Monday, January 13, 2014

What is Success? A Primer (and possibly pep talk) for my Fellow Young Writers

If there is one topic that writers are generally obsessed with, it is success, and it seems to mean different things to just about everyone. Success is a mythical being to some, or taken for granted by others. A lot of writers experience angst about how to "make it" and be a "success."

I do not preach to be an astounding "success" (at least not yet) in the writing world. I consider myself a capable writer, I have multiple professional sales under my belt and other self-published works. But one of the demons that every writer must wrestle with is the self destructive attitude that a quest for success (and an intolerance of failure) can have on the mind of a young writer.

Let me back up, this post came in response to a conversation that I was a part of in a professional writer's group. Some writers were struggling to find what the outside world might consider "success." The discussion centered on the nature of success, and what it means. I added to the discussion, retelling my own personal journey to figuring out what it means to be a success. My words were well-received in the conversation, and so I have structured this post around them. What I said went something like... 

Many people define success as monetary success. Your writing becomes insanely popular and puts you on easy street. You know, your George RR Martins, things like that. However, for the vast majority of writers, success comes from a combination of writing money and money from a "day job." The relative contributions of the two may vary, but you can be "successful" as a writer long as you can sustainably do the writing that you love, and keep the rest of your life in order.  

Personally, I think that's a great way to look at it. If you love to write, then you are a success as a writer as long as you can do it and take care of your responsibilities.

A problem that writers who are early in their pro careers face is that even a small modicum of success brings higher expectations. I made a somewhat prestigious pro sale of a short story on only the 2nd short story I had ever written, on only the second rewrite of said story, to the first market that I sent it to. That gave me a much higher expectation of myself, and a much lower assumption on the ease of getting published in big markets. It took another year of rejection hell and 6 months of time off due to "writer's block," or more correctly "failing writer's sadness" for me to be able to write again. My expectations had me all out of whack. Turns out, even publishing one story is hard. Almost indescribably hard.

Eventually, I made another small sale, and it upped my confidence again, and suddenly my craft began to improve with the confidence. I was no longer thinking about getting published, I was letting it flow. I took additional comfort in the fact that if you believe the subtext of Heinlein's Rules, then by making a pro sale you are already better off than 99%+ of the people who claim they would like to write. That effort- to write, to edit, to submit, to sell, to be perseverant- is admirable in itself, and a "success." The accolade of being published is just the cherry on top.

However, I am not saying that this laid back attitude about success is a license to accept mediocrity. I think we all owe it to ourselves to be honest with our benchmarks, and never be satisfied. To be hungry is healthy. The trick is just to avoid the self destructive behavior that feeling a failure can bring to one's psyche and careers.

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