Monday, June 17, 2013

Round Table: Is Success a Dirty Word?

I'm standing on the precipice, toes curled over the edge.

Below me is failure.

Only it's a little fuzzy what failure looks like, even from this perspective. If I don't earn back what I've invested, is that failure? Is it failure to sell 7 copies (total so far)? Or is it failure to tell a story that quickens the human heart to feel deeply but miss out on acclaim or financial gain?

Wait a minute! I might be peering into success. Stranger things have happened.

Success doesn't dial in much clearer than failure, however. What does success look like? Is it one letter whose writer says the story jump-kicked her back into life? Is it paying off the mortgage? Clamoring publishing companies? Just having written and published the story? Having bled into the story? Having told the best story you can? Being obedient? Is working for success a crime against art?

Madeleine L'Engle quotes one of Chekov's letters about success in Walking on Water:

You must once and for all give up being worried about successes and failures. Don't let that concern you. It's your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite quietly, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, and for failures.
Can we be artists and good business-people? Is this a contradiction? Was Madeleine L'Engle living in such a different time and place that her words have grown cold and empty? Or has she mined for us the truth of the matter? I'm dying to hear what you all have to say.

These are good questions, Patti. I'm going to be transparent, because I know I can be with each other and our readers. I appreciate Madeleine L'Engle's quote, but I'm far, far from being in that place. Success to me feels like something more measurable ... and maybe that's because I've had so little to measure when it comes to my writing. At least, in the monetary sense. If that's my only benchmark then I'd have to say, no, I've not experienced success. Thankfully, I can say, for me, monetary gain is only part of being a successful writer. So while I haven't achieved what I'd like to achieve monetarily, I do consider my novels a success when I receive cards or emails from readers telling me how one of my books has touched them or uplifted them or made them think. The one that really blew me away was the email I received from a reader in South Africa who found my book in her library in Zulu country. Blew me away. And what was really funny was that I have been there! Ultimately, reaching readers is why I write --- but I have to be honest and say I'd like to be able to contribute more to our income as well. More income would mean I'm reaching more readers --- which is what I so desire. So it's like this circle game. I guess they really go hand in hand.

I hear Patti’s pain. If there is a metric for success – either book sale figures, or Amazon sales rankings, or some other way of measurement, what does a serious author do when those metrics seem lacking?

And let’s back up with one element of that question. What is “a serious author”?

Is it the person who works at writing full time? Is it the person who takes classes and tries to perfect the craft?  Is it the writer who has had contracts in the past (regardless of present contract status)?

Sorry, I’ve got a whole lot more questions than answers.

I guess I tend to focus on the things that make me feel successful - wonder when I became an optimist? But what does it for me are the letters. Some of you have sent letters and emails that have blessed me tremendously, and made me feel that I could do without the money (that's clearly the case!). I'm not much in for fame, either. 

It may not help me get my writing done day to day, but I really think success is a day well lived. And what that means has so much to do with the Lord's leading, watching his gaze to discern the next thing. 

 Sorry, not sure why Blogger won't reduce my photo any smaller. Sheesh, I tried.
Many writers (as agents/publishers must) measure success by sales figures and by the list of books the writer has published. There's nothing wrong with this, but it will never be my measure because I have a 'day job' which demands much of my time.  Each writer has to decide what success looks like and it changes as you progress along your writing journey. I  used to think I was successful when I completed a manuscript that I felt confident about submitting.  Then I felt successful when I received a contract or secured an agent. All of these are certainly benchmarks but what good is my writing if it doesn't impact readers?  When I hear from a reader that a character or passage resonated with her, I know I have succeeded in the most important area.

Success is probably best measured in persistence. In the end, we all know what success means as a writer: make a living, have a loyal following of readers (of whatever size, but growing), and signing publishing contracts that will see you well into the future. That's a modest minimum for success. But to achieve that in publishing takes more persistence than most other work (with the exception of other arts: music, acting, etc.). If you put on a suit and went to work everyday for 25 years and never got paid your family would have you committed. But this is art. And art has it's own (double) standards.

