DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have a few hang ups around relationships that I’ve tried to work through, but haven’t made any headway on in years.
The big, number one thing at my core is that throughout my whole 20’s, I’ve learned more and more that there is nothing innately interesting or appealing about my personality. It’s just that I, as an individual, don’t hit any notes with anyone.
I write fiction, and every rejection for every story and novel is the same (and please don’t give a “hey, you wrote a novel, that’s an accomplishment” line. Tons of people write novels that never see the light of day): “not right at this time,” “not for me,” and so on. The big one that hit me was being told “there’s nothing really wrong, but nothing really right.” So I thought more about it, and considered how a good writer (even of fantasy and sci-fi) has life experiences that inform their voice as a writer and I was hit by the realization that I lack life experiences, most specifically, the one thing I’ve always felt horrible about: romantic relationships.
I’ve always felt terrible and insecure about being single in my 20s(late 20s now, which in my family is old for being single). Most happily married people I know got married young, and my family’s culture doesn’t really have a place for single guys. Eventually, everyone will have their own families and I’ll be phased out.
And so my thought about writing led me to think the reason I’m a bad writer is the same reason women aren’t interested in me: I have no distinct voice or personality. The rejections are the same: “not right for me” or “I didn’t feel a connection.” Hearing that once or several times isn’t necessarily a reflection on me, as you’ve written before. But hearing it 100% of the time in dating and in other parts of life means there is something to it. I am completely milquetoast both as a man and a writer.
And so, I went to grad school for creative writing, in the hopes that I would learn how to be an interesting writer, and therefore become an interesting person in the process, and then maybe someone would like me, because I “got it now.” And while I found that time valuable and instructive, and I worked my tail off to get better, I was met by the same thing. People didn’t resonate with me and my work. Before I graduated, I talked with a professor who I previously told about wanting the ability to resonate with a reader/audience which I always lacked, and they said that after all this time, I was still just “nothing wrong, but nothing right.”
And that just broke me in a way. I haven’t written any creative work since. I have made no attempt to meet women in that time. Because there’s nothing right about me, even if there is nothing wrong(which is false). The last time I went on a first date was years ago, and there was no second date because she didn’t feel a connection… the exact same way people feel about anything I’ve ever written. I only ever had one long-term relationship anyway, and that started as a fluke, and ended because I never truly believed that she could be in love with me despite her saying so.
The worst part of it, though, is this: I don’t have it in me to try anymore. Not for dating or writing. It just hurts too much. Every rejection I get brings with it the pain of every past rejection rolled into one. It’s a weight that steadily builds with each new rejection, and the only way to cast off that weight is by finding just one success.
But I feel that the next rejection is just going to beat me down so hard that I can’t try. And it spills over into other things, too. I can’t exercise consistently because I know that a fitter me is still the me who has an uninteresting personality that won’t be wanted, just less fat.
But the loneliness hurts too, and I want the loneliness to end just as much as I want my personality to stop being so useless.
I know this is a long ramble, but the point is this: how do I fix something so fundamental about myself like my personality? Because my lack of individuality and subjective appeal is what keeps dragging me down. And it can’t just be my self-perception, because everything I’ve ever read about internal validation just sets off my red flag detector for being mental gymnastics or magical thinking. Even after reading all about negativity bias and confirmation bias, I still feel this, so maybe there’s something I don’t fully understand about internal validation.
– Can’t Be a Late Bloomer When There’s Nothing to Bloom
DEAR CAN’T BE A LATE BLOOMER: So, there’re a few things here, CLB… starting with no, finishing a novel at all is a hell of a feat. The world is littered with the ghosts of manuscripts that peter out before they even get to NANOWRIMO length, never mind the length of your average lit-fic or genre novel. Going out for publication is even more so. And as someone who’s been on the Query-Go-Round, who’s dealt with publishers and producers and who’s been fortunate enough to become friends with a number of successful authors… a lot of rejections have less to do with the quality of the writing and everything to do with the marketability. After all, there’re a lot of s—tty books out there that get by on prestige or notoriety rather than the actual quality of the writing.
(Also, I don’t think you realize just how large the “number of submissions to first time published” ratio is…)
Now the reason I start there is because of how much some of these misconceptions translate to issues with dating as well. The fact that rejection is often about marketability rather than quality is an issue that is often reflected in people’s dating lives. One of the issues that comes up often — including in this column — is how often people don’t know how to market themselves when it comes to dating. This tends to cover everything from presentation to crafting a good dating profile, from making sure you’re looking for the right people to date to simply not constantly talking yourself down.
