What does success look like to you?

I have a good friend who has recently hit a publishing wall. She’s a great writer, with a published book that was nominated for a major award. Her writing inspires me. Now she has a second book out on submission and the process is killing her confidence in the unique way that only the publishing industry can. What she describes feeling is common among writers, even the successful ones. We all simultaneously think we’re something really special…and nothing at all. It doesn’t make sense, but that seems to be the way of the creative mind.

If you are a writer, here’s what I think you need to spend at least a little bit of time thinking about: What does “success” look like to you? I’m talking about in your heart-of-hearts, what does success look like? When you have that warm vision of you as a successful writer, where are you? What are you doing? In my daydream of success, I’m standing at a lectern, reading and answering questions and I have a large audience. So, that’s “success” for me, it turns out, and that tells me that I am more interested in reaching people, in having an audience, and connecting with readers. Now for another writer, he might envision success as walking on stage and accepting a big award, or getting an excellent critical review of his work, or making the canon. Another writer might just see success as being able to find the time to write, alone, for long stretches. If you know what success looks like to you subconsciously, you can make changes in your work to push it in that direction.

You have limitations, you say? All writers have limitations, even the great ones. And most creative people are working through the same themes for the bulk of their lives. I just read John Irving’s most recent book, and thirty-plus years later he is still rehashing the same themes–absent women, dastardly dogs, death of a child, and oral sex (usually taking place in a car) that goes horribly wrong. Every one of his books seems to have one or more of these issues creep in–but he’s JOHN IRVING…and he’s a writer with limitations.

When the negative responses start to come in, we can parse them for similarities. Do any of the publisher’s responses ring true in terms of specific criticisms? Are there common complaints that can be addressed before the next round of submissions? I’m always amazed by the ways that small adjustments can make a huge difference to readers. (And help the writer to feel proactive instead of reactive.)

Alternatively–and this is a scary question, but bear with me–could it be time for you to give up? Maybe it is time to ask that awful question. Asking is just asking, just admitting to a possibility. Why not give up and see how it feels? No one has to know but you. Just stop caring and tell yourself you are never going to write another fricking word again, ever. Not one. Then see how that feels. Freeing? Good. Go with it. It is guaranteed to take you somewhere. I’ve given up about five times in my writing career. I do it once every three years or so. I simply swear off the stupid writing. What a relief!! I don’t ever have to write again. Thanks be to God. And yet somehow I always come back to it. It’s how I process the world, so I can’t seem to not write. And when I come back to it after sincerely swearing off the writing, I come back with renewed vigor and fresh eyes because I know I’m doing it by choice. I usually feel less pressure when I come back, because hey, I quit writing, so who cares what my next “thing” looks like?

And my final words of wisdom…chances are good that you are actually closer than you have ever been before. Look behind you at the long road you have already traveled and imagine yourself back there at the start of it all. Wouldn’t where you are now look like success to that far away writer? Here is what I told my friend: You have an agent who believes in you. Your work is being sent out and landing on the desks of big NYC editors. It’s getting READ!!! CONSIDERED!! It only takes one yes. You’ve done your part, let the agent do the hard work now. And maybe it’s best if you tell her to hold onto the responses for a while. Ask her not to tell you what they are until she has a common complaint that you can address. You don’t need to read and obsess over the nuance of every single rejection. Let her do that, let her absorb the blows for a while. She’s got more distance. It isn’t her baby in the same way it is yours. It sounds like it is self-defeating and counterproductive for you to be kept apprised of the responses as they come in. Plenty of writers tell their agents they don’t want to know, they just want to write. You could try that with this next round of subs and see how that works for you.

And in the end, maybe the truest sign of success is simply being able to write and not worry about how it is (or will be) received. Maybe we all need to remember that the real joy is in the writing.



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5 responses to “What does success look like to you?”

  1. Unknown Avatar

    Success to me will be when someone stops me, my book in their arms, and tells me they could not put it down. The greatest joy to me in my life has been sitting with a good book that helps me “escape”. When I know I have done that for someone…success!

    Great post!

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Success? I think Travie McCoy said it best: “I want to be a billionaire, so freakin’ bad…”


    But anyway, great post. This is my first time on your blog and this was just what I needed to read. Thanks very much!

  3. Lynette Eklund Avatar

    Oh, Mary, this couldn’t be more timely for me since my first novel is on submission with my agent right now. Success to me… 1.) Having even complete stangers wanting to know when my next book is coming out because they “get” what I’m trying to say. 2.) Being able to sit and write without feeling guilty because I’m getting paid for it.

  4. Ted Avatar

    I often go back to the classic essay by T. Williams called “The Catastrophe of Success” when think about the role success plays in our life.

  5. Mary Akers Avatar

    Good luck, Lynette!