the fear of success (subtitle: wtf?)

I spent a couple hours deep cleaning my home on Tuesday. It started with my desk, which needed dusting and de-cluttering so I could sit down and open my computer and build a simple, easy-to-find author bio website.

But then I noticed dust on my dresser and the bookshelf. Post-holiday dust. And dog hair under the desk. I got out the broom. Clean slate, I told myself. New year, clean room, clean mind.

Also, it turns out, there were tiny spots on the bathroom mirror from wiping the steam off. And the bathroom floor needed a sweep. Just this, I thought, but I definitely won’t clean the kitchen.

But when I went in the kitchen to get a rag, I saw ghosts of spills on the front of the dishwasher. Fingerprints on the refrigerator. The top of the plastic container that holds the dog’s food was kind of dingy.

Two hours later even Roscoe’s water bowl was gleaming but I was no closer to making the website. In fact, I think the website was the problem (or perhaps the solution, if you ask the dog). Making the website meant acknowledging that I was really doing this being-a-writer thing, and in a very public way.

For years people have suggested I submit to the Modern Love column in the New York Times. This suggestion made sense: if you write about love and love stories it’s pretty much the best place to get published. I mean, people get book deals after their stories run in Modern Love. But I resisted for lots of reasons: they don’t use pseudonyms (not even versions of your own name, like I use), it’s a high-profile place to broadcast one’s personal affairs, and the word count seemed like such an awkward length. And it’s super competitive—they get something like ten thousand submissions a year.

Well, the word count is awkward, but they’re publishing my essay this Sunday. And I am terrified.

I’m also thrilled. I got the email from the editor Dan Jones while making Christmas dinner with my mom’s family and I just started screaming right there in the kitchen, “Mom! New York Times! New York Times!” But once the reality of publishing in the column set in, I started feeling weird. And then I started cleaning.

(And Googling myself several times a day to see if my new website would pop up in time for publication. This is something I don’t recommend.)


This is from the Douglas Coupland exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Taken July 29, the night I wrote about in the column. There’s some irony in here somewhere.

The other day I was talking to some friends about those times in life when you get separated from yourself and then, a bit later, you find yourself again and things suddenly come into focus. When I started this blog I didn’t have many reliable bearings. I wanted to write a book but had no idea how to go about it. I’d just gotten Canadian Permanent Residency and promptly moved out of the house I shared with my ex and into a new apartment. I was investing in my life in Vancouver—only without the person I came with.
I eventually figured out that I needed to do two things to be happy: write regularly and find some friends who liked rock climbing or going to breweries. And my life started to come into focus.

Maybe there was a lot of survival-writing (and survival-beer-drinking?) while I waited out the lost feeling, but I kept busy. I didn’t know what else to do. I took on more teaching. I set aside dedicated writing days. I went on a bazillion online dates.

Then last night I was sitting at a brewery after visiting the climbing gym and talking about writing (a personal happiness trifecta) but I wasn’t happy. I was feeling only vague anxiety. It’s a weird thing, this fear of success. What if publishing this essay does change my career? What if I get that literary agent I’ve been hunting? And what if someone offers me a science-of-love advice column (which is my goal for 2015)? Do I really want all those things when my life is already so full and good? What if I get the things I thought I wanted and I’m not happier? Or—even worse—what if nothing changes at all?

Then there is the other problem, which is that the column basically amounts to a (very) public declaration of love. I’ve already established that I much prefer writing about love in the past to writing about it as it’s happening. But I’ve been trying to get more comfortable with this kind of vulnerability. It’s just that a few hundred people might read a given blog post; several thousand will read this column.

It’s a strange thing to get a call from an editor who says, “So tell me about your relationship? Are you in love? Do you live together? How did you feel after the first night you went out?” Of course, this is all relevant business for Modern Love. But it’s also my real life. And it’s not often that editors congratulate you on your new relationship.

And I do love this guy—the one in the column. I am still, every day, astounded by his small persistent acts of generosity. For example, for years I’ve been having problems with my car battery. And he—in between working and getting sick and writing two new stories and starting classes and attempting to ski/run/bike 10,000 meters in a single month—does a bunch of research and makes a plan to try and fix my crappy 2001 Toyota Echo. Just, you know, in his free time. He helps with my website. He tells me I should post to my blog because he likes “getting an update on what’s going on.” Be careful what you ask for, I say.

And when we sit at the brewery after climbing and I feel anxious, he reaches over and grabs my hand. He says it’s going to be great. He isn’t being nice. He totally believes it.

He’s so good. And I am aware of my present inability to reciprocate that goodness. But maybe it’s like having faith that your messy book draft will get better with time, and your life will eventually come back into focus, and your loneliness is temporary. Maybe you must also trust that you will have the chance to be very good to the person you love, even if you aren’t doing it at all this week. Maybe you have to just let someone be good to you.

