On Literary "Success"
Welcome to my rejected TED Talk
Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash
At this time of year “success” is on our minds as we look back on the year and judge ourselves against our own expectations and in relation to our peers. It’s also list season and nomination season. I’ve been thinking a lot about what success means for writers and artists.
We live in a very goal-oriented, achievement-oriented, capitalist society. It’s ingrained in us. We’re socialized to want success and to go after it. We admire winners and go-getters. We want to be like them. We want to know their secrets. We believe if we just watch the TED Talk, read the self-help book, apply those tips to our art, we too will be successful!
A few weeks ago, I posed the question on Twitter: What does success mean to you? What are, for you, the tangible signs of success? What makes you feel successful, etc.? Over 200 writers responded and I got so many interesting answers. Here are a few:
AMY STUBER: “There’s the success of actually writing and feeling good about it and then the success of learning something you wrote affected another person and then the success we are taught to want (publications, books, accolades, etc).”
MAUREEN LANGLOSS: “Writing and reading have given meaning to my life. And what I want most is to lead a meaningful life. I feel I am doing that. Words are the shape that meaning takes for me. So I feel very successful & very lucky to have this life in writing.”
ELLEN RHUDY: “Early on I think it was about the external validation (publishing, award noms). And I think those were important—I won $1000 from Nimrod early on and that definitely kept me going. But! I think the longer I do this, the more I see that external validation can’t be the goal. As much as I can now, I try to focus on the internal stuff, like writing stories I’m having fun with, having writing buddies, things that are in my control and have more effect on how I feel every day doing the work.”
K.B. CARLE: “Literary ‘success’ for me is when people are reading, sharing, and talking about my stories. When I’ve created a character so memorable or written in a form so unforgettable that readers are sharing my stories in the classroom and with family who normally wouldn’t read them.”
JIKSUN CHEUNG: “For me, right now, success is hearing from readers that a story moved them. It tells me I'm headed *towards* some ideal of greater success. That I've somehow gotten the right words in the right publication in front of the right reader.”
AMBER SPARKS: “To me, it’s getting a book or story to a place where I feel happy about and also at least a small group of people love it. I feel like I’ve achieved a small bit of success because I feel I’ve gotten there with my last couple of books.”
SARA HILLS: “While outside recognition is absolutely lovely and bolstering for the bleak times, I am such a self-doubter. For me, true success comes in those fleeting moments where I believe in myself, can sense my craft growing, am brave on the page, and fall in love with my own work.”
SABRINA HICKS: “I remember reading Stegner, marveling how he could put into words feelings I had no name for. It was magic. I wrote to get back to that. To unravel the impossible. Success is respecting the real reasons you write. If you remember that, it *generally* comes through on the page.”
CAROLINE LEAVITT: “I learned that only you can decide your success. After major debut & 8 failed novels, My 9th rejected on contract as not special.” I knew my career was over but a friend got me to Algonquin. It became a nyt bestseller, Best book. Pennie’s pick. I just keep writing, focus on that.”
SARAH FRELIGH: “I try to avoid the word as it's part of a binary, the other half of which is failure. Also, it feels too much like a corporate metric that's been imposed on creatives. Isn't it enough just to be a better writer today than we were yesterday?”
MATT BELL: “Long ago, I decided success would be getting to live a literary life. To write books or edit them or teach them. To be surrounded by people who made art and cared about it. To try to think deeply about stories. I’ve had all that for a long time now, no matter what else happens.”
ATHENA LATHOS: “I am a v low profile writer with few publications, but I once received a DM from an Oakland teen about a poem I had published ten years earlier. She said that the poem means a lot to her and that it grounds her when she is feeling anxious. I think I can die happy now.”
HELEN MCCLORY: “At this point in my career, it's getting to write and getting to read- reading is the one of the parts of being a human I love and writing myself changes that experience. Deepens and shifts it. Less poetically, continuing to be published. Fluidity of experience Vs solidity.”
TOD GOLDBERG: Tangible Success: Wear t-shirts and basketball shorts to work every day.”
DR. TANIA HERSHMAN: “Success for me is writing what I want in the way I want to write it - whether that's in the shape of words with line breaks or ones that go from one margin to the other. Anything that happens after that - like my writing connecting with someone who isn't in my head - is a bonus!”
