Don’t Stress Over Things You Can’t Control

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Epictetus

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and my mind is abuzz. It could be that the Boys in the Basement are hard at work, and making a lot of noise. It might be that extra bit of spicy tuna I chomped at dinner. Or perhaps something has intruded on my bio-rhythms, some idiotic remark I heard on a newscast, which is always a possibility when Congress is in session.

Regardless, I know myself well enough to know I’ll be up for about an hour.

So I’ll pad out to the family room and turn on the TV. At that hour there are lots of classic shows on. Which are the best shows (says this Boomer), e.g., Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason. Part of the fun is seeing young actors making their early appearances. Like Robert Redford as Mr. Death in a Twilight Zone. Or Ryan O’Neal as a murder suspect in Perry Mason.

Anyway, the other night I started watching a fave from my adolescence, Mannix. That PI show starring Mike Connors ran from 1967 to 1975. It had one of the great musical themes (via Lalo Schifrin). Connors was always solid, and the plots twisty and turny and fun.

This particular night the episode was “Color Her Missing.” A PI friend of Mannix is murdered, and a big-time lawyer is a suspect. He has an alibi, but it’s hard to prove. So he asks Mannix to confirm it. And on we go.

As a former actor and student of the art, I always appreciate a good performance. And the guy who played the lawyer caught my eye. He was very good, very natural, and ruggedly handsome. He looked like a guy who should have had his own PI show, or been either a star or dependable character actor in the movies.

So I looked him up on IMDB. His name was Jason Evers. I’d never heard of him. But I’ve probably seen him a number of times, as he worked consistently in TV. He never made it in the movies, however, coming closest in the camp classic The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962). [Side note. The decapitated head in that film was an actress named Virginia Leith. She was a knockout beauty and terrific actress, by way of her role in the neo-noir A Kiss Before Dying (1956). After I watched the film I wanted to know what became of her, as she was definitely star material. But she’s best known as that doggone head!]

Virginia Leith in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die

Why do I mention this? Because not everyone who deserves to be a star becomes a star. Not every writer who is good enough to be on the A List makes it to the A List. There’s an element built into nature that leaves some things to pure chance.

The trick in life is not to stress about those things.

That is the essence of the Stoic philosophy. Epictetus put it best: “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

You got that right, Epic. Most writers worry about every single aspect of every single book release. Will it sell? Will it be seen in bookstores? Will the critics/reviewers hate it? Will it land on a major bestseller list? Will I get that literary award I’m lusting after? Does Oprah have my phone number?

None of these things can you control.

Thus, the writer determines to do everything within his power: bookmarks, swag, panels, bookstore signings, blog tour, Facebook ads, Amazon ads, Bookbub ads, tweets, ’grams, howling at the moon—all the while stressing over the results.

But when the dust settles down, down to the lower depths of the Amazon rankings, what then? If the author has too much emotional investment in great expectations, he will suffer needless inner turmoil. It can hamper or even end a writing career. Many a writer has called it quits after a third or fourth book got remaindered within a month and the publisher did not offer another contract.

To repeat: Not everyone who should be a star becomes a star.

Not every writer who should be on the A List makes it to the A List.

But anyone who keeps writing is a writer. And that very act—the writing, falling deeply into a scene, getting into “the zone”—turns out to be the only real antidote for writerly anxiety.

So put this on a sign or sticky note on your desk:

What’s your stress assessment? Do you worry too much about things outside your control?

If you need help with the mental game of writing, let me suggest this book.

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39 thoughts on “Don’t Stress Over Things You Can’t Control

  1. How timely, Sir… as I think this applies to current events as well as current Works-In-Progress… and as writers, aren’t we somewhat self-quarantined anyway?

    But back to the subject at hand… I think we can take this worrisome mindset to the extreme and not finish something, picking nits and polishing and practicing perfectionistic procrastination to avoid the letdown of no recognition or accolades… “They’ll really like it once it’s finished…”

    And speaking of hands… wash ’em… and stay hydrated…

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  2. Jim, the wisdom you share and your steady, even-handed approach has helped me weather many tough ups and downs as well as teach me what is REALLY important about writing.

    It’s the connection with readers. If one person’s life is improved or enriched by something you wrote, you’ve done your job.

    You’ve done your job for many lives. Thank you.

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    • Thanks for those kind words, Debbie.

      And yes, if you can connect deeply with even one reader, it’s a good and noble thing. But odds are overwhelmingly favorable that if you can do so with one, you will do so with many.

      Keep writing!

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  3. A great reminder, thank you. I tend to get too caught up in imagining what comes after the novel or short story is released into the world, so thank you for that dose of sanity and wisdom. You truly are among the best out there.

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    • Thanks so much, Carolyn. Ah yes, the imagination, which is our stock in trade…active, creative…but can also create unrealistic expectational pictures.

      When I was starting out I created mind pictures of myself not as wildly successful (flashbulbs popping, waving to an adoring crowd) but as productive, hard working. That was the mindset I was after because, as stated in my piece, that’s what I could control.