I don’t want to be a smug in-love person. So I won’t go on about it. After all, he did eat the leftover roti I accidentally left in his fridge. And it always seemed bad luck—or at least unwise—to broadcast such good things so soon. Because admitting to your deepest joys is just another way of having a lot to lose.

You might as well read the column I wrote. It started out at about 2800 words, and now it’s down to 1500. Something is always sacrificed in that editing process, and I’ve decided that I can’t stress about it. I’m going to do my best to be excited because, aside from the subject of the article itself, this is pretty much the coolest thing that’s happened to me. I’ll let you know when it’s up.

37 thoughts on “the fear of success (subtitle: wtf?)

  1. HIGH FIVES, MANDY!!! But yes, I get what you mean. Totally. That fear can be paralyzing (is, often, in my experience). However, you did it. You’re going to be in the NY Times, and it’s going to be awesome, and I can’t wait to read it.

    • Thank you, Heather! I was actually thinking of you this week–getting published in CNF and then getting mentioned in Best American. Maybe there’s a lesson in all this about patience and perseverance and timing and luck? Maybe not. But you’re right, it’s awesome.

  2. I have been following your blog from a far away corner of the world and as a long time reader of modern love, I find this awesome 🙂 I am gonna be so happy to read your column. Isnt this totally weird? I dont know you at all, but I kinda got happy for you 🙂

    • Thank you, juniperist. I didn’t know anyone was following this blog from afar and I’m totally touched. I’ve lurked on plenty of blogs in my time, and totally know that happy for a stranger feeling. Thank you! 🙂

      • Believe it or not someone shared your column on my facebook feed! I was planning to check it out tomorrow and I saw it there waiting for me on my facebook page 🙂 Well done! Great column. (yet just like many modern love columns, it made me feel sad that I did not have someone to try something like that, in my single state. Obviously I know that that is not the point, but I tend to get that feeling whenever I read about love).

        • Well, just to give you an update. Now it is 5 people on my facebook list who already shared your piece. I think it really resonates with my late-thirties urban academic female friends 🙂

          • most of my friends are early thirties urban academics…so maybe that makes sense! So excited people are sharing the piece. It’s kind of blowing my mind…

  3. Found your blog from that NY Times article :). It was lovely to read, this was lovely to read. And I adore your tagline on this blog, “on the dangers–and pleasures–of love stories”. Perhaps I should be reading things that stretch my point of view, but there are times when it’s nice to read something that makes a little *snick* and connects to thoughts and feelings already there.

    So here’s at least one more person following from afar (New Zealand—and it doesn’t come much farther than that!). I followed you on twitter before I found your blog, but the character limit is so frustrating at times! Anyway, look forward to reading more of your writing. 🙂

  4. Just read your Modern Love column in the Times and felt compelled to find out a little bit more. Your writing is clear and engaging, both in the Times piece and here. I know this is true of many people and most of them do not find “success” as writers. Try not to waste too much energy worrying about the success coming your way. Ride it like a wave, but also take some time each day to leave your life for a moment, float above it for a while, and remind yourself how lucky you are and how random it all can be.

    You already have the important things–activities that make you feel alive and a person to grow with.

    • Thanks, Chris! This is such a kind note. You are absolutely right that success isn’t directly correlated with the quality of the writing. I tell myself this all the time. Such smart advice: “remind yourself how lucky you are and how random it all can be.”

  5. Mandy,

    I read the column this morning, googled your name and found your here. I don’t usually do that. But something in your column resonated with me–maybe it was the vulnerability you hadn’t wanted to share, perhaps it was the truth of how we love. I believe that life is less about what we do, and more about how we do it. Bravo on getting the column published, and on exposing that vulnerability, and editing your piece down to the awkward word count.

  6. Mandy! This story showed up in my Facebook feed from two strangers who are not related to our college experience at all, and when I scrolled down to the bottom, I saw your name. Congratulations! You’re making us all proud. 🙂

  7. Hi Mandy,
    I’m popping over after reading your article in Modern Love – congrats! I absolutely loved it. Props to you for being so open and declaring yourself. Now I’ve fallen into an internet hole googling you 🙂

  8. The piece in modern love was beautiful and insightful. I also think a lot about love, as well as relationships and marriage and write about those topics in memoir. Love, as defined by our past relationships — both observed (our parents, for instance) and experienced (old boyfriends) are core themes my master’s thesis in my creative writing graduate program thesis. Looking forward to following your blog and hope you’ll follow back (tho I find myself blogging less and less lately.) Jen

  9. I’m another reader (this time in the UK) who found your blog via the column (which I really enjoyed, for its warmth and honesty, and humour) via Facebook. I thought you might find it encouraging to know that I googled you specifically to find out if you’d written anything else, as I thought ‘I’d enjoy reading a book by this writer’. So come on, get on it! 😉

  10. Read your article through a fb link this morning (one of my cousins “liked” it so it was on my feed). Great article, great writing. Had to “google” you since I enjoyed it so much. The topic of love and science (and growing love vs love at first sight) has always been fascinating to me (have you ever seen “married at first sight” on fyi? I think it’s on Amazon now).

