Posted in Writing Life

What is Success?

As a writer, like most writers, I want success, and I am envious of others who have more of it than I do. I struggle with it, not wanting to be envious, and I’ve been trying to arrive at a new vocabulary for it.

Today I was reading Emily’s blog, and found my comment going on so long I decided to post even though I don’t have answers yet.

Here’s what got me started. Emily wrote:

I work hard, I am a pretty good writer. But I’m not a closer. I can’t close the deal. Never could.

I went on Facebook today and one of the first things I saw was the Facebook group for alums for my college announcing that a woman who graduated in 1999 had just released her third novel.

It doesn’t matter how many novels I’ve published–they aren’t as many written or sold as other people’s. And now I look at the amount of life stretching out before me, I also feel like I can never catch up.

Having said that, I also know that these thoughts are a result of lies about what life is supposed to be. There’s a definition of success that rests on numbers: how much someone has produced, how many people have bought them; I don’t mean the goods but the person whose success is under scrutiny. We are all taught our worth is how much we are sold for–child prostitutes are taught the same. The social lie is just less obvious to most of us, or if obvious, just as seductive as it is to the child who wants only love and appreciation and value, and is taught that’s the way to get it.

If that’s the definition of success, then it’s in direct opposition to love. Love is about appreciation and acceptance. It’s expansive. It includes laughter and pleasure and ease. There is no comparison in love. You don’t love someone because that person is better than someone else, but because you have chosen them and they have chosen you, by chance (children) or deliberation (partner, friends). They are yours and you are theirs. It is not competitive. Success, on the other hand, is all about comparison and competition. Who has published the most? Sold the most? Earned the most? And even if you achieved it yesterday, what about today? It contracts the heart with worry, anxiety, envy; it contracts the world into a smaller and smaller circle of those who have achieved it most and latest.

No, I don’t believe that’s success. It’s what I’ve been taught, and I’m plagued by it, even though I know it’s a lie.

I don’t have the answers yet, the words to describe success. I’ve tried for a few. Excellence is one–and that works well to describe doing my best in my work, writing a particular book over and over until it’s as good as I can make it. But it still has a whiff of comparison. And it doesn’t do at all to describe my efforts, pleasure, and improvement in other areas of life, cooking, swimming, skating, sewing, all of which I’ve been learning as a middle-aged adult. Surely that counts. And what about time with my kids? That’s an ever evolving sport as they mature; it’s challenging, rewarding, and involves as much thought and learning as researching a historical novel.

There has to be another way to think about success, one that spins out of love instead of taking away from it. One that clothes us in something better than the Emperor’s clothes.



Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

22 thoughts on “What is Success?

  1. I struggle with this all the time. I have consciously tried to redefine success. I don’t want to be striving so hard at my career it takes from my life. But I hate this part of writing that involves selling myself, because it leads to comparisons.

  2. Emily, I’ve been looking for another model than sales. Coke has to be marketed and sold because it isn’t any different than other colas and nobody needs it–worse it’s bad for people. So the marketing has to lie and manipulate people into believing it’s good, it’s different, and it’s necessary. Then everybody gets taught that they’re supposed to sell themselves like Coke. What does that teach? That people aren’t necessary, good or different, and they need to convince the world that they are, and that they’re more so than anyone else. Bull! The model I’m thinking about would have to do with connection, not sales. People, their ideas and their work are necessary, different, and good or not–depending on your taste and perspective, not on marketing. It’s about connecting to your team, your editor, agent, publisher and connecting with your audience. It’s about communication and information, letting people know you’re there and so is your work. There are commonalities with the selling approach but the building blocks are used differently, feel differently, like using the same set of letters to write quite different words. Compassion and comparison, say.

  3. It’s hard to internalize something when the whole society is giving a whole different message. Even good people take it as a given. To stand up against it, we need to connect with others who are trying to see things a different way. Givens can change.

  4. What a cracking post! I have been on that ‘success’ treadmill at the university and it made me very unhappy. Nothing I created was ever mine, because it was given away instantly to the bitch-goddess Success, (as I think it was Henry James who said it). I’m struggling too to find some other way of thinking about this whole thing. But, the last book I wrote, although I doubt it will ever be published, was a genuine success for me because I loved doing it. The process was successful, so I am determined not to care what the outcome of it may be. I’ll let you know how I get on….

  5. Oh boy, do I struggle with this as well. Although I’ve published my short fiction and other writing, I’ve yet to publish either of my novels and this fact prevents me from claiming myself as a “real writer” in most circles. So in this sense, publication itself equals success. And of course publication involves the commercial aspect of writing, not the creative aspect. I find that reality a bit frustrating.