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  4. I do tend to stress. When I do, I turn to books, so I thank all authors who didn’t give up. And I wonder where I’d be if I’d quit when my publisher remaindered my first book with them a month after I’d signed the contract for the second.
    Thanks for your words of wisdom, as always, Mr. Bell.

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    • Terry, that’s the other great de-stressor for a writer. Getting lost in a good book. If I feel stress creeping up I’ll often grab a favorite novel and re-read a bit of it, reminding myself why I liked it in the first place, and re-learning lessons from it.

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  5. Great post, Jim, and one we writers especially need. I read your book, The Mental Game of Writing, several years ago and found it very helpful. Thanks for all your books.

    Yes, I worry too much and find myself becoming more and more like my mother each year. (That’s my excuse.)

    I think your second to last paragraph – “But anyone who keeps writing is a writer. And that very act—the writing, falling deeply into a scene, getting into “the zone”—turns out to be the only real antidote for writerly anxiety.” – is the key.

    An analogy from another occupation – my day job: I provide a service for people in northwestern Ohio. I spent years perfecting the technique and advertising on TV and internet, but it wasn’t until I had offered the service for twenty years that people began telling me they had been referred by previous clients, and that the business beat a path to my door.

    So, keep on writing, and do it for the love of writing.

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    • Thanks for the good word, and that analogy, Steve. Good things take time. Remember those Orson Welles commercials for Paul Masson? “We will sell no wine…before its time.”

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  6. Thank you, Jim, for this post! The biggest lesson I’ve learned in three plus years of self-publishing is to manage my expectations. Not only will not doing so drive me into a funk, it will make me lean too hard on marketing, and take crucial time away from actual writing. The one thing we writers own is our writing—not the success of our works, not reader reactions (though certainly we work hard to shape those via our fiction), not reviews (good or bad) etc. We always have writing.

    Thank you for everything you do! I consider you one of my writing mentors—your books and advice have helped me and so many others. Take care!

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    • Dale, what you said is of the utmost importance:

      it will make me lean too hard on marketing, and take crucial time away from actual writing.

      Such an easy trap, and one we must avoid at all costs. Thanks!

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  7. One of the late night talk show hosts was talking about a particular comedian who had never made it big, but his technique was flawless, and every comedian in the room would fall over laughing and take apart his jokes to try and learn something. The guy was called a comedians’ comedian because most regular people didn’t get him.

    After I heard that, my career clicked with me. Astonishing reviews and awards from writers and peer groups as well as some from not-writers, but my career never took fire. I’m a writers’ writer who had the misfortune to be an ebook pioneer before the Kindle and everybody reading ebooks. It stinks, but it is what it is.

    I loved MANNIX but him getting knocked out before every commercial break still makes me wince.

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  8. Such wisdom in your advice. Thank you, Jim.

    It really comes down to each person’s ultimate goal, doesn’t it? Do I want to write the best books I can? Or do I want to become famous? If I want to write the best books possible, this is the best time ever. A semi-infinite amount of instruction, expert guidance, and encouragement are available at my fingertips. And I can publish that wonderful book with or without the help of a traditional publisher.

    Btw, I clicked over to “The Mental Game of Writing” and added it to my ever-growing stack of JSB craft books. I noticed the Shakespearean quote from “Measure for Measure”. I use that same quote in my WIP!

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  9. “When I was starting out I created mind pictures of myself not as wildly successful (flashbulbs popping, waving to an adoring crowd) but as productive, hard-working. That was the mindset I was after because, as stated in my piece, that’s what I could control.”

    I’m printing this out and sticking it on my wall by my computer! Great advice and thank you for always putting things into perspective! Much appreciated.

    I’ve not written that “novel” yet, but I am consistently working. Writing content and being a content developer for marketing wasn’t my dream but it has been a wonderful and fulfilling career that I am very grateful for.

    When people ask me what I do and I explain I’m a freelance writer, they all assume I should be writing a book or have books written. I would like to add to this that not all writers are novelists, but we love to read them and hope one day we will have our dreams come true too.

    I feel that my writing skills are a gift that I’ve spent many hours refining and the best part of my job is helping other entrepreneurs and creatives market their products and services. I feel that I’m a small part of their success, and that puts a smile on my face!

    Hope all here will stay well and safe during the coming weeks.

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    • Thanks, Cindy. Back when I started out I thought of myself as a freelance writer, too. I admired those who could make a nice buck writing different kinds of articles for magazines (remember those?) I have a number of books from those days about making it as a freelancer. My favorite bore the title: Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal—How to Have a Great Life as a Freelance Writer.

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  10. Elston Howard.

    He was on the A List, but he wasn’t on THE A List. He was a New York Yankee playing on the same team as some of baseball’s all time greatest: Mantle, Richardson, McDougald, Ford, Rizzuto, Mooooose, The Barber, Bauer, Maglie, Slaughter, Kubek, Rizzuto, Larsen. Just seeing their names together again takes my breath.

    Howard played a lot of utility–the outfield, occasionally infield, did a lot of pinch-hitting, base running. Ended up playing first base just to stay on the roster.

    But he was a catcher. The problem: he was a good-to-great catcher playing behind Yogi Berra. No one was ever going to A-list ahead of Yogi “When You See A Fork In The Road, Take it” Berra.

