The Writer's Survival Guide: Chapter 10: SuccessPrevious chapter Next chapter Table of contents
Success. How we want it. Success is the distant paradise toward which we paddle, a destination we imagine may grant happiness, perhaps even transform us. It is the brass ring, the gold ribbon, the I-think-I-cans blooming into I did!
At each stage in our writing development, we know all the fine lines and curves that make up the lovely face of success — but, of course, success' appearance keeps metamorphosing as our writing selves keep growing. When I was climbing out of a writer's block in my early twenties, success was getting one complete story onto paper. When I began my first writing class, it was hearing a hail of approval from my professor. Next was being accepted by a graduate school. On and on: winning an arts council fellowship, selling a book, getting reviewed by The New York Times. Etcetera.
This is true for all of us. What is universal to success is not the particular face of success — no one would say that success equals the Nobel Prize and nothing short of that will do — but the way that success feels, and how we can savor those feelings, and how, simply by virtue of being a milestone, success prompts change in and around us.
Because we all have different specifics for our individual ideas of success, this chapter uses the term "success" loosely. You may plug in your current conception of the term, recognizing that other readers will plug in other conceptions. This chapter is not about the nuts and bolts of how to become successful. It's about what success, in general, is; what might happen, emotionally, socially, professionally, and creatively, when you achieve it; and common sense principles you can apply when your success moves into the realm of business.
But before we go on, I do want to address how to become successful, because it is such a frequently asked question, and because this most vital of concerns has the most simple of responses. To quote Benjamin Disraeli: "The secret of success is constancy to purpose."
That is, to become successful, keep on your path, using all your technical skills and emotional resources, learning more every day, focusing on your destination. If you tumble off the path, don't look at where you're falling, the tree you're about to hit; look back at the path, back at where you want to go, because then you will, by hook or by crook, get yourself back onto it. Keep this up long enough, and consciously enough, and, with some luck, you might well get there — wherever your particular there happens to be.
What Is Success, Anyway, and How Can We Savor It?
When it comes to defining success in general terms, we probably all agree that it is a favorable outcome of something attempted. Our friend Johnnie is attempting to get into Harvard, and he does indeed get into Harvard. We see that as a success. Or our Aunt Minnie is attempting to win first prize for the Garden of the Neighborhood contest, and then that bronze watering can does indeed get placed before her front gate. That is also a success.
Success, then, is when someone sets a goal and achieves it.
We associate success with positive feelings. Initially, a goal achieved makes us happy, exhilarated, possibly even ecstatic. As time goes on, the achieved goal comes to feel gratifying, a payoff for all our hard work. Other feelings we connect with success are a relief, a boost to our confidence, a sense of extended pleasure.
Beyond these fundamental understandings of success, however, many of us tend to add qualifiers, particularly when the success is our own. And this is why it sometimes becomes hard to appreciate the positive emotions of success.
For some of us, the qualifiers are that wealth or fame should result from the success. So while we all might agree that, say, publication of a book is a successful achievement, some of us might feel that publication — especially our own publication — isn't really a success unless it earns a record-breaking advance, or gets us into People magazine. Thus, the happiness we would otherwise feel gets outweighed by disappointment. For others of us, success must involve continued career opportunities. Again, we might all agree that publication of a book is a successful achievement, but some of us may feel that our publication isn't really a success, and we can't really be happy, unless our book leads to a phone call from Steven Spielberg, or an offer to teach at Princeton University. And I certainly know people who qualify success as that which will give them new social opportunities. They don't feel that publication (or an "A" from a teacher, or whatever act they're investing hope in) is really a success unless it leads to a deluge of brilliant new friends and amorous suitors.
Clearly, the concept of success is layered and has an element of subjectivity. The base definition is the achievement of a goal. But on top of that we might add fantasies of the consequences of success. Hence, when we speak of success, we are usually speaking of two things: the act itself, and the results of the act, whether or not those results are realistic.
Unfortunately, this dual-defining of success can sometimes impede our ability to savor success. We can feel happy when we achieve the goal of, say, publishing our first book, but if we attach conditions (getting a call from the NEA, an interview on Jay Leno), and the conditions don't get met, our feelings of delight might devolve into indifference, or, even worse, disillusionment or anger.
