Spill It: Are You an Emotional Mess After a Major Success?

When my literary agent first offered me representation the other week, I tried to play it cool. I told her I was thrilled she was so into my book idea. I told her I’d have to touch base with another agent who also had my full proposal. Then I hung up the phone, my hands shaking, and started to cry.

My husband’s response: “You have weird reactions to things.”

Thanks, Michael. Thanks a lot.

I swear, you guys. They were happy tears. I’d wanted to be an author since the age of 5, and this was huge leap forward for me.

Only a week or two later, though, I was depressed.

I’ve been focusing a lot of my energy lately on personal projects. Over the summer, I ghostwrote and edited an ebook in only two months. In November, I did a shit-ton of content creation for an advertising client. I also did a slew of freelance articles and blog posts. But after that, feeling I finally had time to breathe, I spent a lot of time developing my starter kit and then promoting it. I also developed a book proposal and started querying agents. I did all this at the general exclusion of actual paying work (despite totally knowing better) and, by late February, my bank account was dangerously low. I felt like a failure, and I suggested to Michael that I just be his trophy wife going forward.

When I mentioned this to my fabulous writing partner, whom I am completely and neurotically dependent upon, she sighed. “You do this every time, Steph,” she said. “Every time you accomplish something big, you get into a slump only a week or two later.”

She reminded me that I’d managed to pay off my credit card debt in January, a feat that had taken me about three or four years to accomplish. She mentioned that I’d just written and launched my starter kit, which had led to over 100 percent growth in my mailing list. Then she mentioned that I’d just landed a literary agent. “This is something you’ve dreamed of your entire life,” she said, “and now you feel like a failure!?”

She had a point.

It made me think of an essay I’d just read in the March/April 2012 issue of Poets & Writers*, on the post-publication blues. In it, author Kim Wright writes about an affliction common among debut novelists: the tendency to fall into a paralyzing depression after their book’s publication date. “…getting what you’ve always said you wanted, finally reaching that single enormous goal. It can all be a little… depressing,” she writes. She’s talking about becoming an author (and you should check out the essay in full yourself; it’s fantastic), but I feel it can apply to any large, personal success.

Lyz (the aforementioned writing partner) said she thinks it’s because, upon accomplishing something, we immediately ask ourselves: What’s next?

I’d take that a step further and say that, in addition to wondering what’s next, I also often feel as if the stakes are raised. I worry about making the wrong next move, not living up to others’ expectations, not moving forward, falling flat on my face.

I warned you I was neurotic.

But I can’t be the only one. That P&W article wouldn’t exist if I was. So tell me:

Have you experienced the post-success slump? If so, what did you do to get back in the saddle?

*I totally just typo’d P&W to read Pets & Writers… a magazine I would definitely subscribe to if it existed. Get on it, people.

Related: How to Find the Literary Agent of Your Dreams


  1. 1. Pets & Writers– yes, please!

    2. I had this kind of reaction after I got my MFA in January last year. I spent a good 2-3 months depressed, unable to write any fiction, and totally floundering. After spending 2 years working on my writing, and then spending a grueling semester editing my thesis (um, during which I also chose to get married, buy a house, and adopt a dog), I was totally shot.

    It also snowed a shit ton last winter, which didn’t help how I felt.

    But I get what you’re saying– once we accomplish something big (especially if it’s something that we’ve been funneling a significant amount of time, energy, and passion into), a normal reaction is overwhelm. And for some of us, that means tears and anxiety of what comes next. Thankfully there’s ALWAYS something that comes next. And it’s always going to be perfect for where you’re at in that moment. Oh– congrats, by the way!!

  2. While I haven’t had your wild success :-), I tend to do much the same. Flurry of activity followed by meh, I don’t feel like doing anything. Not the best business plan, but glad to know we are in good company.

  3. O hai – did you see me being morose in your kitchen last night? I used to get so worked up by what I thought were big moments in my career, only to see said moment come and go with no discernible uptick – so now I just plug along and hope what I’m doing is right. At least now I know I’m not alone! Arrrghh, writers! We are insane.

