Living in Paradox

Masked woman

Last week I wrote a post about following your passion as a writer, versus trying to write what the market wants. I concluded that it’s a false dichotomy—you need to to both. It’s not easy living in two worlds, and it got me thinking of all the ways writers and publishing professionals have to live with the tension of being pulled in two directions.
It’s almost paradoxical, the way we need to embody characteristics that seem diametrically opposed to one another. But maybe if we acknowledge the conflicts and contradictory requirements, we’ll be better able to navigate them with aplomb and without frustration. Here are a few ways in which we writing/publishing types function in the midst of paradox.

 1. We are at once creatives and business people.

Depending on your role in publishing (writer, editor, agent, marketer, etc.) you’ll be more heavily weighted toward one end or the other on this creative/business spectrum. But we are all expected to assimilate both characteristics. Creation is where it all starts; we are creative in our ideas and our execution of them. Thinking smart from a business perspective (using our creativity here, too) is what will bring our creations to market so others can enjoy them.

2. We are both subjective and objective.

We’re close to our own creations, and emotionally tied to them, so subjectivity about our work is our default. Readers’ tastes are also massively subjective and this even applies to agents and editors. Yet we all have to step back from our personal, instinctive opinions to try and see our work in an objective light, to better gauge its potential and its value to others.

3. We have to trust our own instincts while also trusting others to give useful feedback.

Trusting your instincts is an incredibly important attribute for success in business and life (I’m planning a whole post on the topic). If you can’t trust your gut, you’ll be forever tossed on the waves of doubt and indecision. Yet this is best balanced by a healthy respect for the input of wise counselors. We can develop discernment to know when others’ instincts are better than our own.
Trusting your own intuition can be tricky, because taken to the extreme, it can lead to stubbornness and the refusal to recognize the valuable opinions of others. The balance is a skill that most of us improve through many years of practice.

4. We create for the inherent pleasure in our art, but also with the intention of sharing it with others.

Most writers start writing because they have something to say, or a story to tell, and they keep going because of the personal fulfillment they get from the creative process. Most agents and editors pursued their careers because of their love of books and literature and working with authors. We’re all doing our work for the joy of it.
When we also want to make a living from it, we’re put in the (sometimes uncomfortable) situation of needing to gracefully blend art and commerce. But sharing our art with others vastly increases the inherent gratification of creating in the first place, so whatever adjustments we make to be able to sell our work are usually well worth it.

5. Much of our work is solitary, yet we also need to be good collaborators.

The only way we can get our work done is by sitting down at our laptops, alone. The work we do requires focus, and intensity, and deep thought. (I’ll submit this is true about a great many kinds of jobs out there.) But there comes a time when we have to leave our creation-cave, and work with others—whether to get feedback or editing, to get published, or to market our books. It doesn’t feel natural for some of us. We’d rather be solo flyers! Yet success demands both.

6. We have a spirit of humility about our work, but we need to be confident enough to share it.

We are at once apprehensive about sharing our work, and eager for others to enjoy it. We’re humble, not knowing whether others will value what we’ve done; yet we muster our confidence to put it out there. Some are closer to the humble end of the spectrum; others, as we know, are fearless! Again, finding a healthy balance is key to successfully navigating this paradox. Too close to either extreme will make it difficult to find your fans.

7. We’re extremely hard on ourselves, but we can also be blind to our own flaws.

Most of us are our own worst critics, and those of us with perfectionist tendencies are even harder on ourselves. Yet it’s human nature that we can’t see our own work objectively. A writer needs an editor to identify weak spots in the writing; others (like agents and editors) may need feedback from team members or an executive coach to help them be their best. It sometimes feels ironic that we could be so critical of ourselves, working so hard to be our best, and then an outsider comes in and immediately spots our flaws. Such is human nature.
Do you feel yourself living in any of these paradoxical situations? What are some other paradoxes you experience as a writer or publishing professional?

Comment below or by clicking: HERE.

