Awards, the Engines of Anxiety

If you were trying to come up with a system specifically meant to drive a set of writers mad, you couldn’t do a hair better than to set up a major industry award and then tell them they’re eligible this year. Every step of the process is beautifully calculated to create misery and self-doubt. Every one.

We’ve apparently begun talking about what we’ll be nominating for various genre literary awards next year — the Hugos and the Nebulas, most notably. Best of Year lists are going around, and never mind that we have several weeks of new releases to come. Starts earlier every year, doesn’t it? Just like Christmas.

I say to you with no exaggeration that I want to hide under a warm blanket and not come out again until it’s all decided.  I know from experience: no good can come of participating in this conversation, as someone who, in theory, has skin in the game.* Not for me, and not for many of my colleagues — maybe even most of them. 

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that writers are not the most emotionally stable and healthy group of human beings around! A lot of that is because of the nature of the work itself. The process of writing is incredibly personal and isolating, and the link between the work and any recognition is so small and tenuous that it may as well not even exist. Criticism of your creative output can feel like criticism of your deepest heart. It is the worst. It’s no wonder so many of us have various degrees of depression and anxiety.

Awards are, in theory, one of the ways to make up for it. We offer glory to those works we feel have extra merit, in order to encourage writers and honor their achievements.

The casualties, though, are not low. 

How Much Do They Love You? 

The emotional turmoil that awards cause begins early, as soon as the lists begin circulating. (Or, honestly, even earlier — since there are running reading lists kept up all year.) Let’s say that you, dear reader, have written a story this year, or perhaps a novel. Perhaps it was well-received. Perhaps one or two people have even said the A-word in talking to you about it.

Well, it’s only human to wonder if your work has made it onto any of those lists after all, and so perhaps you peek at a wiki or a spreadsheet or a reading list to see if your name is there on any of them.

Writer friends, never do this. Never. No good can come of it. There is no outcome from this action that leads to excellent mental health in the months this process takes.

But you look anyway (and by you, I of course mean me). Maybe your name is on one or more of the lists, and a seed of hope begins somewhere in you, that this could be your year. This hope is small and bright and hot, and you’re afraid of it, because you know that the more you hope, the greater your disappointment will be if it doesn’t come to pass. So you try as hard as you can to snuff it out and persuade yourself that really, truly, you don’t deserve it. You’re not worthy. It will never happen.

If your name isn’t there, that disappointment starts right away — because your brain lies to you in a hundred different ways at once, and somehow this omission becomes a proxy for your work not mattering, and how nobody loves you, everybody hates you, obviously your output is amateurish and weak, and my goodness, wasn’t it arrogant of you to even dream for a second that you might have produced a real contender? How dare you hope. How dare you look.

Then, when nominations come out, the same cycle repeats. The hope gets brighter and hotter and more frightening if you’re actually nominated; the disappointment is fiercer, here, if you were on those lists, and if you did think you had a fair shot at being recognized, but your name is nonetheless missing from any ballot. 

Winning and Losing

Let me tell you a secret. I’ve won a fair share of professional awards for my non-publishing work — more than fair. And yes, losing when you were so close is a grave disappointment.

Winning, though? That can really mess you up. (Especially if you’re very early in your career, and not yet accustomed to losing.) Because those lies your brain tells you when your name isn’t on a list are a faint shadow of the ones that happen after you win.

Suddenly the award means that from now on, people will expect a certain benchmark from you, and any future work that does not win as many awards is a step down — a grave disappointment. Never mind that it’s impossible to win every award for every work you write. Or perhaps you convince yourself that it was just a fluke — and again, people will be disappointed with you moving forward, when they find out what your work is really like ordinarily. Or perhaps it means that your best work is now behind you, and all you can look forward to is a sad decline into obscurity, no matter how hard you work.

I know this from hard experience. Many years ago, I worked on a non-publishing project that won buckets of awards. It was thrilling! ...Until I tried to start something new, and was buried under a false sense that it had to mean something.

This is a difficult problem to talk about, because it can sound like ingratitude for your recognition; a weird sort of complaining about a problem that other people wished they had. So you can’t really talk about it, or bring in your usual support networks to help you cope with it.

But. It was at least a year before I was able to work again without intense anxiety.  A year.

Does this mean I am against awards and don’t want to win one ever again? HA HA HA no, I wish I was so evolved, but I’m not. I am absolutely a mercenary careerist, and awards genuinely help your visibility and marketability forever. That’s part of the whole pernicious problem. If awards truly were meaningless, it would be much easier to ignore them. But they do mean something. That sweet, addictive external validation matters to your future prospects. 

So I want it. I won’t lie. I want it a lot. And no, if I get a nomination, I’m certainly not going to decline, be it this year or another year. But in the meanwhile? The best thing to do, for me and probably for you, too, is to step away from the whole conversation. You can’t control it. All you can do is try to keep working. Better and healthier to focus on that.

 

 * As I write this, I’m in the position of having written an eligible work that, yes, I think could be a contender this year. Or at least it was widely read and very well received? But I’ve spent months trying to argue myself into believing it’s impossible. Even saying “yes, I hope,” feels like unforgivable arrogance. Awards, man. They really mess you up.


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