Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Successful Writer

In a recent workshop on publishing, I opened the session with a brief exercise. First, I asked participants to write for a few minutes about the fantasies that all of us have about becoming successful writers: if in five years, each and every one of their writers’ dreams were fulfilled, how would it all look, in terms of income, recognition, their body of work, and how they spent their time (creative vs. production/promotion).

Then I asked them to take a few more minutes to consider each of those areas—income, recognition, body of work, and how they’d be spending time—in terms of what they realistically thought they could achieve within five years.

This exercise takes only a little time, and the results are revealing. Lurking within every writer are fantasies which, for the most part, we shy from acknowledging—the what-ifs and it-could-happens. By bringing these forward, we can learn a lot about what defines success for us: money, fame, awards, the work itself, the creative life.

When we take a moment to examine them, we find that our ideas about what would make us feel successful as writers are often misguided—either internalized from others or skewed toward factors over which we have no control.

After my first two novels came out, both with big New York publishers, I was working sixty-plus hours a week at my day job and struggling to keep writing. But I wanted to eventually make a living as a writer, which led me to think I needed to keep publishing, so I set a goal of having a book a year published (through a traditional publisher; this was back when I would never have considered self-publishing). I came fairly close to my book-a-year goal, but to do it, I ended up doing some travel books on contract—time that in retrospect I wish I’d spent honing my craft. If I’d done the fantasy/reality five-year exercise, I’d have figured out that for me, it’s the work itself and the creative life that matter more than accumulating publishing credits.

That point was brought home this week when an author copy of my forthcoming novel, Cold Spell, arrived in the mail. Compared to my previous thirteen titles, this one feels different. It’s the book I always wanted to write, the one that’s most like the books I love to read, and it’s the result of what I call my DIYMFA (do-it-yourself MFA), in which I worked hard to learn how to write the very best novel I could. Some authors I hugely admire have written beautiful endorsements of it, and early readers have told me that even after they’d finished reading, they couldn’t stop thinking about it. That feels like success.

Would I also like a six-figure advance? A Pulitzer? A National Book Award? Sure. But I can’t control whether I get those or not. And great as they sound, there’s always a downside. For big award-winners, there’s horrible pressure regarding the next book. And even the six-figure advance has its downside—if you don’t believe me, read the interview with Cheryl Strayed in the most recent issue of Scratch (a publication to which you should subscribe if you’re serious about making a living as a writer).

If you don’t think consciously about how success looks for you as a writer, you’re going to be pushed about by comparing yourself with others—sales figures, accolades, book deals, and more. You can end up spending a lot of time and energy chasing your tail around aspects of authorship that don’t matter as much as you might think.