What Is Writing Success?
The trophy you yearn for might not be the trophy you truly want.
The question of what success is might be the most important question you can ask yourself as a writer and as a person.
We live in a culture obsessed with success in so many forms, whether it’s money, status, or beauty. Is success getting a book published, becoming a best-selling author, hanging out with other best-selling authors, and being invited to speak at fancy conferences? Adulation from friends and family? Thousands of social media followers? Or the money that comes from a best-selling book and all the spa treatments and clothes you can buy as a result?
All of that is great, why not? But are those the reasons you picked up a pen the first time to write? After a good writing session, are such things the payoff that make it all worth it?
I believe that living in reverence of our imaginations is the best way to preserve the essence of our being. Our art provides our spirit with a plenitude that can’t be found in any other way. Even though we know that whatever we write will never be quite as ideal as the words we’ve imagined, the effort of trying to capture what it is to be sentient weaves its way into every breath of our lives. We want to feel heard, we want to touch others, and we want to make something remarkable. Seizing our creativity for its own sake brings on an immediacy, a resplendency, and the urgency of our own possibility.
Being an artist goes beyond the work of art you create.
I know a writer who frequently compares her book sales to another. She monitors other people’s Twitter followers. She gets upset when others are invited to a conference and she’s not. We all have egos, of course. We all want to be loved. But when I hear her talk, I sometimes wonder why she writes. She has an agent, an editor, a book deal, but I wonder if somewhere along the way she lost track of the gift of it all — the gift she has to write a story, the gift she can give others through her story.
“It is the talent which is not in use that is lost or atrophies, and to bestow one of our creations is the surest way to invoke the next,” writes Lewis Hyde in The Gift.
Hyde cites the story of Hermes, who invented the first musical instrument, the lyre, and gave it his brother, Apollo, who then was inspired to invent the pipes. One creation spawns another. Being an artist goes beyond the work of art you create. It will flow into your life and influence how you treat people, the way you love, the way you taste food, the way you stare up at the sky, the way you vote, the way you drive, the way you wash your dishes. Seriously.
Still, is writing a novel useful, many a person has asked? Does writing, creativity, have a practical end?
The conventional notions of success can dim the voltage of our ideas.
I wonder if the best things in the world have been achieved in disregard of a notion of usefulness. When people have set out to climb mountains, sail across seas, or fly a plane around the world, I think curiosity drove them as much as gaining anything of measurable value. To be moved by the compulsion to make and explore, to move just for the pure restless sake of moving, without tallying up any costs of consequences, so often leads somewhere.
How are we to decide what the standards of utility should be when it comes to creative pursuits? The arts are increasingly seen as dispensable luxuries, but if we narrow the openings for our curiosity by arguing that it’s impractical, financially unrewarding, risky, then the motivation to engage in creative behavior is easily extinguished. The conventional notions of success can dim the voltage of our ideas, water down the fragrant broth of our thoughts. When an impulse of curiosity strikes, it’s best to follow it with a passion that moves forward in disregard of destiny or consequences. Others might consider you a fool, but one person’s passion is always unintelligible to others.
Our potency is defined by our ability to hear a story’s cries, no matter how faint. If we don’t write that story, our blood becomes anemic, our eyes fade to listlessness, our spirit atrophies. Our stories yearn only for their own freedom, and when we give them that freedom, they give us a sacred liberty. We must find nourishment within the work itself, not through any approbation or celebration others deem to grant us.
We write to hear ourselves, and in hearing ourselves, to save ourselves.
We write so that we can speak back to the world. We write to assert our presence. We write to try to narrow the chasm between what we see and feel and connect with another. We write to penetrate into the unseen worlds around us and explore different possibilities of life. We write because we’ll feel empty if we don’t. We write because we’ve witnessed something that others need to hear about. We write to serve the story that is calling us. We write because in this world of data collection and data analysis, we know there’s a poetic truth of life that matters more. We write to hear ourselves, and in hearing ourselves, to save ourselves.
Every story creates the writer to write it. Life and art easily wind themselves into one, so your writing should give substance to your sense of self. The world is always offering us new whorls of materials, new streams of sources. We’re constantly being given the magical opportunity to make and remake ourselves with the aid of a story’s lens to see the world through. It doesn’t matter if no one in the world wants that story. It only matters that we want it.
We must perform. We must imagine. We must be.
Try This: Be Successful
Define what success is to you. Be successful in your own eyes.
Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.