What does writing success look like?

Last year when I was trying to decide what direction to move in, (keep sending out Promise Me to agents, or try to independently publish), I reflected on the question: What does writing success look like to me?

I think this is an important question all writers should ask themselves every so often as I am sure the answers will probably change from year to year.

Years ago I would have given quite starry-eyed answers along the lines of: be published by one of the ‘Big Five’, have a best-selling book that’s on display in all major bookshops, be invited to speak at book festivals and big writing events, get mentioned in ‘important’ press coverage, have my book optioned for film (that one will never stop being a dream), be nominated for prestigious prizes…

Mostly now what is important to me is knowing that my work is being read, and connecting with an audience, whatever form that audience takes (i.e. I don’t really care about talking at big festivals anymore, though of course I’d never turn down an invite!).

Competitions have had a massive impact on my confidence as a writer, reassuring me at key points of my career that I should keep going, and giving me a much needed boost. Lately I have been lucky enough to have a couple of competition successes, winning first place in the Writing Magazine school-themed short story competition, which you can read here. I also just found out this week that Promise Me has made the Finalist round for the Book Award category of the Page Turner Awards. I think it’s important for writers to acknowledge and take stock of any successes and wins, as we get so many knock-backs along the way, and some of the lovely feedback I’ve had for my short story really has made my month!

But there are downfalls of course if you focus too much on the need for external approval, and in the latest chapters of The Artist’s Way, (yes, I am still working my way through this!), Julia Cameron talks about how if ‘creatives’ constantly chase ‘Fame’ and ‘success’, which is measured by others, it can be a massive block to our creativity and distracts from our enjoyment of the process.  On page 172  Cameron says, ‘…Fame..is addictive, and it always leaves us hungry. …The desire to attain it, to hold on to it, can produce the “How am I doing?” syndrome’, which she points out then makes us start to question our work in terms of, ‘not if it’s going well for us’ but ‘How does it look to them?’

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic talks of something similar, when creatives let their Egos get in the way. ‘An unchecked ego is what the Buddhists call a “hungry ghost” – forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed’ (page 249) She also warns of viewing creativity on a ‘limited human scale of success and failures’ as it takes away from the ‘glory of merely making things, and then sharing those things with an open heart and no expectations.’ (page 70) In this section she quoted Harper Lee, (in response to questions around when her next novel would be released), “I’m scared…when you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.”  (page 68).

Authors such as Harper Lee who had phenomenal success, in terms of sales and recognition, then ceased writing, fascinate me. Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and sold 2.5 million copies in its first year, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was published in 1936 and sold 1 million copies in six months, and also won the Pulitzer Prize. Harper Lee of course did eventually publish another novel Go Set A Watchman in July 2015, one year before her death, but a lot of controversy surrounded the release, with the revelation that the book was in fact supposedly an original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird and many said if Harper Lee had been of sound mind, would not have agreed to the release.

Regardless of this, there is no denying that Lee obviously felt pressures after her debut success. Some articles I came across have quotes where she said, “Success was just as scary as failure.” “Public encouragement, I hoped for a little, but I got rather a lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening.” (The Telegraph, Feb 2016 – read full article here)

In articles I found about Mitchell, it appeared that she had devoted so much time to writing and researching Gone with The Wind (eight years), that she had no desire to go down that road again, and was quoted as saying to a NY reviewer, ‘I wouldn’t go through this again for anything.’ (see Georgia Women article here) Mitchell was also thrust into the spotlight, accumulating thousands of fans, who would send her fan mail, with Mitchell attempting to respond to every letter. In one response she addresses a fan’s question about writing a sequel , ‘Even if I had the urge to write another book, I do not know where I would find the time, for my life, since the publication of my novel…has been lived in the middle of a tornado.’ The full letter can be viewed here Other articles cite that Mitchell was heavily involved in political positions and then World War II struck in 1939, which would have of course been a distraction. Mitchell also met an untimely death in her late forties when she was struck by a taxi, so who knows if she would ever have changed her mind about penning another book.

A writer I have much admiration for is Donna Tartt who has written three books in thirty years. You can see her being interviewed here When the interviewer asks her ‘If she could become prolific and get faster with effort’ I bet she felt like slapping him (like she isn’t already putting in a lot of effort?). Instead she smiles sweetly and says, “I’ve tried to write faster and I don’t really enjoy it.” Her debut novel The Secret History was a best-seller, and had an initial print run of 75,000 (as opposed to the publisher’s usual 10,000), so you could say Tartt has the luxury of a decent sales history (see what I did there), to allow her time to create, but I am sure she must have kicked back against immense pressure from the publishing industry to produce more; faster, after her initial success.

In a world which is obsessed with producing and consuming it’s kind of refreshing to see a writer who will say, I’m doing this my way, at my pace, and you can all just wait for my genius to unfold.

Finding Your Way

Artwork by V Gemmell

Recently I’ve hit a bit of a creative slump so for my birthday a couple of months ago I asked for a copy of ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron. I’d always wondered about this book and my curiosity was piqued further when a recent article (in the May issue of The Writing Magazine) featured an interview with Julia Cameron, and she spoke about her recommended practice of writing ‘Morning Pages’, where you write down a stream of consciousness on three A4 pages every day before you do anything else. This is just one practice and task Cameron recommends in order to kick-start your creativity, or in my case, try to get ‘unstuck’. In the opening, Cameron describes the book as a ‘toolkit’ for artists, and, ‘as they (readers) learn to take small risks in their Morning Pages, they are led to larger risks. A step at a time, they emerge as artists.’ The book is divided into ‘weeks’ like you are undertaking a course, with new themes and tasks introduced each time, but what stays consistent is the suggestion to complete your Morning Pages daily, and once a week set time aside for ‘An Artist Date.’ This isn’t a suggestion that you hang around gallery openings asking for artist’s phone numbers. This date is with yourself, where you set proper time aside to engage in something creative, or at least an activity you enjoy, alone (the alone part is very important).