  4. I so hear you. My first cookbook came out two weeks ago–HUGE accomplishment, more than two years of my life poured into it, etc etc. And I’ve spent the last two weeks in a major funk. There’s a major sense of Now What? I keep walking from room to room, wondering when my career is finally going to take off.

  5. A lot of authors consider their debut book to be their “baby.” If that’s the case, then this post-success slump could be akin to post-partem depression. I’d also compare it to the letdown after Christmas, a wedding, or other big, exciting event. Personally, I’ve jumped from one big project to the next, which has left me too busy to worry “what comes next?” But it does put me at risk for burnout. I need to take some time to ponder that question and think more strategically about it, but when good-paying projects come my way, it’s hard to say no.

  6. I totally have the same experience every time something good happens. Just talking at an event means that I have to schedule half a day to have a mini-nervous breakdown. I’ve yet to find a good way of coping, because always having something lined up next (which causes stress of its own when I don’t feel like I’m moving fast enough towards the next thing — no way to win).

  7. I love you guys. You totally get me. Though the P&W article somewhat assured me that I wasn’t a complete crazy person, it helps knowing that my online buddies have experienced the same thing. Oh and btw, I love reading about all y’alls big accomplishments. Kristin with the MFA and Brette with the cookbook and everyone with their steady stream of big projects… You guys are so awesome!

  8. In some ways I think it is b/c the thrill of the hunt/chase is over and you’re left with just the hard work. I also think it is because you have accomplished something and you feel like you must immediately start finding a way to top that success with an even bigger one. And, let’s be honest here, signing a contract for a book, or handing in a manuscript is only a piece of the puzzle – you still have to promote the work and where it will go sometimes feels like it is largely out of your own control.

  9. So true. I think you’re spot-on that the big, looming, what’s next question can be overwhelming. So what are your thoughts on getting rid of the post-success blahs?

  10. When something good happens, when my life is going well, I always know I’m going to have to pay for it because I don’t deserve it and life will punish you in the end. I blame my harsh Protestant upbringing.

  11. Songwriter Peggy Lee totally nailed it. “Is that all there is, my friends???”

    I get the feeling of–oh, THIS is what I’ve been workings so hard for?? There should be more.

    As to pulling out…it just takes time, however you fill that time.

  12. I totally relate and I haven’t written a book…yet. Here’s another way to look at it. The drive and enthusiasm that it takes to create success (whatever that may be) is draining. But maybe our well needs to be emptied so that it can fill back up with new ideas. And I’m bookmarking this remark for the kick in the pants that I always need when success leads to depression.

  13. Ah, yes. It’s scary when something goes well -because most of the time, we don’t expect it. And then, there’s always the feeling of waiting for the other proverbial shoe to drop. So screwed up, isn’t it? I wish we could all just ENJOY the successes, after working so hard for them.

  14. Loved this post… I was going to leave a comment but I had so much to say on the subject that I wrote a related post on my own blog. I linked back to your article so hopefully you’ll get a few more visitors 🙂 http://wp.me/p1bAvb-19a

  15. Yes, I go from “Yippee, for me!” to “Holy crap!” at light speed. We’re all a wreck.

  16. First – a major big congrats on the book! I’m so excited for you.

    And oh my god, yes, I’m an emotional mess before, during and after a big success. I’m in major growth mode at the moment and told my biz coach the other day that I was nervous about the whole thing. “It’s not just me anymore!” I said. “There’s other people involved! More money! More traffic! More going out of my comfort zone!” Thank goodness she’s an expert at the whole hand-holding business.

  17. You know I feel like this all the time! I don’t think you are crazy. But I also think you are mad successful and you should celebrate it.

  18. Yes, yes, yes! This is so familiar to me. (And don’t you love that sometimes it takes other people to see these things??) After completing a big story, down time. After finishing a book, BIG down time. I totally get this.

    And CONGRATULATIONS on the agent!

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