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One Hit Wonders: Performance Anxiety?

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We’ve all heard those one hit wonders in the music world, when an artist or group scores a huge hit with one song but is never heard from again. The 1976 song Play That Funky Music by Wild Cherry was all over the radio, and the 1980 hit Funkytown by Lipps Inc. still gets radio airtime. Most people know the songs, though they probably couldn’t name the bands. For reasons unknown, these bands either couldn’t or didn’t want to attain that level of success again. 

What about one hit wonders in the literary world? 

Consider Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind. She’d been a reporter for The Atlanta Journal, and had written short stories and novellas, but Gone with the Wind was her first and only full-length novel. Published in 1936, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as a National Book Award. The 1939 film adaptation won multiple Academy Awards. Yet, she never wrote another book. Maybe she was content and felt no need to write anything more. Or maybe she didn’t want a second book to be held up to that first one’s standards. 

Harper Lee, author of the 1960 bestseller To Kill a Mockingbird, didn’t handle success well at all; at least not creatively. Her novel won both a Pulitzer and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. The 1962 film adaptation won three Academy Awards. All the success seemed to stun Harper. She rarely agreed to be interviewed and avoided public appearances. She did work on a second novel entitled The Long Goodbye, but never finished it. 

Do some authors only have one book in them? Or does all the success and notoriety cause a kind of performance anxiety in some people, which stifles their creativity and prevents them from writing anything more? 

Most authors only dream of achieving the kind of success reached by authors like Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee. I wonder, though, if that success can’t also be a curse. When your book is loved by the masses, expectations are raised; not just other people’s, but your own as well. Maybe you question every word you put on paper. Maybe the anxiety is so intense that the words simply won’t come. 

When I was a hairstylist, I occasionally suffered a mild form of performance anxiety. A client would come in and praise the way I’d cut his/her hair the time before, then say those dreaded words, “Cut it exactly the way you did the last time.” I’d break out in a sweat. Sounds crazy, right? The person just praised my work. The fact that the person wants the cut done exactly like I did it before should be a compliment, not a source of anxiety. But that one word - exactly - had the power to suck away my confidence. I worked on anywhere between 75 and 150 different clients per week, every week. Could I repeat the exact cut I did on one of those clients six or eight weeks ago? Did I even remember exactly what I did? 

I think writing can feel like this, as well. I haven’t experienced anywhere near the success of Mitchell or Lee, but I can understand and empathize with how they must have felt. To experience success of that magnitude with your first published novel has to knock you off balance in unexpected ways. You’d want your next book to at least measure up to, if not surpass, the accolades received for the first. Writing with that kind of intent would, it seems, destroy a person’s creativity. 

As much as I love my readers and appreciate all the kind words I receive, I have to put all that out of my mind when I write. The same goes for the negative critique given by readers whose expectations, for one reason or another, were not meant. In order for creativity to flow, only the characters can exist. Only they can choose which way to go with their story. 

A certain level of performance anxiety probably exists in all creative endeavors. In these situations, we are often our own worst enemy. One thing I learned in all my years as a stylist is you can never create the same thing twice. And that’s okay. We don’t want life to be about lather, rinse, repeat. We want it to be about rising to each challenge in our own unique ways.