We writers know how subjective it all is. Yet we still are asked to quantify and demonstrate our success. Recently, I was asked point blank how much money I made from writing. I stuttered my usual joke about making enough to fill my coffee cup. Especially if you’ve been at it a number of years, folks want to know what you have to show for it. And if you don’t have anything tangible to show, if your book isn’t on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, we’re talking about a hobby, right? It’s all very frustrating and crazy-making.
The poet Sean Thomas Dougherty recently tweeted: “Things I gave up on: Pushcart: nominated 50 plus. NEA: 10 rejections. Breadloaf: applied 8 years in a row. McDowell: rejected 6 times. Things I got: Best American. Fulbright. Paterson Prize. Dodge Festival. Trust me, in the end what you didn't win won't. Mean. Shit.”
It’s important, too, to make the distinction between what feeds your ego vs. what feeds your soul. I know for myself, once I’ve “achieved” something tangible as a writer, I move quickly from elation to wanting the next thing. Ugh, the ego. It’s a monster that’s never quite satisfied.
THINGS TO PONDER
A very accomplished writer tweeted recently that we should “absolutely” make goals to work towards but that we can reset those goals as necessary. But by all means keep making goals! It’s an idea that’s so fully accepted and embraced we don’t even question it. If you want to succeed, You Must Make Goals.
The problem as I see it is that not everyone is privileged with the consistent circumstances (health, life, employment, etc.) to reasonably go after goals in the way our society insists that we do. We couch success in material terms. Believe we must have success in order to be fulfilled and happy, then set about making impossible demands on ourselves and “failing.” What if, for example, you:
Suffer chronic illness / Are disabled
Are unemployed or work more than one job
Are primary a caregiver to children or aging parents or disabled loved ones
Simply feel overwhelmed by, well, everything.
If this is not you, then great! Set those goals, lay out a plan, work late into the night or early in the mornings, put your work out into the world and make your literary dreams come true! I will happily buy and read your book, applaud your award, attend your reading.
But let’s also make some space today, this week, or for the year-to-come, for what feeds our souls. Perhaps think in terms of intentions, rather than goals. What is your intention for this writing day or this writing year? Let’s feel successful by those intangibles that so many writers mentioned above. Let’s enjoy and love and be grateful for:
The one perfect sentence.
The creative risk you took.
The reader who told you they were moved or enlightened or entertained by your story.
The way you lifted up another writer.
The draft you made stronger.
A couple of writers have also recently addressed “success” in their own newsletters/blogs, namely the wonderful Matt Kendrick, on his website, with his piece, “Being Kind to Ourselves as Writers” where he very wisely concludes:
“Maybe 2023 will be the year you write the story that wins you a Nobel Prize, but I feel as though that is much less likely to happen if you start the year thinking that anything less than that will mean the year is a failure. If you are setting goals for yourself then make sure they are things within your control.”
And Grant Faulkner, in his recent Substack newsletter, “What is Success?” where he talks a bit about why we turn to writing in the first place, and how that may be the measure.
Writer and Editor-in-Chief of the wonderful Split Lip Magazine, Maureen Langloss has begun posting craft articles on her blog. This one, “Electrify the Not Quite Dead” looks at ways in which we can add depth, richness, and resonance to our drafts.
Tennessee William’s 1947 New York Times essay, “The Catastrophe of Success.”
BEFORE YOU GO
Though substack would very much like me to (which is understandable), I have no plans for monetizing this newsletter. But if you have found my craft articles, writing prompts, and recommended readings useful, and you’d like to thank me in some small, tangible way, I will not object!
Thanks, as always, for stopping by. Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.
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Success is getting bad writing news one day -- a bad review, rejected manuscript, nobody reads your blog -- and sitting down to write the next.
This comes right as I was pondering this question. I think that, consciously, I realize the act of writing itself is what’s most fulfilling and success is getting to do it day in and day out, but on a deeper level, I feel the need for an audience. Without people who read my work, it feels like it’s just me in an echo chamber, and that can drive one crazy. Ultimately, I think success is knowing that your words have reached somebody.