Success unadulterated by fantasy feels good. Period. And those good feelings can go on for days, months, even a lifetime. But we cheat ourselves out of these good feelings if we make success too conditional, if we focus less on the act achieved than on the aftermath desired. Thus, if we keep shifting our emotional goal post ("I'll feel successful when that happens"), success may always feel like a carrot on a stick, and we will never hit the payoff of simply enjoying success and feeling good.
So how can you keep a hold of the great feelings surrounding success?
Acknowledge each success (see "Celebration" in Chapter 3). Recognize that you need to stop and pat yourself on the back, that you have one more accomplishment under your belt than you had yesterday. Share your news with people who care about you. Give yourself permission to feel happy. Sure, new challenges still exist, but you need to give yourself some time for afterglow.
Success is part of the writing process. It is the final part, the period when we can bask in satisfaction. It is the brilliant sunset at the end of a long day, the ole! at the end of a dance, the bonus at the end of a year. If you neglect to acknowledge it, it will be as if the finishing line to your current marathon is the starting gate of your next. Stop, catch your breath, and let yourself cheer. It's necessary to celebrate success. It's human to shout Yeehah! It's okay to cartwheel, acceptable to grin. It doesn't mean you're not humble; it means you know there is a time for work, and you know there is a time for fun. And that is a wise, and healthy, thing to know.
The Difficulties and Gifts of Success
Success does not occur in a vacuum. When we achieve a goal, we have changed something significant in our lives and created something new in the world, and hence we have kicked off some kind of transition in ourselves and perhaps in others. Sometimes these transitions alter our social interactions, maybe in the way others treat us, maybe in the kinds of people we are drawn to, or now find accessible. Sometimes the transitions shift the way we feel about ourselves or our work. But one way or another, success ushers in change.
If we are not prepared for these changes, they can sometimes be hard to accept. We might resist them, fighting to reclaim a status quo which our success has irrevocably tinkered with, or already left far behind. If, though, we are prepared for change — if we in fact recognize that they are transformations that happen to most writers who go through success — we can accept them, and turn our attention toward the gifts that they have to offer.
This section is about what you might expect — both troublesome and magnificent — when you achieve a success which is recognized by others. Some of my observations will apply to you with only some of your successes; some with all of your successes; some never. My hope is that, once you see what might happen, you will sail through the tough stuff with ease so you can anticipate, and enjoy, the great.
Friends — The Tough Stuff
As you toil away on your writing, you envision all your friends and acquaintances and family being overjoyed at your success. You expect this whether that success is your first acceptance by a small magazine, or the selection of your fifth novel for the National Book Award. How could your loved ones not be happy for you? You're supportive of their achievements. And they've read your work all along, encouraging you. What possible reaction could they have besides delight?
Most will indeed feel delighted, and will embrace your successful accomplishments as they would embrace their own.
A few, though, may have a harder time with that. Maybe they want to be writers, and your story in The New Yorker jabs at their fear that they are not as far along as you. Or they are afraid that they lack talent, or angry that their talent has still not led to their getting into The New Yorker. Or maybe they don't want to be writers, but they want to be . . . something. They have dreams, possibly distinct ("I want to be a radio disc jockey!" "I want to be Secretary of State!"), possibly vague ("Gee, I always thought I could do more in life than I have. . . "). And when you hand them your new book, and they look at the cover with your name on it, they see the concrete symbol of a dream realized. Unless they are quite comfortable with themselves — or able to give their happiness for you greater weight than their own disappointment in themselves — your success may point out to them the dream they haven't realized.
In other words, you are encountering other people's envy. (See "Envy" in Chapter 2.)
I was astounded when this first happened to me. When my first book came out, most of my friends were supportive, throwing me parties, talking up the book to everyone they knew. But some friends who had read my stories voraciously — people whose loyalty I would never have questioned — began evading my eyes in the gym, on the street. They didn't buy the book — though it was the same book they'd loved in manuscript. They couldn't seem to make it to my readings. They acted as if my book wasn't happening.
