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How to Make Pessimism Work for You

Pessimism is one of the most important instruments in a writer’s tool box. It can also be one of the most destructive.

Several years back I entered the ACFW Genesis Contest, but didn’t make the cut. I had already convinced myself I wouldn’t so when I didn’t, I wasn’t disappointed. Once again, pessimism saved me.  But my indifference wasn’t shared by everyone in the contest.

A thread started at the ACFW forum, a members only section of the site, that was entitled The Genesis Aftermath. There were lots of confused, heartbroken, angry folks. The Genesis judges were called out, the grading system was dissected, and entire careers were second-guessed. It may have been therapeutic for some, but to me it provided a window into the nature of the writing community.

We are way too optimistic.

I often tell my kids, Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. That adage has kept my expectations low and my emotions even-keeled. While others were railing about their Genesis snubs, I basked in the inevitable. However, the downside of my pessimistic outlook is, I’m often so busy looking for rain clouds that I miss the silver linings.

Case in point. During a recent luncheon, I was buzzed about my debut novel due out next spring. “Aren’t you nervous?” someone asked. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I quipped. “My book comes out, it is universally panned, does not sell, I am dropped by my publisher and my agent, my blog numbers wither and my Twitter followers abandon me, and my writing career becomes a smoldering crater on the literary landscape.” The people at the table sat gaping.

Witness pessimism run rampant.

Sure, pessimism can equip me for the inevitable bumps, bruises, let-downs, and dead ends along the way. But if I’m not careful, it can also feed a swamp of terminal negativism and become  a slippery slope into despondency and malaise.

So having mined the dark side of pessimism and survived (so far), I offer five ways to make pessimism work for you.

Differentiate between pessimism and defeatism — Francis Schaeffer argued that, while total healing is not possible in this lifetime, substantial healing is. The Christian pessimist must concede both these possibilities. Yes, things can be bleak — i.e., total healing (at any level) is not possible. But that doesn’t mean substantial healing isn’t. The pessimist who automatically dismisses substantial healing has moved from realism to cynicism. There is a difference between admitting things are difficult and surrendering to defeat. To make pessimism work for you, you must make that distinction.

Seeing things as they are is not a reason to let them stay that way — Just because the glass is half-full doesn’t mean the spigot doesn’t work. Pessimists love to portray themselves as realists. Equally true, however, is the reality of free will. Your actions can change the course of events! Determination, wisdom, and stubborn persistence have altered human history. It is one thing to see the glass as half-full, and another to see yourself as powerless to fill it.

Don’t allow pessimism to become paralysis — Ansel Adams, the renowned wilderness photographer, often recalled the old adage that ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good,’ his point being that if he waited for everything in the scene to be perfect, he’d probably never take a picture. A lot of pessimism is rooted in perfectionism. But requiring perfection leads to paralysis. Making pessimism work for you means seeing it as an opportunity to work harder, not as an excuse to never work.

Your view is not the only view — Pessimism is, ultimately, a view of life. Problem is (for the pessimist), there are other views. Optimists tend to drive me crazy… partly because I know they’re onto something. My wife has saved me from many bleak moments. All the while my publisher was considering my manuscript, I conceded defeat. “I’m just waiting for the hammer,” I moaned. “I am not getting my hopes up again.” She just shook her head and said, “Oh ye of little faith.” There was a weird symmetry between us. The takeaway: Pessimists need optimists (and vice versa). While things are rarely as good as optimists see them, they are rarely as bad as pessimists make them out to be. Making pessimism work for you means seeing your outlook for what it is: your outlook.

Admit the obvious: The sun will come up tomorrow — Okay, so I’m a sucker for that song from “Annie.”  Yes, I realize that one day the sun won’t come up. But after 5000 years of recorded human history and approximately 2 million sunrises, there’s a reasonable chance that tomorrow is not that day.  As bad as things can be, as hard as they have been, there is usually another day to try and make them better.

It’s been said that pessimists are either proved right or pleasantly surprised. No, I did not even make the cut in the ACFW Genesis contest. But you wanna know something funny? That same story, the one the judges passed over, the one I received multiple rejections on, has landed me a two-book contract. Oh me of little faith.

So while optimism may make the journey more enjoyable, pessimism anticipates the difficulties along the way. The problem is when we allow our pessimism to keep us from taking that journey at all.

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Question: Do you think some writers are too optimistic? And what are some of the ways you have let pessimism work for you?

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Jessica Thomas June 28, 2010, 6:57 AM

    “My book comes out, it is universally panned, does not sell, I am dropped by my publisher and my agent, my blog numbers wither and my Twitter followers abandon me, and my writing career becomes a smoldering crater on the literary landscape.”

    lololol. I love it.