Art exists because we'd die without beauty. So, artists persist in creating beauty--whatever that means to each artist--and the one who persists is the one who succeeds. Press on into your success however you measure it. Don't give up.


Megan Sayer said...

Vincent van Gogh was never a successful painter.

I'm with Katy here. Success is doing what it is that God has put on our hearts to do, whether we understand it or not.

I've been thinking this through since I read this post first, an hour ago. I realized so much of how we view success is from the perspective of other people, and when you change who you're hanging around regularly then often your perspective of "what makes me successful" changes as well. So maybe success is nothing more than a comparison game sometimes. I don't know.
But they're good questions. And a great discussion.

Bridgette said...

Success as a comparison game - that might be the best way to look at it.

I'm in the midst of selling my first book (and under contract for its sequel and a second series), so at the moment I feel quite successful then I look at the lack of responses from people, and I wonder if I've reached anyone with my book or if I must depend upon the daily process of writing as Madeleine L'Engle comments.

Success is a funny, fuzzy word and how we view success often dictates how see what we've accomplished. For me, having someone (other than friends or family) purchase the book is a success, but if I focus on sales then I miss out on the stories that I've told, and the people who respond to those stories. I can't, however, put stories in a bank account to show someone that, yes, writing novels is a viable way to earn a living.

I agree with the others, though: Success is doing what God has laid on your heart.

Josey Bozzo said...

hmmm. After reading each part of the post, it is clear that success is defined individually. Each person has there own way of defining what makes them successful. It goes back to what your goal is with writing. If your goal is simply to write, then everyday you put words down you are successful. If your goal is to reach people and impact them in some way, then the emails and letters are what means success. If your goal is to make money, then sales will mean success.
Unfortunately publishing companies view success by numbers which can ultimately affect whether we are successful in their eyes, which in turn could change whether we are reaching people, and cause us to stop writing.
Yes I believe it is a circle of sorts. But in our hearts we must hold on to what our heart tells us is success for us.
Besides there are so many options, even without high sales, you can still write daily (blogging), you can still reach people with your words(building a following), and you can still have sales(self publishing).
Maybe putting your definition of what success is right next to your writing quote you love can help remind us why we do what we do and keep it in perspective.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Ugh. I hate that word. Mostly because I have learned that the the world outside the writer-sphere measures success by the NY Times bestseller list or the "Up and Coming Authors" shelf at Target.

I can get numbers obsessed. I can get caught up checking and checking and stats, Amazon rank (as if I really understand that at all), reviews and reviews and reviews.

But then I get an email from the man who was president at my little Bible College telling me that he's proud of me (oh my heart). And invited to dinner with a woman who has run a ministry for 25 years for women and men who have been harmed by others. Or I see that a friend has posted a link to the novel.

And I realize that my success isn't a numbers thing. Not to me, at least. Because that makes me feel kind of cheap. And like I've forgotten my purpose. My purpose is to write for people. To sit and click away at the keyboard so that someone can be encouraged, feel a bit of mercy, see through a lens of compassion.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

What if we measured success in time? If in 100 years my story is still read, perhaps studied at a school, then I shall consider myself successful at writing.
And that target is sufficiently far away and unobtainable (in the sense that I will never see it) that I can ignore it and just write for my own happiness. I can wriggle words together in new and fascinating ways that charm and amuse me and express God's imagination in me.
Yes, I desire for someone else to read these sentences, my story. I will pursue publishing somehow, someday for this reason. So that there will be a hard copy floating around for a body to pick up and read 100 years from now!

Cherry Odelberg said...

I am not sure my goal is success. That is certainly an inward and secret desire. Perhaps, if my goal was success I would be more successful, focused. But what it comes down to is; I write because I can't NOT write.