Recently an aspiring novelist told me she would never feel successful unless she published a bestseller.
I replied that book sales have little, if anything, to do with literary achievement. After all, if making the bestseller list is the chief barometer of a writer’s success then Jackie Collins and Victoria Gotti are outrageously successful. I have yet to meet anyone who aspires to write like them.
But this writer insisted on validation. If she didn’t publish, it could only mean that years of work on her novel had been wasted — that she had failed.
Comments like these both sadden and frustrate me because they entirely disregard the writer’s experience of doing the work. They only concern results.
The way I see it, there’s a difference between wanting to be a writer and truly wanting to write. If you’re a real and serious writer, you’re dedicated to the work for the sheer joy of doing it. If you publish, great. If not, well, maybe in due time. In the interim you have this wonderful thing you love to do every day. Real writers are enthralled with the process. They write to uncover life’s hidden truths, to discover things they didn’t know they knew–about themselves, about people, about life.
To paraphrase something Jane Smiley once said, if you deeply immerse yourself in your work, if you fall in love with your craft, you will gain two major boons: first, your work will get better, and so will be more likely to get published. Second, your relationship to the work itself and to the process will become so strong that you will care less and less about whether it ever gets published.
I’m not saying that getting published isn’t a great achievement. It certainly is. But a work of fiction or memoir 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’s your satisfaction with the work that determines its success.
That’s my take on success. What’s yours?