    But on a Saturday afternoon, playing in the TV Game of the Week announced by our Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner, the Yankees were tied in the bottom of the ninth. Yankee’s manager Casey “All Right Everyone, Line Up Alphabetically According To Your Height” Stengel walked out onto the field and waved at the bullpen.

    Our trotted Elston Howard, running from the left field Yankees’ bullpen to the first base-side dugout. He came out with his bat.

    I don’t remember what the count was, and I don’t exactly remember which field he hit to, but he put solid wood on a fastball. Scored the winning run.

    A die-hard Yankees’ fan, I was jumping up and down in our living room. (Parents have never understood the need to jump up and down when your Yankees win.)

    The Yankees gathered at the plate and shook his hand (no high-fives in those days) and patted him on the back as he crossed the plate.

    It was a great afternoon in New York City and my living room.

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    • Ah, great rid down Memory Lane, Jim. I had an Elston Howard baseball card!

      Being a die-hard Dodgers fan, the utility man I recall with fondness was Lou “Sweet Lou” Johnson. He filled in for an injured Tommy Davis in ’65, when the Dodgers won the Series. He had a sunny disposition, and used to stride into the locker room and shout, “Everything’ll be all right!”

      I say that all the time to my wife. She loves it.

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  11. Excellent advice, as always, Jim. This year, I promised myself that I would try not to worry as much. I probably should be marketing more, but I’m on strike till I finish my WIP. Come spring, I have book signings set up, so it’ll all work out in the end.

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  12. Jim–
    Sort of related aside, as a horse-crazy kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I often snuck my way (not if posted no trespassing; I was a ridiculously good kid!) onto many horse ranches in the area just to be around them. At one point I met and fell for a matched pair of chocolate palominos, a color variation I’d never seen before. Turned out they belonged to Mr. Connors and his wife. I never met him, but eventually I did meet her, and she was sweet about it and told me I could come back any time to see them.

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      • Sounds like! When I finally got my first horse I boarded him in Chatsworth, down the road from Chad Everett (which got my older sister to actually come visit the stable…) We used to cut across his property, but since we were on horseback he didn’t care, just waved. After one year of the awful fires (my experiences in evacuating horses were good book fodder later) he got burnt out and had to go stay with a friend, and I went by as they were loading up what they could salvage. The friend was James Brolin.

        Them were the days, eh?

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        • Oh, yeah. I remember Warner Ranch when it was an actual ranch. I used to ride my bike down Canoga Ave., under the majestic pepper trees which, unfortunately, are gone now.

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          • Chatsworth St & Canoga Ave was where my stable was, and I lived not far from there. Looks entirely different now, and not for the better for my horse-loving soul.

            And let’s not talk about the Spahn Ranch and my encounter with the Manson family, and later the FBI…who fortunately looked at me and said “This kid doesn’t know anything.”

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  13. I tended to worry in the past and made myself sick because of it. I’ve gotten better in the last year-and-a-half that I’ve been taking meds. Although I do stress, I try and find distraction and relief in reading and writing.

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  14. I could write a best seller on that question—worrying about what’s outside my control or things that will never happen. I’m too full of what ifs—ask my kids. But what I want to ask you is about paragraph 1. Got bumped by the “boys in the basement making a lot of noise.” I took it literally—they were carving that head of Epictetus? If metaphorical, then I had so many interpretations. All, wrong, I hope.

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    • Hi, Nancy. I have used “The Boys in the Basement” frequently here. It is Stephen King’s metaphor for the subconscious. He can be off doing something, e.g., going to a store, while his “boys” are working on his story down below the conscious level. Glad to clear that up, as most houses out here in L.A. don’t have basements!

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  15. Thanks for this, Mr. Bell. I needed this.

    One thing I do that I could just kick myself for is comparing me with all the other authors out there in the land. I just attended a small writer’s retreat, and that demon stalked me the whole weekend. And I let it.

    Comparison stunts my growth as an author and as a human. I must continually remind myself that I am the only me on the planet, and my stories cannot be told by anyone else. (And, of course, I need to get over myself.) I must continue learning and get on with it.

    Again, thank you for all you are and all you do here at TKZ. 🙂

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    • Oh, I can relate, Deb. Comparison has been a particularly nasty bug for me over the years. It’s not at all uncommon among writers. The trick is to turn that negative energy into positive word production. Again, that’s the only real antidote!

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  18. I stopped worrying about a lot of things not in my control a long time ago. My art career prepared me for publishing. Not only did it teach me to pay attention to details and apply them aesthetically in a composition, it thickened my skin to criticism. Art is truly in the eye of the beholder, a matter of opinion. Unless the work is slapped together without any attempt at form and composition, whether it is well received by a viewer (or reader) is a matter of their opinion and taste. The few low rated reviews I have, I noted if there were any valid points, and if not, I brushed them off as that person’s opinion and moved on.

    I have never stressed over sales. I am lucky not to depend on book sales for my groceries. I study the craft to become better with each book. (Thank you for your inspiration, how to books, and tips!). I do what marketing I have the time and the money for, and just keep writing.

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