Whether you realize it or not, you and I and everyone else walks around with scripts that we deploy in common social situations.
When someone dies, we express sympathy, and they say, “Thank you.”
When someone gets a promotion, we express excitement, and they say, “Thank you.”
When someone keeps making the same relationship mistakes, we express bewilderment, and they say, “I know, why do you think I drink so much.”
This is all well and good and natural. They’re frameworks that help us from having to start from scratch every single time we encounter an emotion in the wild.
But there’s an unintended consequence to these scripts: they are rote, they are unthinking, and they don’t allow for nuance or complexity.
When people direct “the script” at you, it can feel as if they’re boxing you into feeling a certain way. You start to think you’re *supposed* to feel in the exact way they think you should feel. And when you deviate from “the script,” people may react with confusion or even outright hostility.
When someone dies, what if you also feel some relief?
When you get a promotion, what if you secretly want to quit your job?
When you keep making relationship mistakes, what if you secretly love the drama?
Authors can feel this acutely when you ascend a rung on your publishing journey. You spend so much time writing a novel, so much time trying to find an agent, and then when you find one, according to “the script” you should be filled with unbridled joy, not, well, joy mixed with terror and doubt.
Then when you find a publisher, according to “the script” your problems are *really* solved. And good luck trying to complain about anything ever again when you’re a bestseller.
The best people in your life will give you the freedom to deviate from the script and see you with all the nuance and complexity you possess. Because it’s *OKAY* to feel something other than what you’re “supposed” to feel. You’re a human being, not a robot.
Seek out these good people who will let you complain when you’re “supposed” to be happy and let you be happy when you’re “supposed” to be sad.
But most importantly, ignore the rigid people out there who try to make you feel badly because you’re flipping their script. They’re not seeing you as a human being, they’re seeing you as a faulty computer program.
It’s fine if you are terrified after you get an agent.
It’s fine if you feel more down after publishing a book than you were before it was published.
It’s fine if you are filled with terror, doubt, elation, sadness, confusion, all at once, and/or separately at different times of the day.
The publishing journey is tough enough without being boxed into feeling something you don’t actually feel. Toss the script out the window and let yourself be a human being.
I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
Art: Two Wives by Carl Bloch
Peter Dudley says
This applies to so much more than publishing. And other scripts can be flipped, too. I've had several experiences recently where the script calls for people to say "Oh, I'm so sorry! That must be so hard for you!" And yeah, there's difficulty, but there are other complex emotions that are just difficult to explain. So only a few people really know the full depth of things; sometimes it's easier just to stick to the script.
PS: I love that the CAPTCHA for this comment makes me click the "I'm not a robot" box.
JOHN T. SHEA says
“But most importantly, ignore the rigid people out there who try to make you feel badly because you're flipping their script. They're not seeing you as a human being, they're seeing you as a faulty computer program.”
Amen! And Peter Dudley is right that this applies to so much more than publishing.
April Dávila says
I know a woman whose husband died after a long illness. At the funeral she was swarmed by people saying, "sorry," and how sad she must be. She confided in me later that she had actually felt happy – for him because he was no longer in pain and for herself because she was able to rejoin the world now that she wasn't caring for him. She was excited. But she was afraid that if she expressed that, people would make assumptions. I was so glad she shared that with me. I think we could all benefit from saying how we really feel when things are intense.
Jennifer R. Hubbard says
This is also a useful concept for writing, because we can improve our dialogue by not letting it fall into recitations of rote scripts, and seeking where we can cut the scripts of have the characters break them.
Great post. A great reminder not to go on autopilot or expect other people to. Even giving other people permission to go off script, like "Wow, you accomplished X. That must be exhilarating – and maybe a little scary?"
Also a good reminder to be more understanding and less resentful of the authors who've already "made it." Can't imagine that kind of pressure.
JOHN T. SHEA says
The late Irish playwright John B. Keane challenged our mourning script in his play 'BIG MAGGIE'. When the undertakers (morticians) suggest to the newly-widowed Maggie that they inscribe 'In Loving Memory' or some such endearment on the tombstone of her brutal husband, she refuses, orders them to put just his name, date of birth, and date of death, and says “There are enough lies written on the tombstones of Ireland.”
I agree with all the comments on this profound post. Thanks, Nathan.
It's exciting to go off script to find something that works with people. And it's important that these deviations do work to make things a win-win because we can't be happy if we're making others around us unhappy. I'm not really a people person, but lately I've found that if – in a respectful, humble way – I explain what I want, people are often more than happy to comply. People rarely realise that they're being difficult or not behaving in a way that makes us happy to be around them. But when we can help them understand what we want and expect, they often rise to the occasion in an amazing way. All they need is that spark of understanding.
If we don't tell others what we want, it often leads to resentment and passive-aggressive behavior from us which the other person finds baffling. We all sometimes need a guiding hand to understand each other and what we're looking for in a friend, partner or associate.
Maybe what I've described isn't really off-script and most people do this. I wish I'd known about it earlier 🙂 Knowing the words and attitude that work, or opens up a pathway of understanding and trust, makes such a difference in our interactions with others. A key to this is to focus on the feelings and needs of the other person – while at the same time helping them to understand our feelings and needs.