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.