    1. Michelle, it’s interesting you should say that you’re not a real writer even though you have published, as you say, short fiction and other writing. Published is published. Plus, having written novels which haven’t (yet) been taken up by a publisher is frustrating and demoralizing, but it doesn’t mean you’re not a real writer. Even if you’d published nothing, you’d be a real writer, though an unpublished one. Perhaps you could consider yourself not yet a professional writer. However you’d still be a real one. I do understand. It’s how I felt, too, before my first book came out. But even though I’ve had several, it’s never enough; the doubts keep on coming. How can I claim success if a book takes me a long time, if I don’t make as much money over that time as X (another writer, an acquaintance, or a dental hygienist, say)? As long as success is measured by something external, outside of our control, with comparisons–it’s always out of reach. And then it steals our energy. All that fear, anxiety, doubt, envy steals away the energy that could be creating. If you love your novels, if you believe in them, why not publish them as ebooks?

  6. I think that a lot of unpublished writers are struggling with the question of whether to self-publish or not. It is an enticing possibility, but loaded with its own set of worries. I managed to land an agent – which felt incredible when it happened – but she hasn’t been able to sell either of my manuscripts. This could mean I’m no good, or that she’s no good, or that it’s just very hard to get published. Negotiating those three possibilities all the time is exhausting. I understand the pull to self-publish, but I’m not quite ready to decide on my own that my work is good enough. And I do believe that a professional editor’s eye is priceless. So for now, I will continue to wait and wish (and keep writing…that part is luckily a given).

    1. Self-publishing has its own worries for sure. And it’s a whole other set of responsibilities and work. I understand not wanting to go there yet. But it’s also possible to work with a good freelance editor if you ever decide to go that route. This is a very very hard time to publish. Even authors with long track records aren’t guaranteed anything. So as far as your questions, I can definitely say yes to that one. But I know what it’s like to go around in circles. I do that far too much with my own work. The only way out, I think, is to step out of the framework of outcomes, which are indeterminate and outside our control, and instead to focus on process, attitude, and intentions.

  7. Michelle,
    Self-publishing is absurdly hard. It really is. I decided to go that route with this book because its length and form make it unlikely to ever find a mainstream publisher. It was a nice experiment. But it’s so hard.

  8. So much. Even just the mechanics of getting it printed are very difficult. And calling places to do readings is humbling because most places aren’t interested in self-published writers. And getting the word out. Without those channels that publishers have, it’s very, very hard.

  9. Interesting interview with Emily on it is here.

    Emily–it’s very hard with publishers, too. Even the big publishers. More so now. Unless you turn into a best-seller through sheer luck, divine direction or whatever, you have to do all of those things yourself. Yes, you get an advance, and that helps a lot. But the work and the humbling is all there.

  10. Yes, but I think with a publisher I’d be able to reach at least 100 people. The amount of work I’ve done for the number of sales I have is much, much more than I’d have with a publisher…

  11. What a great discussion, and so much food for thought. I wonder if writers are particularly prone to feeling they aren’t “really a writer” unless they’ve not only published, but been successful in terms of sales and/or recognition?
    I know lots of musicians who don’t seem as plagued by this conundrum…they record their own cd’s and go out and play for other people and seem fairly content with it.

    Maybe they just don’t talk about it the way writers do, worrying it over in our minds all the time and comparing ourselves with all the successful ones we see on Facebook and Twitter 🙂

  12. Becca,
    The interesting thing is that many of us ARE published but still don’t feel successful. In my case, I feel like my work has stopped growing.

  13. Becca, good point. Maybe that’s because musicians are musicians in the moment, as they play, because it’s performance oriented. A writer’s work isn’t finished until it leaves our hands, is taken and turned into a book with covers and pages by other people, sold to bookstores, and finally read by readers far away from us. Yes there are CD’s, but that’s still a recording of the musician playing/singing. The writer isn’t writing while the book is being made.

    Emily, your work has stopped growing now that you’re doing more freelance work?

  14. No, the freelance work helps me grow. My problem is that I had a trove of things to write about, but I have written them. I also wrote about my kids, but they are getting older and there is much I hold back. I need to be finding other ways to write and grow.

    1. Emily, I think that’s natural. I was just wondering myself if I cared enough about the new novel I started. It might be because it’s been so very stop and go (with a lot more stop) while waiting and working on various things to do with my last novel. But when I asked myself, would I be willing to work as long as it takes on this one, could I do it for 8 years? Then no. So I’m playing a bit with writing now. And I’ll just have to see where things go. Life circumstances have given me a lot of drive for each of my books, with some fallow time while I floundered and wondered where to go every time I finished one and was trying to start another. During the fallow time, it wasn’t clear where to go. The emotional impetus and drive hadn’t yet made itself known. I keep wanting to write something that isn’t driven that way. A mystery series, for example. But that hasn’t been my path.

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