Since then, I have encountered variations on this. I have an old friend from college who still has never acknowledged that I have published at all, much less two books — and this remains true even when she is talking about how much she loves to read. I have been asked out by men who buy my books but can't bring themselves to open the cover — or who don't even buy my books. (A tip to those who wish to seduce authors: if you haven't read their books, don't even think about it.) I have worked at a job where I had many pleasant conversations with an affable co-worker, who was herself an aspiring writer. But when I mentioned that I'd published a few books, she asked nothing about them or my life as a writer, and, though she saw my books on my desk one day, pretended they were invisible, not even pausing to thumb through them.
Each of these experiences hurt at first, as does any major omission between people — a becoming dress which a lover doesn't comment on, a new baby which goes unacknowledged by a friend, a neck brace for a broken collarbone which co-workers ignore.
Then I realized that it wasn't me they were unable to face, but themselves. My books just made them think about all they hadn't done with their lives. If they dismissed my books, they could dismiss the nattering voice in their minds that said that they, too, could have been a contender — if only they had been able to vanquish their fears.
My success was their scapegoat. It didn't make me become different from them; it made them feel as if they were different from me.
Every time I encounter these reactions in others, I feel shocked all over again. Rejection stings, and when people don't acknowledge a very important part of our lives — particularly people we have previously trusted and liked — we interpret it as rejection. But in this case, it is not. We have nothing to do with these responses in people; their inability to recognize our success is a battle they are fighting with themselves.
If this happens to you, first, admit to yourself that you feel saddened by others' lack of acknowledgment. Second, accept that, as Natalie Goldberg writes in Wild Mind, success is different from love, and simply will not lead you to get all the attention you crave. Third, work on understanding that people's lack of acknowledgment is about them, not you. And then, turn your telescope away from those people, and swing it around to concentrate on all the friends and acquaintances who can remain supportive. The others may come around later, when they have developed more of themselves, and so are better able to dispense with their envy.
Friends — The Great Stuff
Each successful achievement is evidence of your growth — of your skills, your inner voice, your material, your discipline, etc. And as you grow, you will find that you carry yourself differently, gain entry into new places, attract a greater range of people — and so will widen, and diversify, your previous circle of friends. It's virtually inevitable.
Like: you write a story which is so damn terrific that when you debut it during open-mike night at your local cafe, people flock to you afterwards. Some just shake your hand; a few speak with you; and one or two — writers at your same level of expertise, people ready to see you as a peer — ask you out for coffee next week. Before you know it, they've become real friends.
Or like: you get a piece accepted in a magazine. The editor who took it so admires your work that, when she's next in town, she takes you to lunch. You have a three-hour powwow about Jane Austen, the future of online magazines, and split infinitives. She flies back to her city of origin, you mail a thank-you note, and a month later you get a call from a writers conference asking you to give a talk to them. How did they know your name? Oh, they say, we're on the advisory board of that magazine, and the editor spoke so highly of you, we just had to give you a call and see if you were available.
Or: you publish a book. You are giving interviews to all the newspapers in all your former home towns. One journalist is so taken by your way with words and your outlook on life that he calls a week later with tickets to a play, and shortly thereafter, you become romantically involved. Or the photographer who is sent to get a picture of you for the article spends all afternoon shooting, during which time he tells you about his idea for a book that combines words and photos. Later that year, you and he are collaborating on that book. Or the interview is for a magazine, not a newspaper, and the fact checker who calls to see if you really are a slender Columbia graduate turns out to be a friend of a friend. A few years later, you meet the fact checker at a party, and eventually you become his son's godparent.
My own examples of this phenomenon are too many to count. A man who judged a fellowship which I won, and who then sent a letter telling me how much he appreciated my work, is now one of my most loyal correspondents. A woman who runs events at a bookstore where I gave a reading rang me up a year later, told me about a bookstore that was looking for an events coordinator, and arranged for me to be interviewed — thus helping me land my current (wonderful) day job. Newspaper interviews have led to party invitations which have led to brainstorming dinners which have led to writing assignments which have led to theatrical adaptations which have led to more newspaper interviews which have led to close friendships.