Feel like you’re living in paradox? That’s normal in publishing, says @RachelleGardner. Click to Tweet.
7 ways writers and publishing professionals live in paradox, according to @RachelleGardner. Click to Tweet.
Writers’ paradox: “Trusting our instincts while trusting others for useful feedback.” Click to Tweet.
Writers: “We’re hard on ourselves, but we can also be blind to our own flaws.”  Click to Tweet.


Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Best of the Web | Lights All Around on December 10, 2013 at 7:44 PM

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  3. B.J. Daniels on November 15, 2013 at 7:38 AM

    Great blog!! So true. It is a tightrope walk.

  4. […] OK, I accept that, at first glance you may think “I’m not a writer, so this has zip to do with me”. You may think that, but you’d be wrong. Rachelle Gardener consistently manages to deliver truly revolutionary-relevant messages by drawing from her life as a writer, and this is just one such message. […]

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  7. shelly dippel on November 12, 2013 at 10:39 AM

    You covered them well! I’m holding on to this post. I agree that it helps to deal with living a paradox when you are aware of them. Thanks!

  8. […] are interesting parallels in recent writings to these, too. In Living in Paradox, the literary agent Rachelle Gardner looks at the familiar competition between creative and […]

  9. Hugh Smith on November 11, 2013 at 3:13 PM

    Man, did you hit the nail on the head with some of these. Artist? Businessperson? It’s hard, especially when you’re starting out. I imagine as I progress and one day (hopefully) have an agent and publisher some of the burden will shift but before that happens it’s all on my shoulders. I suppose it’s a matter of prioritizing but that has its own paradox as well. Sometimes, during the time I’ve set aside for platform building, I feel really creative and am bubbling over with ideas. Do I follow my instincts and write or stick to the plan and build my platform? This particular paradox is a no-brainer for me, I will write every time but it doesn’t make it any easier when I feel guilty for not having neglected my marketing.

    • Rachelle Gardner on November 11, 2013 at 4:39 PM

      Ah, guilt, that ever-present friend of the writer. And the burdens may change, but they’ll never go away (sorry to say).

  10. Ed_Cyzewski on November 11, 2013 at 12:22 PM

    I think you’ve covered this to a certain degree, but I’ll just mention this: I’ve read the conflicting advice to:
    1. Work endlessly on your craft.
    2. Work endlessly on building a network and online following.

    I find it hard to do both well, and frankly, I write because I enjoy the former and am happy to invest in the craft of my writing. I suspect many writers go into publishing for the same reason only to get really drained by all of the publicity stuff that pulls them away from working on their craft. It’s a tough balance.

    • Rachelle Gardner on November 11, 2013 at 4:40 PM

      Oh, you’re so right, Ed. You only have so much time in a day, and writers would all rather write. Frankly, that’s what I’d rather they do, too… as long as there’s SOME time for marketing!

      • Ed_Cyzewski on November 12, 2013 at 12:34 PM

        THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. Seriously. THANK YOU for saying that.

  11. sue on November 11, 2013 at 10:57 AM

    Wow, I think I live in all of them. I thank God for agents and editors who are there to provide a wise word and the good sense of what works and what doesn’t!

    • Rachelle Gardner on November 11, 2013 at 4:40 PM

      Sue, you have a lot of experience living in these paradoxes, don’t you! I guess they don’t change over time. But you handle them beautifully!

  12. sally apokedak on November 11, 2013 at 10:37 AM

    Katherine Paterson once said, “I was a very shy child who loved to show off.” I thought that was a wonderful way of describing a lot of writers

    • Rachelle Gardner on November 11, 2013 at 11:12 AM

      Great quote, Sally! I think many of us feel that way.

  13. Kristin on November 11, 2013 at 10:00 AM

    There’s another paradox. Knowing what your READERS want versus what the market you’re in may want. Trends come and go, but readers will stay with you if you give them what they want. And that may not be apparent to publishers who know what THEIR readers want. It’s hard to get something new out there. I love when publishers risk what they “know” for a book outside the box.

    • Rachelle Gardner on November 11, 2013 at 11:13 AM

      Oh, great paradox! So true, Kristin. Thanks for pointing it out.