Someone not vibing with your writing or you as a potential partner doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. I’ve read a lot of books where my dislike has ranged from mild distaste to “actively hurled across the room”. Not because the book was objectively bad — in fact, they were usually quite good — but because they weren’t for me. Other folks would likely love the hell out of them and I’ve made a point of recommending those books to people I thought would dig ’em. Because as a wise woman once said: “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.”
Sometimes the issue is finding the right audience.
Now maybe the problem is that yes, you’re just there. I don’t think it is — more on that in a second — but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this is the problem. This is actually fairly common. One of the biggest issues a lot of folks have is that they’re afraid to stand out or to be polarizing. There’s a lot of “talk less/ smile more/ never let them know what you’re against or what you’re for” out there — folks who want to avoid being controversial so badly that they become the human incarnation of Applebee’s: blandly acceptable but not actually exciting. Very few people get a craving to go to Applebees. But this is a very fixable problem; it means letting go of being blandly acceptable. You have to be willing to worry less about being broadly appealing and more about being unapologetically yourself. You need to lean into the quirks and foibles that make you unique, even if they might mean that you’re not as broadly but blandly appealing… or at least, untroublesome.
While the idea of leaning into things you worry might make you less palatable to the general public can be scary, it’s actually a smart thing to do. This makes it much easier to actually find the people who are looking for folks like you and who crave what you’ve got. Sometimes the issue is that you’re trying to market to a broad audience when what you need to do is find your niche instead.
By the same token, the idea of “write what you know” isn’t accurate; I mean, I don’t think Scalzi’s got much experience being a rejuvenated pensioner who’s fighting an intergalactic war, nor do I think NK Jemisin has spent time as the living incarnation of Brooklyn.
(I could be wrong about that last one…)
It’s less “write what you know” and more “write what you can learn“. If all writing was based exclusively on people’s lived experiences, we wouldn’t have 90% of the literature or pop culture we have today. And the “what you learn” point is important because of how it applies to your life as well. You assume that part of your problem is a lack of experiences to draw from or to make you interesting… well, it seems like the answer is pretty simple: go get more experiences. You don’t need to be jetting off to exotic locales or joining the Peace Corps, but going out and doing new things — different things — is well within your reach. When’s the last time you’ve gotten out of your comfort zone and done something new, unexpected or different, just for the sake of doing it? When have you gone out and just decided to take risks or do things for the sake of the story you’d be able to tell afterwards?
From the sounds of things, not very often. It sounds like a lot of what’s been going on has been “running as fast as you can to stay in the same place”, rather than shaking things up and doing things differently. There’s a whole lot of “why bother?” in your letter, and that leads me to suspect that a lot of how you’ve tried to change or fix things has been “Do the same thing but HARDER this time” and wondering why you’re getting the same results. Definitions of insanity and all that.
But that’s actually a core issue regarding the trouble you’ve been having. Because, if I’m being perfectly honest, it sounds like you spend a lot of time rationalizing why you can’t (or rather, won’t) change. You’ve invested pretty heavily in the idea that you’re a milquetoast personality, and you’ve been actively resisting change. Case in point: “And it can’t just be my self-perception, because everything I’ve ever read about internal validation just sets off my red flag detector for being mental gymnastics or magical thinking.” I mean, dude. You’re a writer. I’m sure you’re aware of the concept of the unreliable narrator, right? The fact that something “sets off your red flag detector” doesn’t automatically mean that it’s wrong… not when your detector is seriously miscalibrated. This is less about your being able to change and being willing to accept that you might be wrong.
Case in point: “I only ever had one long-term relationship anyway, and that started as a fluke, and ended because I never truly believed that she could be in love with me despite her saying so.” This right here? This is the precise example of what I’m talking about. Someone who was telling you, repeatedly, that she loved you and cared for you and you called her a liar. That wasn’t about you having a boring personality, that was about you being invested that people couldn’t like you and not allowing that maybe you are wrong. That investment and determination to not see everything that contradicts your belief is the literal definition of confirmation bias.
And that definitely makes it sound like the rest of your issues — like the idea that you’re just too uninteresting for people to find attractive — are equally untrue.
This is why it sounds like there’re other issues bubbling under the surface, ones that can’t be solved by a dating advice column. In addition to the changes I’ve suggested, I think it wouldn’t hurt you to take a little time and get some sessions with a counselor or therapist to see if you can both unpack a little about why you won’t accept the possibility that you might be wrong — that not only are you deserving of love, but that other people do find you interesting and desirable. That it’s not a matter of needing to earn enough Writer Points or what-have-you for folks to see that you’ve “got it” (whatever “it” is) in this case. Or that people getting married or having families means that they won’t have time for their friends.
Start working on getting your head and heart more in alignment and I think you’ll notice a significant improvement in your life. And in the meantime: go out and have some adventures, just for the f--k of it all.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org