How do you measure your success as a writer?
Is it by how much money you earn from your writing?
Is it the publishing contract? Nailing an agent?
Sure, those are external markers of success.
But what does success as a writer mean to you?
Years ago, when I began writing in earnest, a dancer friend and I had an interesting debate.
She asked me how a writer could consider oneself successful if he or she didn’t write a bestseller that sold millions of dollars.
My friend was a wealthy widow in her early fifties who spent her days pursuing passions full tilt. In addition to ballet, she studied piano privately in her home driven by the sole ambition to play her favorite piece of music, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Which to me sounded like the purest, most reverent reason to pursue a musical instrument.
Publishing was the furthest thing from my mind at the time. I was more concerned with learning to write something worth reading.
Pretty much like her goal to play Rhapsody in Blue.
I reminded her: Both of us took our dance practice seriously, even though we didn’t aspire to dance in the American Ballet Theater. We’d both performed on small stages and neither of us had become rich from doing so. In fact, we’d sunk hundreds and hundreds of dollars over the years in dance lessons and dance gear.
Did that make our pursuit any less successful? Wasn’t it enough that we were stronger, more flexible, more buoyant with every lesson? And that we got to do this thing that made us feel deeply connected to music, to our bodies, to ourselves?
Didn’t she find enormous accomplishment in learning piano? Without a booking at Avery Fisher Hall? Did the absence of getting paid, or even the goal of getting paid, make her achievement less triumphant? Wasn’t it enough that after five years of deliberate daily practice, she could play Rhapsody in Blue almost without falter, and was becoming more fluent with the keys every day?
I thought she was a remarkable success.
She didn’t see the connection. When it came to writing, she believed money was commensurate with quality, the logic being that if a writer isn’t selling books, that must mean nobody wants to read them. To her, proof was in the sales.
Publishing is a worthy goal. It pushes us to write the best we’re capable of.
But when we chase the holy grail of publication, it’s not really money we’re after. Or fame.
What we really crave is validation.
We want to finally earn the right to call ourselves a writer. How else can we legitimize the enormous amount of time we spend taking a project from its nebulous beginnings to gleaming finished product?
But a story or book will fail or succeed on its own terms. Whether it sells or how well it sells has little correlation to quality.
In the end, it is your satisfaction with the work that determines its success.
Anyone who believes you’re not a successful writer until you’ve scored a major book deal is missing the point.
They’re focused on the end result. Not your experience of doing the work. Which is really the biggest payoff, in my view.
We just need to remind ourselves why we’re driven to write in the first place.
We write for what we discover we didn’t know about ourselves. To luxuriate in what it means to be alive and human, with all its messiness, pathos, frailty, and beauty.
Writing can be exquisitely empowering. Because we get to interpret and shape the narratives of our own lives and our own past, rather than let someone else interpret it for us. We get to explore our own relationship to what we’re writing about which can be a deep, scary excavation into self awareness and self acceptance.
We want our voice heard.
Writing connects one heart to another. What elevates writing into a work of art is that, ultimately, it allows both writer and reader to feel seen.
We long for this connection.
Amanda Palmer says this:
There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to university, getting published, getting signed to a record label. But it’s all bullshit, and it’s all in your head. You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.
That’s the real validation most of us crave.
Success is not just about hitting the apexes.
It’s the multitude of small successes along the way. Success to you might mean that you get to do this crazy thing that makes you feel more alive and more fully expressed than just about anything else. That despite all you’ve got going on in your life – kids, a career, the day-to-day busyness of living – you still devote time and energy to writing something that deeply matters to you.
If you’re writing anything – a story, a memoir, an essay, a novel – your work is already a success.
Because it’s there on the page. That’s huge. Because there are scores of people who dream of writing and never sit down to actually do it.
You’ve made the commitment. You’ve taken the risk. Which is something to celebrate already.
Even if your manuscript gets rejected by agents and publishers, yes, it is still a success.
Because you’re learning from that failed draft. You’ve written something complete and whole. This in and of itself is a major gain. And it’s only from writing that rejected manuscript that you’re gaining the nutrients to write a better book next time.
Writing something worthy of publication is a marathon. Not a sprint.
As Richard Bausch says:
Just try to make contact. Two pages a day adds up to more than 700 in a year. So don’t expect anything but the effort and learn to do that over time. Good things will happen.
So enjoy the process.
Know that you’re getting better page by page, sentence by sentence, word by word. Look for those small, incremental strokes of improvement. Those small successes do add up.