Last weekend, I was at a writing retreat where middle-grade author Jennifer Nielsen talked about how we define success as a writer. Her talk was inspiring, as she reminded us that there are lots of different ways to measure success as a writer—but her timing was also fortuitous, because as it happened, I’d been thinking about “success” in preparation for this post.
And yes, I put “success” in scare quotes. There’s a reason for that—I’ll get to it.
I’m currently working on the last book in my contracted trilogy, and my agent has already asked me what I want to do next. While I have a couple of possible ideas, the looming question—what do I do next?—has also had me looking long and hard at what I want out of writing.
Of course I’d like to be successful. Ambition has always been a driving force for me (not surprisingly, my Pottermore results turned up Slytherin), and that’s no less true in my writing.
But what is “success” as a writer? Lots of attendees had good answers: money to supplement the family budget, connecting with readers, etc. But I realized, as I listened, that I had no idea what “success” looked like for me.
There are the obvious answers, like hitting a best-seller list, having your book made into a movie, selling x number of copies, etc. But the truth is, I’ve already hit a stage that five years ago I would have thought was successful: my first book came out with a big 5 publisher—my book is even in Target! But I don’t feel successful. I still feel wildly unsure, doubting my words and my craft. And even the measure of success I often hear—I just want my book to reach one person—doesn’t work for me. Because, if I’ve reached one person, then suddenly that isn’t enough. I want to reach one more, and then another, and then another. Most of the time, “success” seems like an endlessly vanishing summit, a trail that lengthens the higher I climb.
My friend Emily King articulated the inherent tension in writing “success” perfectly:
Anyone in the publishing industry knows that luck and timing account for more than a fair amount. Book covers, marketing, release dates, trade reviews, advances, invitations to conferences, etc. I realized as I sat with the question “What does success mean to me?” that success is ever-moving. It is a dangling carrot that motivates us to work harder and persist, no matter where we are on our personal journey. . . . In essence, success is something we chase, not something we achieve.
The intent of our heart, the reason we’re sacrificing and toiling for that carrot, and our motive for consecrating our time and talents, must bring us personal joy or contentment. Otherwise the success we experience will feel like just another step on a lofty ladder to a higher rung of achievement. We must be driven by the carrot hanging out of our reach, ambitious enough to go for it, and satisfied by what will feel like minor advances. Or at some point, we will stop fighting for our dreams.
So for me, success is finding a way to be grateful and happy with where I am today, while always keeping one eye firmly on that carrot.
This begs the question: how do we find happiness with our current progress without abandoning our goals? Here are five ideas (I should note that these are as much for my benefit as for anyone else!):
1. Find your why
Most writers, when they start writing, don’t write because they want to make money* or because they want to be famous (or if they do, they find that those goals don’t sustain them for long). Most writers start because they have a story they want to tell, or because writing fills some kind of creative need in their life. I’ve been telling stories since I could hold a pencil, simply because there’s something so inherently satisfying to seeing the story unfold in my mind.
*This is not to say that writing as a means of earning a living is bad—far from it! Many authors write to sustain themselves and their families. Only to say that money (and fame) shouldn’t be the only reasons to write.
2. Reframe the discussion
Instead of focusing on success and/or failure, maybe we should focus instead on satisfaction/fulfillment and creative play. When we (and by “we,” I really mean “I”) focus too much on success, it can rob us of the joy we find in creating. When we worry too much about failure, we lose the capacity to explore. Maybe, instead of asking, “am I a successful writer,” we should ask instead: “is writing satisfying to me? Why or why not?” If writing isn’t satisfying, it might be because we’re asking too much of it—or we’ve forgotten to play.
3. Be grateful
While goals can be an important forward-looking device, sometimes we need to look back and see how far we’ve come as writers. We need to acknowledge the good that has already come from writing, not just the imagined good we hope will come. I know authors who keep a bucket list of things they’d like to achieve as a writer, and pull the lists out periodically, not to mark how far they still have to go, but to appreciate the things that have already happened, from the mundane (the first query rejection!) to the more profound (the first fan letter!).
One of my critique partners recently forwarded us the pages we’d sent for one of our early meetings (nearly five years ago!) and my pages were truly awful. I’m grateful that I’ve grown as a writer—and this gives me hope that my writing can still improve. My life is so much richer for the friends I’ve made as a writer—even if I had never published, that would be an indelible good that came from a creative life. Sometimes I forget that.
4. Be brave
Sometimes I think we’re socially conditioned to think that happiness means the absence of fear or unhappiness. But mental health experts point out that trying to avoid stress can actually increase it by training our bodies to view all stress as a negative thing.
Part of being happy with our writing means being brave: sitting with our fear or our disappointment and then putting ourselves and our writing out there anyway. (Within limits, of course: knowing yourself and protecting your own health are also important). Brené Brown suggests telling our fears, “I see you, I hear you, but I’ll do this anyway.” (See also Tasha’s excellent post from yesterday).
5. Tell your stories
Barbara Kingsolver has said, “Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” I find that as a writer, I’m most satisfied when the stories I’m working on are stories that are meaningful to me, rather than the stories I *think* I ought to write. This doesn’t mean that all the stories I write for myself are stories that need to go to a wider audience (Jeanette Ng has a fantastic post on the need for egotism in writing and humility in editing), but that they ought to start with something that matters to me.
What brings you happiness as a writer? How do you reframe “success” in your own career?
Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.