There is no stopping it: successful achievement triggers new associations with others, both personally and professionally, and the two are often intertwined. Indeed, at this point, much of my social life has sprouted from my professional life, and vice versa.
Of course, successful achievement can also enhance our connection with people we already know. Our friends, by reading our work and supporting us through our writerly thick and thin, can come to know all the back roads of our soul, and so we might find that the trust between us has become more solid, and runs much deeper, than the trust we'd had before. And our acquaintances, by reading our work and watching our successes mount up, might find that they have more in common with us, and more respect for us, than they'd realized, and hence approach us with the desire to shed the skin of acquaintance to become a friend.
Successful achievement may throw a few typos into our social life, but if we relegate envy to the margins, and assign new and enhanced relationships to center page, it can also be a source of great delight, giving us unlimited opportunities to expand.
The Public — The Tough Stuff
Some people are starstruck. If they caught a glimpse of Liz Taylor pulling up in a limousine a block away, they'd be at the edge of the red carpet, thrusting out a napkin for an autograph, before poor Liz had a chance to exit the car. Other people are not so much struck by a star as inclined to throw muck at a star. Give them Prince Charles or our current president, and they'd have their vituperation ready, their scowl well-practiced, their tomatoes rotten and near.
Which means that, for either kind of people, a celebrity is either a deity on a pedestal, or a target for ire or mockery. In both cases, that means that a celebrity is seen less as someone than as something. A name, not a life. An image, not a reality.
Of course, what it really means is that the people who are making such judgments are doing so out of a belief that all people are not created equal; that, on some level, others are better than, or inferior to, them.
Most writers do not feel like celebrities, even the more famous ones. Rarely do their faces grace vodka ads. Seldom do their words adorn textbooks or national monuments. Writers almost never write while draped in mink and diamonds. Most of the time, they shuffle from desk to refrigerator to desk to library, their hair askew, their clothes wrinkled, their minds vacillating between charged and soggy. They don't feel like anyone famous or prominent. They feel like coal workers, or short order cooks — people who roll up their sleeves and really work.
But some people in the public feel otherwise. A published writer, they are sure, is indeed a celebrity, and as such becomes someone who should get all the respect — or disrespect — which they always give to celebrities.
Examples of this abound. I'll start with disrespect.
A local newspaper put out a book review quarterly which featured two regionally affiliated authors on the cover, both of whom had written dazzling first books. The next week, a reader wrote a letter to the editor that said, "So you finally pay attention to literature. Then why waste your space on some nobody no-talents?"
My first published commentary received this response: a reader clipped it, circled what she believed to be my grammatical mistakes (which were, in fact, correct), and sent it back, sans comments.
The author of an extremely well-received and popular humor book found that a columnist from her home town had begun a crusade to condemn her writing and malign her character. (They had met once, fleetingly, at a large party, where their two-minute conversation had seemed innocuous.) The columnist wrote several nasty pieces about the humor writer, tracking (and bashing) her successes from book publication to talk-show interviewee to staff writer for a top ten television show. Finally, he turned his attention to other prey, finding some other dumpster for his rampant negativity.
And for years I have been haunted by this memory: I once attended a reading by a lively and sensitive author who had written a book on how to find a husband. At the Question and Answer period, a man raised his hand and said, "Why should anyone listen to you? No one's going to marry you. You look like a pig."
Then there are the examples of being put on a pedestal.
The author of two novels finds that, at every reading, she gets at least one fan who gazes at her with stars in his eyes. (Possibly because she is heterosexual and writes about sexuality, almost always this fan is a he.) Throughout the reading he will be rapt, smiling. At the end he will come up for an autograph, then linger, perhaps asking writing questions. He will laugh excessively at her most minor stabs at humor. He will offer to get her water. As she's leaving, he will often try to ask her out, but will phrase the question in a self-effacing way, such as, "I'm sure you wouldn't want to have dinner with me, so I won't ask for your number, but here's mine, in case you're ever bored or need something to do."