I’d like to say after delving into the book about 5 weeks ago that I have shown impeccable discipline, but I’ve not. I am averaging about three morning pages a week, and often this is typed into my notes pages on my phone as I travel by train into work. I get up at 6.45am the mornings I’m travelling into work and I’m not a morning person so I was loathe to set my alarm 20 minutes early (as it tends take about 20 minutes to pen three pages). For me, that was going to set me up to fail at the start, and would defeat the purpose of making this something I would hopefully enjoy, and something that would energise me.

So now my morning pages often turn into late afternoon or evening pages, and it’s probably missing the point of ‘clearing my head for the day’, but it has thrown up some very interesting musings and I often use my pages to reflect on why I’ve been feeling blocked. I have to say I am failing on the regular artist dates too but I have slowly started to set more time aside to enjoy and explore all sides of my creativity (not just writing) which is really important to me as it does really help me switch off from the distractions of daily ‘noise’. My pen drawing at the top of this post was a result of one such ‘date’, and I also finally read through a book I bought from the GOMA years ago, called ‘Art From Elsewhere’, which features 70 works by International Artists, selected by curator David Elliot. I particularly liked the photos ‘Girls in Cars’ by the artist Shirin Aliabadi – you can read a short article about her and her photography here.

Sometimes I feel I waste too much time scrolling through social media (don’t we all), but then I remember the fascinating accounts, such as Humans of New York, that I follow, and how there is so much inspiration to be found in ‘the every-day’. This is something I know; finding inspiration everywhere is a big message I thread through a lot of creative workshops I have delivered, but I seem to have forgotten of late. Noticing small things in life was mentioned in one of the chapters of Cameron’s book and I do think there have been so many ‘big’ unsettling things happening in the World of late, it’s easy to let that noise dominate. And it’s easy to tell ourselves we have so many important day to day responsibilities to carry out (which, let’s face it, exhaust us,) that we don’t have time to be creative and frivolous.

Recently I remembered someone from my past connecting with me on facebook years ago when my debut novel came out, who said to me, ‘Oh I see you wrote a book. I plan to do that one day but right now I’m far too busy.’ I felt like replying with the response I’m sure many writers would like to respond with, ‘Newsflash. We are all too busy, but if you really want to do it, you will make the time.’ Guess who I’m actually writing that message to now? Though as many writers know, having time is just one aspect of what holds us back. For me, being productive is very much about getting into the right mindset.

One of my favourite tasks so far in the book has been to write a letter from me at eighty to myself (with the prompts – what would I tell myself? what dreams would I encourage?). At first I struggled with this but then I quite liked eighty year-old me; she got quite sassy as the letter went on. It got quite personal, but I wanted to share part of it, because it’s probably something all of us need to hear sometimes:

Eighty-year-old me told me those times when I look at other writers/artists, whatever, and think I can never be that good, they’re so much better than me, they’re out there being so successful her response was, They’re not better than you. They’re braver than you. And if I look up when I’m eighty and all I see on my wall is some god damn modesty medal you won in your forties I am going to be very mad and hide it in a box of regrets. I want to look up from my armchair and see a wall covered in awards and certificates or at least some kind of photographic evidence that you have continued to put yourself out there, and celebrated your creativity and talents.

I hovered over that word ‘talents’ and nearly deleted it. But I didn’t. So I guess I’m half-way on my way.

Chasing Magic

 

At the end of June I spent a fabulous weekend at the quirky Rosely Country House Hotel on a Chasing Time writing retreat. The theme for this particular retreat was ‘Stop the Clock’, with the emphasis on taking ‘time out’ to write.

As soon as I arrived at this gothic mansion, which dates back to the 1800s, I could feel my imagination wake up. Writers Dawn, Elizabeth and Sandra were wonderful hosts throughout the retreat, delivering stimulating and creative workshops. Between workshops we were able to wander around the grounds of the hotel, and used the gardens as inspiration for one of our ‘writing sprints’. I loved that our hosts set up a little ‘library’ in the massive conservatory, with a table filled with books about writing and creativity, that we were all able to dip in and out of throughout our stay. I started to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’ and it was perfect timing for me as a lot of the sentiments in this tied in with my last blog post about taking time out to daydream and ‘create’, as well as acknowledging the fear and doubts that can creep in when you try to write.

The beautiful conservatory

I loved meeting the other writers on the retreat – we were all at different stages of our writing careers, with different focuses and styles, but at the heart of every conversation was a passion and enthusiasm for words and creating stories. There’s nothing better than being able to switch off from the ‘real world’ for a while and talk about writing and books.

On my first morning at the retreat I woke up very early, with scenes from my new book tumbling through my mind. I used the free writing time on the Saturday afternoon to map out the first eight chapters (a kind of meticulous planning that I never do!), as well as writing extensive notes about characters. Since returning home I have made a good start on this book and I am so glad I took the time out on this weekend to kick-start the creation.

There was a real sense of calm and quiet in the house. There’s something about old buildings which I find peaceful, perhaps because there is none of the ‘buzz’ of modern appliances. It’s rumored that there are a few ghosts hanging about Rosely. I am almost certain these ghosts were writers,  joining in the fun on the retreat by weaving some creative magic into my dreams.

For any writer out there who is craving a little time away from their busy life, I can’t recommend this sanctuary enough. You can check out the Chasing Time schedule at their website here

I will sign off with a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’:  ‘A creative life is an amplified life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner – continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you – is a fine art, in and of itself.’