  14. R.A.Savary on November 11, 2013 at 9:18 AM

    I continue to follow several blogs even though I’ve been doing less
    commenting, more or less sticking to the adage that I’ve never learned
    anything with my mouth open. This comment is not so much focused on the experience of writing as it is on my growth as a writer–specifically
    growth in general, and how it is effected by paradoxes.

    We start growing from paradoxes when we somehow discern that even though, in the past, whining rewarded us with whatever we wanted, it will
    sometimes generate unwanted consequences. Somewhere in our little minds we begin to distinguish between wants and needs, and when is the more appropriate time to demand satisfaction. I use the terms “whine” and
    “demand” to bring home when this process begins, but this long, ongoing
    process is strictly about timing and importance–in anything I do.

    I learned at an early age: There are no absolutes. I think this is why
    writing–specifically fiction–has always appealed to me. If life is a
    paradox where is the reality? It’s in me–and you–and what we write.

    • Rachelle Gardner on November 11, 2013 at 11:14 AM

      “There are no absolutes.” Yep, that’s the bottom line here. I think we are all better off as we mature into being able to live comfortably with ambiguity, or paradox.

  15. Sandra Carey Cody on November 11, 2013 at 9:09 AM

    Good one. You nailed it again.

  16. Connie B. Dowell on November 11, 2013 at 8:39 AM

    True. Like all artists, writers have to balance personal passion and business sense. It’s true Van Gogh never sold a painting, but… did you hear that, he never sold a painting! I think we all strive for our work to be as enduring as Van Gogh’s, but nobody wants to end up like he did.

  17. Barbara Blossom Ashmun on November 11, 2013 at 8:27 AM

    Yes, I love this list, and instead of “but” I would use the word “and.”

  18. Karley Kiker on November 11, 2013 at 7:55 AM

    Great list! Here’s another (kind of an extension of #4 and #6): We
    can’t wait for feedback from our readers (affirmation addicts!), and yet
    we fear feedback at the same time (what if someone posts “That was the
    worst book I ever read!” on goodreads?). I’m thinking of reviews here,
    but the same can even apply to blog comments.

    One more: We want to amass a large following and create a platform (hello, buzz word), but we don’t want to sacrifice our privacy.

    • Rachelle Gardner on November 11, 2013 at 11:19 AM

      Yes, two great additions to the list! I think your first one is particularly excruciating. We want AND fear feedback. Yep.

  19. Donna Everhart on November 11, 2013 at 7:47 AM

    I think one other paradox I’ve found myself in is the desire to be published on some days, and not so much on others. My exact thoughts on the “do not want” days go something like, “be careful what you ask for, Donna.”

    • Rachelle Gardner on November 11, 2013 at 11:19 AM

      Ha! Isn’t that the truth! I’ll bet most authors — published and not — would agree.

  20. Melinda V Inman on November 11, 2013 at 7:15 AM

    You’re captured the conundrum completely, Rachelle! Thank you for covering both ends of the tug-o-war! Now to bring them into harmony!

    • Rachelle Gardner on November 11, 2013 at 11:20 AM

      Harmony… hmm… let me know when you find it! 🙂

      • Melinda V Inman on November 11, 2013 at 11:58 AM

        Since it’s a somewhat bipolar wearing of hats, I expect it to be a lifelong pursuit of balance. If I solve the mystery, I’ll surely let you know. 🙂

  21. JosephPote on November 11, 2013 at 7:11 AM

    Very nice post, Rachelle! I think much of life, in general, has similar paradoxes.
    I also believe that much of what we see as paradoxical actually enhances more than it contradicts.
    For example, I am a structural engineer. To do my job well requires finding creative design solutions. However, the building codes and approval processes are, for the most part, geared toward conformity rather than creativity. Being a good engineer means I have to do both…to find creative solutions while also preparing solid evidence of code compliance…all while constantly driving toward improved safety and cost effectiveness.
    When done well, even the effective presentation of scientific evidence becomes a creative challenge.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on November 11, 2013 at 7:34 AM

      Interesting parallel, Joe – I was a structural engineer as well.

      I worked in the area of seismic design for reinforced concrete, and we faced the paradox of strength versus ‘designed failure’.

      For most people, the intuitive view is that a bridge or building has to be ‘strong enough’ to withstand an earthquake.

      Doesn’t work, though – force actually goes to the ‘stiffest’ part, and these elements (often joints) are hard to make strong enough, and they fail, often causing catastrophic failure.

      Far better is to design the structure to bend and absorb energy in a predictable location at a lower level of force, protecting the brittle area.

      It took creative inspiration to reach that engineering epiphany, but also cool practicality to test the concept without favoring one’s own desired outcome. (And on some of my tests, the results were wrong, but kind of amusing.)

      • JosephPote on November 11, 2013 at 7:57 AM

        Yes, I have some experience with “ductile fuses” as well. Fun stuff! 🙂

        Effective communicaton of new concepts is always difficult, especially when the evidence contradicts long-held beliefs. It’s not easy for experienced engineers to embrace the concept that a structure may be made more reliable by intentionally reducing the strength of key components.

        I’m often asked, “But why would you design your structure to fail?” To which I now respond, “If you’re not designing your structure to fail in a specific mode under a specific loading, then you have no idea how it will behave when the load capacity is exceeded.”

        If you’d like to see a recent article of mine, on this topic, look on page 82 of this link:

        • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on November 11, 2013 at 8:16 AM

          I’ll check it out.

          We called the designed failure nodes ‘plastic hinges’; this made it fun to explain to laymen who asked why we were using plastic in a concrete structure.

          The analogy I found that most people understood was crush zones in cars. mention that, and a cartoon lightbulb goes on over their heads.

          • JosephPote on November 11, 2013 at 8:24 AM

            I’ll do that! Thanks for the tip, Andrew!

  22. Meghan Carver on November 11, 2013 at 6:46 AM

    The solitary/collaborator paradox is a difficult one for us extreme introverts. But attendance at conferences helped me tremendously. I forced myself into a position where I had to interact with people face-to-face, and now I have more writing friends/cheerleaders and people I can cheer on as well. Great list, Rachelle.

  23. robinluftig on November 11, 2013 at 6:36 AM


    I thought I needed to be two people to achieve all I needed to accomplish. I got dizzy going right-brain, left-brain, no, no, that was right brain again.

    Seeing all the differences written on paper helps take the sting out of the confusion. And it helps to know that others are wearing crazy different hats, too.

  24. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on November 11, 2013 at 5:11 AM

    Great list! Sums it up well.

    One way in which the degree of ‘disconnect’ might be reduced is to avoid styiizing ourselves. There’s a natural preference to one side or another of the dichotomies – loner vs. collaborator, creative vs. business.

    But if we emphasize one side, based on a combination of comfort with that role and fear of its opposite, we cripple our potential.

    A professional writing career is like a Moebius strip – is has only one side, and one edge.

    (For those who might not remember, a Moebius strip is formed by taking a strip of paper, twisting one end through 180 degrees, and taping the ends together.)

  25. Olivia Newport on November 10, 2013 at 9:10 PM

    I definitely identify with this list!

  26. Nicola Smith on November 10, 2013 at 8:44 PM

    As a writer, I’ve always felt I could be good. Yet I spent 20 years not publishing or even attempting to publish because I didn’t feel I was good enough. I didn’t believe my supporters and I couldn’t find critics whose opinion I trusted, so it was a horrible blend of no self confidence and a very high bar I set for myself, also known as ego. I recognize this mostly in hindsight, of course. What eventually got me to finish a first draft was going back to college, to one with a good writing program with published authors whose work I could see (*cough* judge). That and I traveled a lot and read a lot and stopped trying so hard to fit in and/or be perfect. Well…most days 🙂

  27. Caroline Starr Rose on November 10, 2013 at 8:17 PM

    Excellent list! Pretty much sums it all up.