A newspaper columnist in a small mid-Western city routinely gets piles of fan letters from women who beg him to marry them. Before he met his wife, he actually tried to date a few of these fans, but found they were so intent on gazing in wonder at him — and, in some cases, trying to impress him with their own writing or get agents' and editors' names from him — that he couldn't bring himself to reveal his vulnerabilities. Needless to say, these dates went sour pretty fast.
The public is unpredictable. Therefore, when we deal with the public, we may encounter actions which communicate You suck, and we may encounter actions with communicate You're my hero. Of course, deification is easier to handle than denigration, because praise is always more pleasant to receive than criticism. But both are distancing behaviors that prevent us from being seen as regular people, and hence both bar our entry into real interaction.
This is how I've learned to handle negative objectifying: I see myself as serving a public purpose. Some people are so insecure that they need to feel that others are lower than they. Better that those insecure people should hurl their hostility at a "celebrity" than at their family or friends. (Which may not be the case, but I can hope that it is.) As long as I remember that the Rachel Simon they are attacking or taunting is just any old public person — not the me I am in private, nor the me I am inside — then I am fine.
My approach to being held up too high is to accept that I cannot, under the present circumstances, have a real interaction with this person — that their feelings about themselves preclude such a possibility. Instead, I try to feel sympathy for them. They think others are "better" than they. I, too, have felt similarly at other times in my life. Maybe eventually they will be able to sit down to a cup of coffee with me, but not now. I can stay in touch with them, send them notices of my next reading, but if I want to visit with someone who sees himself as my equal, I'll have to look elsewhere for now.
The Public — The Great Stuff
Most of the public finds successful achievement quite attractive. When you're a writer, some of these people are drawn to explore your work. Sometimes, then, they become fans who follow your career, popping up every time you publish something, letting you know how they liked the last piece, happily ready to read more. Sometimes they become more than fans, entering the realm of friends, or business contacts, and come around not every few years, but whenever the two of you want.
Whether they become fans or friends, the best part about dealing with the public is that it can give you a tremendous sense of meaning in your life. Through your work, you are letting others live lives and feel touched in ways that they haven't experienced before, augmenting their understanding of humanity, introducing a new concatenation of emotions into their hearts, weaving new patterns of philosophy and wisdom in their minds, helping them drink all the more deeply of life.
That is, you are doing good. And doing good, if you are at all a sensitive person, also feels good.
This is the sweetest and most profound gift which success can bring you.
The following is one of my favorite examples. I was giving a reading at a bookstore in another state. I had done a lot of publicity beforehand — interviews in all the local papers, on the radio. The audience at the store was sizeable, and at the end of the reading many people came up to me. One was a young man who had smiled all through the reading. He handed me an envelope and, in a halting voice that revealed a severe impediment of some kind, he said, "Please read this. It will explain." That night, I read his letter. A few years before, he wrote, he had been horsing around on a roof, drunk and stupid, when he had lost his footing and fallen four stories to the ground. The resulting brain damage left him with not just speech problems, but also physical disabilities. He had been trying to heal ever since, struggling against feelings of despair, and when he had come across my interviews, in which I spoke about my protagonist (a healer), he found himself feeling hope. He read my novel before my appearance, and the boost it gave to his spirits inspired him to work harder at his recovery, eventually leading — a year later — to his becoming a counselor for troubled teens. He still writes me once a year, letting me know of his progress, which is considerable. I feel blessed to have been such a catalyst for someone's growth; he jokingly calls me his angel.
A similar situation occurred at a reading of a first novelist I know. A bed & breakfast at the shore put him up for a weekend in exchange for his giving a literary reading on Sunday afternoon. One of the couples staying at the bed & breakfast that weekend was a husband and wife celebrating their fifteenth anniversary. The wife was clearly coping with cancer; a scarf covered her head, and she made several references to stays in a hospital. At the novelist's appearance, he read a section from his book that was joyous, a celebration of life. When he finished, the couple was smiling so intensely, they were crying. "Your hope is a gift," they said, coming up to him, "the perfect ending for our anniversary weekend." The novelist never knew what became of this couple, but he did know that, at a crucial time in their lives, he gave them some happiness, and a moment when they felt a sense of peace.
