My Dark Passenger: The Secret Torment of a Writer

December 3, 2021 § 21 Comments

By Abby Alten Schwartz

It’s unsettling to empathize with a serial killer, even a fictional one, but here we are. I’m watching the Dexter reboot on Showtime with a newfound perspective on the lead character’s inner conflict. Dexter is driven to kill, an urge he calls his “Dark Passenger.” I’m struggling lately to come to terms with my own Dark Passenger — the shadow self of my writer’s identity. My desire to write, submit and get published has spawned the twin demons of imposter syndrome and intense fear of missing out, and the more I accomplish, the worse it gets.

Though I’ve been writing professionally for more than 20 years, I’m new to lit pubs, journalism and the writing community. I enjoy my work as a freelance healthcare copywriter and marketing consultant, but for years felt an itch to expand creatively. I secretly dreamt of writing a memoir, but had no idea how to begin. Then the pandemic upended life and shook my priorities like a snow globe.

I joined an online journaling community and began sharing personal essays. I made friends who invited me into not-so-secret Facebook writers’ groups and felt a connection I was unaware I’d been missing. I found a memoir coach, started my book, took a Zoom course to learn how to pitch editors, and landed my first major byline.

The night I got that acceptance I had my first encounter with my Dark Passenger. I was on social media chatting with friends. Several of us had pitched the same editor after he spoke with our class, but so far none had heard back. Then the first of our group posted her exciting news: he said yes. I was happy for her. Then another friend posted. She also got a yes.

An ugly emotion tickled my brain. Jealousy. I wanted in. It was a wholly separate feeling from my genuine excitement for the others, but it was real. I joined my husband and daughter to watch TV, distractedly checking my phone. And then it happened. The editor emailed. He loved my pitch and wanted my story. In one hour, my emotions had run the gamut from happy to envious to self-pitying to exhilarated. Was this normal?

My taste of success ignited my curiosity to learn more, experiment, be bold. But it was my involvement with the writing community that lit a fire under me and fueled my ambition. It’s no different than when I learned to play tennis — I challenged myself to play with people better than me, and it forced me to level up.

Engaging with more experienced and accomplished writers inspires me to push hard and aim high. I’m a competitive person. I don’t want to be the fangirl relegated to the sidelines, cheering and handing out snacks. I want to be on the court, crushing balls and celebrating points. I’ll still be cheering the other players, but I’ll be fully in the game.

All of this is healthy, right? Yes and no. What I didn’t anticipate was the anxiety that would spread like black mold in the shadow of my desire. Every acceptance, every piece published, is an adrenaline rush — but like any good high, it eventually wears off and leaves me wanting more. And while I love the marathon commitment of writing memoir, the finish line is far in the distance. In the meantime, I see the mileposts of fellow writers getting book deals and winning awards, and think, “I don’t belong here.”

When Dexter’s hunger to kill intensified until he could no longer ignore the urge, he channeled it the best way he knew how: by following a strict moral code and killing only violent criminals who had escaped justice. Once satiated, his Dark Passenger would go quiet for a period of time.

Each time I’ve been published, I’ve basked in the glow of accomplishment, reassured I haven’t lost momentum, that my license to write wouldn’t be revoked. I could shift back to other priorities until the pressure started building again.

Did I just compare my urge to be published to the obsessions of a vigilante serial killer? Sadly, I did. Because here is my ugly truth. For me, it’s not enough to write. I crave the visibility that simultaneously terrifies me. I want to connect to strangers through language. I need the validation of a yes. And when I don’t feed that hunger, it turns cannibalistic, eating at my confidence. My own Dark Passenger, whispering in my ear:

“That brilliant idea you had in the shower? Someone else is submitting it right now.”

“It’s been months since that editor ran your story. She’s already forgotten you.”

“Everyone you know has work coming out. What have you done lately?”

My FOMO is real, but I’m learning to channel it in a positive way.

I can challenge myself to collect rejections. The more I send out, the better my odds — plus, submitting regularly makes each attempt less fraught.

I can remember to have fun. Having a separate source of income frees me to approach creative writing with a sense of adventure. I can explore different genres or go after moonshot pitches, knowing my writing group will be there to cheer my efforts or commiserate with my setbacks.

I can recognize that writing is not a zero-sum game. There’s an endless need for content and room for all of us. I can be inspired by the gorgeous work of other writers and motivated by their success, knowing that ultimately, every writing path is unique.

______

Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, The Manifest-Station and more. She moonlights as a healthcare copywriter and marketing consultant and once had a column about hooping. The hula kind. Abby is currently writing a memoir about her journey from hypervigilance to trust. Find her on Twitter @abbys480 or visit abbyaltenschwartz.com.

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