    This blog post is reminiscent of Bridget Jones’s Diary (which I love, so please take as compliment) — a glimpse into someone’s world that is very human, honest, and optimistic. If you had a book published, I’d find it to read. All the best in your writing, love, and pursuit of happiness endeavors.

  11. As you wrote “I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time”, and I wholeheartedly agree, I just wanted to let you know I loved your NYT piece. Thank you for writing that – reading it may have been the most enjoyable thing I did today.

  12. I enjoyed your article in the NYT. I am a climber as well and I have a true story you might want for your book. It involves love, climbing, a motorcycle, heartbreak and joy. Give me a shout when you get a moment and congratulations on your success!

  13. Congratulations on your article being published. It’s a big step, no matter where it ends up leading or not leading. For me personally my fear of success also stems from an anxiety of things not turning out the way I thought, or my being unable to be content with the outcome. What I’m fighting to do now on daily basis is not rely on my circumstances or achievements alone for my happiness, but looking for that within, something much more profound that will always be there, whether I eventually publish something or not. Anyway, congrats once again and thanks for sharing so honestly about your emotions about it all.

  14. Hi Mandy!

    Wow. I’ve been battling that “is love a noun or a verb” battle for a long time, but no matter who I dated or what I tried, love has been elusive. There have been times that I have even wondered if I am an asexual, seeing how relationships never feel anything more than “hanging out”. Thank you for your peice. Definitely applying it!

  15. I read your modern love article! and I loved the way you expressed things. It was really beautiful and it resonated with me and it led me here. I’m excited to read more from you. I really believe love is a choice also.

  16. I stared deep into your essay for four minutes, fell in love with it and forwarded it under the header “Microwave Lovin'” that others might do likewise, with or without the use of such leftover puns freshly scraped from my cutting-room ceiling as, e.g., Rom-Compact, Rom-Compressor, The Bachelor’s Third Degree, Tying the Accordion Knot, Time-Lapse Psychography, &c. Chalk it up – or down – to leftover momentun from christening Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s just-announced Mycroft Holmes novel as “The Hound of the Basketballs”, and, on January 4, landing my fourth letter, painfully circumcis- er, -scribed from 165 words down to 56, in The New York Times Book Review.

  17. Wanted to add to all of the love and support I’m seeing here in your comment section. Your NYT article popped up also on my Facebook feed and I dived right in. Just loved it. I can’t wait to go through all the questions with my beloved girlfriend. There’s a lot of territory we’ve already covered there but I really like the intentionality of it all. Love as action is something I’ve believed in for quite some time, but as a recovering engineer, I always like it when someone can show me a study and data to back it up 🙂

    Please do continue writing in earnest! This blog posting also connected with me in a very personal way as I’m also going through a similar period of pursuing some bigger life goals. Your specific anxieties, your guilt over relationship imbalance, all of it I can relate to very clearly. Thank you for your candor and vulnerable honesty. Really can’t wait to see more writing from you.

    From one Vancouverite to another, best of luck!

  18. Kudos… NYT! I totally fear success and have huge problem receiving compliments on anybody my work. I’m excited to read your book. Congrats on all the success and always remember you have already achieved greatness because it was all done in the ne of love.

  19. I also found the NYT article posted by a friend on Facebook, read it, really liked it and looked you up! And this post, came just at the right time. Congratulations! And keep on writing. I will too!

  20. I found you through this article. The story you tell is a wonderful story, but what really strikes me is how beautifully it is written. When I saw that you are a teacher in Canada, I had to ‘meet’ you. Reading this post, I see that you have experienced the same emotions that I do. As a writer who is too freaked out to even submit a query to a paper like the New York Times, I feel such happiness for you. I admit I am living vicariously through your experience, but isn’t that what good writing is all about? You’ve taken me on a journey, and perhaps inspired me to be more bold. Congratulations to you. Keep up the great work. Go do fabulous things on behalf of the dreamers and enjoy every step.

  21. Pingback: Cocinando el amor (Quién quiere casarse con mi hijo, 2012-; The love story project, 2015) - Parece amor pero no lo es

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