill are replaced by doom. Why do I let this happen? Why get hit with this wave of irrational regret again? I can’t help it.
This happened again last week. I recently wrote and published a first-person narrative in our big newspaper here in Boston. In the piece, I very lightly touched on an issue I’ve been struggling with and trying to face down in recent months: the prospect of getting older. In order to immerse myself in the topic, I embarked on a little experiment in stunt journalism. I tried to get “hip,” get pop-culturally current, and otherwise update my image, by seeking out advisers and dressing up in new clothes, among other escapades. It was fun. Right?
Then it was published, in a very prominent way, on the cover of said publication, complete with a big honking photo of yours truly. And that’s when, like clockwork, that familiar “Oh no” voice began to creep in.
I’ve only recently noticed that I've experienced this problem before. In the past, I’ve written and published work too soon. I've sent out poems or essays before they were fully done, before I was truly proud of them. I later regretted they'd been fixed on the page, in black and white. In those cases, it was too late to take them back, but thankfully, they were obscure publications, way before the Internet. A literary magazine with 177 readers poses little threat.
Having a potential audience of some hundreds, or thousands, is another issue. Today, in the digital age, your words linger. Forever. As in, eternity. They are searchable. They can come back to haunt you.
Not that I feel badly about said piece that appeared last week. It’s not that I didn’t or don't think the work was good enough. I stand by what I wrote.
But the moment the Facebook chatter and Twitter retweets and nasty comments from the usual trolls began rolling in, I couldn't quite quell that feeling of Who cares? Who am I to write this? I thought to myself, “Oh no, I’ve embarrassed myself. I've made myself out to be an egotistical attention whore. I'm just a doofus."
What's the feeling really about? I have some hunches. Perhaps I fear I'll be exposed for the fraud I am. Perhaps I actually don't enjoy the attention of an audience (as relatively dim as that limelight actually is). Perhaps I'm not a great writer after all. (Well, duh. But you know what I mean.)
Luckily, for me, this “Oh shit” feeling usually passes in a few days. But I think that little voice of regret is instructive. It's a check and balance on our desire --- my desire --- for fame, fortune, and an audience. The lesson? Writing is one thing. Publishing is another. And, in publishing, there’s the idea of audience. There's a tiny fear there, lashed to our dreams of success, which I think keeps us humble, and honest. I hope.
The lesson here? You don’t always know what you or how you feel about something you’ve written until it’s out there in public, with its pants down, and by association, your pants down. And that's not a bad thing, to have a feeling about a thing once it's calved from your side, like a sheet of ice sliding off an ice floe and into the deep blue. Once it's not part of you.
It's good to have it be "not you" so you can detach and move onto the next project. Just prepare yourself for the irrational waves of "Oh no's."
Like now. I feel it coming on again. "I just published this post." As in, "People can read it." As in, "Oh shit...."
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf