Whose Definition of Success?
As a writer, how do you integrate your internal idea of success with the external consensus, and operate accordingly? (02.06.16)
Success is both infernally subjective and a not-really-definable abstraction: what might look like success to other people often does not feel like success to the person who has been pinned with this glittering badge. Hollywood A-listers offer us the most visible symbols of success. But ironically, the famous sometimes end up in the news after some personal disaster, self-inflicted or otherwise, has struck them down, and then it's a media feeding frenzy. Success is a funhouse mirror—it distorts and deranges. But still, we set off in pursuit of it, hoping it will make us happy.
It took me a long time to self-identify as a writer though I was engaged in the act of writing every day. I lack an MFA so I didn’t feel I was credentialed. I started a blog and though my number of followers grew, I felt I wasn’t really a writer without the validation of an editor. When I got published in a few literary magazines and appeared on NPR, I dodged the title because I hadn’t been paid. I was seeking some external corroboration of my skill. It took the anticlimax of securing a regular paid writing gig to realize I’d been a writer all along.
A friend of mine used be a magazine writer/editor; I recently asked her how she had simply stopped writing. Wasn’t she still endlessly noting others’ quirks and cataloging conversational snippets? Wasn’t a narrative always forming in her head? She said, “Nope.” Yet I can’t imagine another way of moving through the world.
What makes someone a writer? I would argue it’s the act of writing. But more than that, it’s the need to write as a way of making sense of your thoughts. It’s a curiosity about the world that you’re driven to distill (however imperfectly) into words and the resulting ardor to sit down and commit those words to paper or screen. That’s how I’ve come to measure my own success. I write for me.
This question reminds me of a blog post by master-marketer and author, Seth Godin. He talks about how society sometimes frames success by the shape of a pyramid. We enter, en masse, at the base. Of those who enter, a select few will reach the tip of the pyramid (the very height of success). In my mind, I imagine that tip of the pyramid guarded by an army of critics and literary agents. Maybe just before you hit the pyramid you finally get to meet the audience who have been buying your books.
But Godin challenges this by offering his own metaphor: the frustum. In geometry, the frustum is basically a pyramid with its head cut off. No crowning point of success—just a lot of space through which to enter and subsequently revel in your craft. I really like this concept as it takes away the soul-crushing expectation of “success”—or rather, our mainstream definition of success. It also implies that the “Pyramid of Success” might be a dated concept.
The trends and tools of self-publishing have made the base of the pyramid larger and more accessible than ever before. Maybe now, even the frustum has shifted into a rhombus—or a box.
The pyramid’s tip is still around, I suppose—the idea of it anyway. But I think maybe it’s the place where the Superwriters of publishing yesteryear revel in their own hard-earned success. I don’t think I’ll ever get to hang out there. But, hopefully, someday I’ll find my own audience… and get to hang out with them in the corner.
Success for me is positive change. Most people, me included, get into the writing because we want our voice to be heard. Even if we don’t know our message in the moment we’re putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys if you prefer).
I could not earn a dime and still I would consider myself a success if people relate to my words and it gives them a short reprieve from the shittiness of the world we live in.
I once received a long note from a reader, thanking me for the way I portrayed a gay main character in my fantasy novel. Not to ‘bash people over the head with diversity’ as the ignorant say, but because he was written in a way that his sexuality didn’t define him. Any moment I feel down about my writing, I pull it up.
That’s success. The more I can hit that type of note through my words, the better. Characters like Finn and Rey in media do more for societal change than any number of clever slogans and thoughtful protests.
Success for me is really about personal achievement. I set many goals for myself when writing a novel, from the amount of writing I aim to do per day to the types of writing (for instance, character profiles and backstories). So when I reach those milestones, that feels like mini-successes. Of course, the biggest definition of success for me is finishing a full draft of a novel. Even if it needs another year of revision, there is such a huge sense of accomplishment in having that first full draft completed. As far as the way success is determined externally, I honestly try not to think about it. Yes, it would be amazing to have a fantastic large publisher buy my work and get it in every bookstore there is, but since I'm not a career author, that's less of a concern for me and more of a lovely dream. If I worried about that too much, I fear I would no longer enjoy the process of producing work.
Success for me is about happiness, growth, and freedom. It doesn't matter how much money I have or how many books I've sold or how far I've come if I'm not happy, if I'm not growing, or if I feel trapped. The trifecta makes for some interesting decisions because I'll often leave something that's fun if it feels stagnant or restricting or will run from something that challenges me but I don't enjoy. And if something isn't particularly fun, doesn't make me grow, and ties me down in some way, forget about it. That's why I could never have most normal jobs at even exorbitant salaries—something that my wife has learned to accept even when finances have been tough in the past.
I believe success is defined by the quality of one's life. The aim should be satisfaction and peace of mind contingent upon how one spends their days. If one aspires to a fulfilling, meaningful life wherein they feel as if they are contributing something of value from the core of their being, then it is enough. The repercussions of this will be what they will be, and there may or may not be need to bring other variables into the equation in order to lead a balanced life. I think this is the age old question all artists must pose for themselves. The adage "art for art's sake " comes to mind.
If artists develop their art, whatever it may be, and find a way to spread it around, then who they are is given room for expression; what comes back to them is what those in Louisiana would call "lagniappe." Whether one makes money from their art is a by-product, yet if money colors one's definition of success, then it is helpful to retain the thought that art tends to be a perpetual state of becoming. There is no "there" to get to, only the growth process, in which one must stay engaged. It's the ultimate test of staying present in the moment and staying the course. As for me, it is enough to be in the game!
A known writer once said to us, a group of first years on a Creative Writing MA, that it was important to define success for ourselves. Would I be successful if I finished a short story? A novel? Got it published? Became famous? This was a new approach to me, because all I had thought about until that moment was that I just wanted to write. Fiction, non fiction, short form or long, it had not mattered to me, at least not in a conscious way. We did the exercise the writer had suggested. I discovered something new about myself: success for me, when thought about in those terms, seemed to involve other people. It was not enough to finish a piece of writing. It had to be published, widely read, and discussed.
Since then, I have been through days or weeks when completing something felt like success. A small, personal one. On other days, when my writing flows particularly well, my idea of success expands, moves outwards. Interaction with readers becomes a necessary part of it. Would I consider myself successful if, on my death bed, I could pull out a few completed – and good, that is important too, good novels out of a drawer? Up to a point. Maybe not. Maybe I would clock them up to personal challenges successfully achieved. But success? No, success would need the interaction with the society. After all, even when we write for ourselves, or because we are compelled to, we still need that interaction.
I’m a mum. When I had my babies, I did not want to keep them indoors, all to myself, for the rest of their lives. No, I wanted to show them off, to hear others coo over them, agree with me when I called them beautiful, and then I wanted, and I still do, to watch them grow and interact with the world. Writing is the same. Success requires the participation of others. Otherwise, it is merely a goal that has been successfully achieved.
If we're talking about success and creativity then unless you're bogged down by a materialistic idea of success, it should really be an ongoing process which begins as soon as you get that first blip of an idea and keeps expanding as your creative work outlives even you. I say this because the problem with the materialistic idea of success is that it doesn't consider the real value of creative works and instead deals with arbitrary measures such as how much money you've made out of something which is more appropriate for consumer products.
Difficult one for me, success. Success for me would be selling hundreds of books a week, which isn’t happening – yet. However, I have to admit to having had small successes even the last few weeks which have constituted making me feel like I have succeeded in other ways. So, perhaps my perception of success has to change and I must accept all the successes that happen and not merely strive for ‘the’ success of my dreams? I won a twitter competition and was one of ten who had their 140 character story put onto youtube by a voice actor – really hard thing to do and I was successful at it.
My main genre for writing is anything supernatural, so it seemed fitting for that to be my subject. I visualised a man having an argument with his girlfriend, the twist is – she is dead!
There has also been problems with ‘Echoes’ and the publishing company, which for legal reasons I cannot go into, but authors are trying to get their book rights back. So far, I seem to have been the only successful one, who hasn’t had to get lawyers involved. So that has been a success as I received my book rights back last week, so ‘Echoes’ is undergoing a new cover and it’ll be back out on Amazon asap. Kind people are helping me with editing and book covers – that is a success and wonder in itself, so I feel that I must say that I have been successful... not in how I’d truly want, but what I have truly needed.
I can't think of a vocation as goofily competitive plus stingy with glory & pay as writing for publication. Merriam-Webster has vocation as: a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action; especially a divine call to the religious life. Is this a service industry we're meant to be in? Can a calling be mostly self-serving?
Maybe vocation and calling are wrong. Better might be this thing of ours, but that's taken. Not right anyway, replace ours with mine. This thing of mine, that thing of yours that happens to be super similar to this thing of mine, but is it ever ours? When we're huddled together for warmth even?
I'm less sure about success now than before this topic started. Find it for me. Point it out. It's too varied, personal. Like beauty maybe. There seems to be a consensus on what it is, but each of us also gets to decide on it for ourselves. So lotta tension there: having to choose between pride and grace.