    I’m a realist when it comes to the physical realm. People will always let you down. Bad things will happen. Things won’t go the way you want, etc., etc.

    But I’m an idealist when it comes to the spiritual realm. God’s in control and he can do anything he wants to do. He can alter or influence this physical realm in any way he sees fit. So I believe in miracles, in the impossible. If God wants your book to hit the New York Times Bestseller list, he can move mountains to make it happen. Then again, that might not be on his agenda. Either way, your book will be published. Kudos! Hard work does pay off!

    Guess that would make me a pessimist/optimist. At least, I try to balance the two. Otherwise, I fly too high or sink too low.

  • Jen June 28, 2010, 7:01 AM

    Yes, writers can be too optimistic. Especially when the people around them puff them up with false praise. That’s probably why so many people in the contest you mentioned got mad. they’re too busy listening to the hype instead of being realistic. Getting published is damned hard and writers will only be disillusioned if they believe otherwise. Hope that doesn’t sound too gloomy. 😀

    • Mike Duran June 28, 2010, 8:33 AM

      I suppose that can sound “too gloomy,” which I why I think we should embrace pessimism, to a certain degree. Hey, you’re right. Getting published is hard and too many writers are Pollyanna-ish about their prospects.

  • Mr Pond June 28, 2010, 7:30 AM

    Great post, Mike. Thanks for the dose of realism, and the reminder.

    What Jen said, pretty much. If you (generically) are not willing to take a couple tough kicks in the where-it-counts, and struggle on through the rejections and losses, a writing career isn’t for you. It’s brutal out there, and the people who analyze these things predict it’s only going to get tougher. You have to love it, take a pummeling, and keep going. (Oh, have I had to learn this the hard way! And I can still get my week ruined by a form rejection slip.)

    And even if you win the contest or get the book published, you’re still going to need a tough skin, and honest pessimism about your book, to face the critics. They will not all be nice. And that will be a lot harsher than a form rejection slip.

    Also, I can’t help recalling of Chesterton’s comments (Orthodoxy, 1908) on optimism and pessimism, which I’ll add a bit of here:

    When I was a boy there were two curious men running about who were called the optimist and the pessimist. I constantly used the words myself, but I cheerfully confess that I never had any very special idea of what they meant. The only thing which might be considered evident was that they could not mean what they said; for the ordinary verbal explanation was that the optimist thought this world as good as it could be, while the pessimist thought it as bad as it could be. Both these statements being obviously raving nonsense, one had to cast about for other explanations. An optimist could not mean a man who thought everything right and nothing wrong. For that is meaningless; it is like calling everything right and nothing left. Upon the whole, I came to the conclusion that the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist, and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself.

    […]

    No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?

    Sorry for the length of comment. You’ve certainly got me thinking…

    • Mike Duran June 28, 2010, 7:41 AM

      Fantastic quote, Mr. Pond! I love Chesterton and this fits nicely here. Thanks!

  • Nicole June 28, 2010, 7:58 AM

    I am so that you in the pessimist column. My husband is your wife. Sometimes I detest myself for being the dark cloud of “reasoning”. But at least it’s the only time I’m glad to be wrong–if I am.

    The Lord has a great sense of humor: I wrote five novels before I knew anything about the requirements for publishing. If I’d only banked on one after learning all the stuff and experiencing rejection, I probably would’ve have folded with a pair of deuces. But even in pessimism, he built resilience into me . . . so I continue. Such as I am. 😉

  • xdpaul June 28, 2010, 8:47 AM

    This made me think of that day that I finally stopped to listen to God. He held me close and told me that, beyond all the failure and disorder of my life, my broken relationships and the opportunities lost, deep, deep down in the innermost part of me, at my very core…I pretty much sucked.

    Which explained all the failure and disorder, broken stuff and missed chances very nicely!

    Of course, Jeremiah 17:9 has a 17:10, but what’s another verse between friendly pessimists?

  • Ane Mulligan June 28, 2010, 6:22 PM

    Great post, Mike. I’ve been a judge numerous times, and from my journey in this business, I learned to put on an editor’s hat when judging. That’s what we face when they look at our work. So yeah, I’m a tough judge. The thing is, to me, what good is a contest if just okay work wins? and how does that prepare you for an editor’s comments?

    As you learned in Penwrights, it’s tough critiques that make a writer better, taking your work from okay, to good, and then from good to great.

    That’s how you got a contract! So I heartily approve of this article.

  • Mark H. June 29, 2010, 6:10 AM

    Pessimism also helps when you’re an Eagles fan.

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