Other examples: A poet periodically appears in schools to speak to kids about writing, and sometimes she hears back from them years later, after they have published their first story, explaining that her appearance made them decide to go into writing as a career. The author of a comic novel about divorce received a letter saying that her book helped the fan get through the low points in her own divorce, and "taught me that I could keep laughing, even with all the pain." The author of a memoir about child abuse was approached by a young woman at a restaurant and told, "Your book showed me that I wasn't alone, that someone else had the same problems and came out just fine. It gave me strength. Thank you."
We all have stories of authors and books which altered our own lives, helping us grow in significant and lasting ways. In fact, it is often those very authors and their books which convinced us to go into writing in the first place.
That's the great stuff about dealing with the public. You are helping others. You are changing lives. You are making a positive difference in the world.
And, for all you know, you may be doing it for thousands of people, and your influence may be felt for a long time to come.
Not much in life feels as rewarding as this.
Reading — The Tough Stuff
Ah, books. What pleasures they brought you as a child. Maybe you were one of the many who lived for those halcyon moments under the covers with your flashlight. Or, like me, you couldn't bear to watch TV or eat lunch unless you had a book propped up before you. Maybe as a teenager, you were captivated by Nancy Drew, Huckleberry Finn, William Burroughs, Rimbaud. Maybe you lugged books everywhere you went. Books were your equivalent of potato chips — you couldn't stop at just one. You could read and read until you were full, and then you just wanted to read more.
But sometimes, when we become writers, we find that we do not lose ourselves in books as we once did, but instead, when we read, we are working.
This happens for many reasons. As discussed in "Who And How To Read" in Chapter 5, writers often read in a quest for technical insight, and so may be scrutinizing the pages to ferret out new approaches to, say, characterization. Writers often read after editing their own work all day, and so may be automatically "editing" other people's work as they go along. At times, writers read to gain an understanding of the market. At times, writers read to review a book. At times, writers read because the book was written by someone they know.
Whatever the reason, you might find that, after you have begun to publish, reading seems to lose some of its ability to mesmerize you. Instead of charging through a book, forgetting your body, the time, even your own name, you may come to read consciously, deliberately, and critically.
Indeed, I know some people who can no longer finish a book with a wholehearted, "I loved it!" Instead, they finish with the more considered, "There were elements which I enjoyed, and others which fell short." Or, "This is very well-(or poorly) written." That is, the emotional response which guided them in the past has now been tempered by analysis.
A writer who has published three novels has confided to me that she is a bit ashamed that she can no longer read merely for fun. Often, she says, she hides her diminished enthusiasm from others, and so when interviewers or students ask her to name her favorite books, she replies by instead listing books she has admired. "I don't like books the way I did before," she admits. "Now, I appreciate them."
I can't give you a magic cure for this dilemma. But I can make a few suggestions that might help you get a little closer to reading with the sense of pleasure you used to have as a kid.
1. Recognize that, while enthusiasm can droop, it can also blossom. You may read hypercritically when you are in the thick of writing, but after your story/book is done, you may be able to send your critic on sabbatical, at least for a while.
2. Try reading authors who are deceased. Better yet, read authors who wrote in a different time period and/or culture. Then you are less likely to compare yourself.
3. Read a kind of writing you do not write. When I am writing fiction, much of my reading is in journalism. When I am writing nonfiction, much of my reading is in fiction.
4. Accept your reduced enthusiasm as you accept your reduced ability to run up ten flights of stairs.
5. Read when you're sleepy, especially if it's books you want to like (rather than "appreciate"). That way you will be less inclined to examine the words, and much more inclined to sink down deep into them.
6. Read books by people you don't know, for no other reason than that they look appealing. I have a friend who, once a month, buys a book by an author he doesn't know. He does this by browsing, or by asking for suggestions from booksellers.
7. Join a book discussion group. If the group consists of people who are not writers, you will find yourself surrounded by people who have retained the reading enthusiasm of their youth, and so you might be better able to reclaim your own.
Reading — The Great Stuff
Of course, now that you can read with the eyes of a writer, you can see much more in any piece of writing than you could before. Whether or not you are grappling with the issue of reading more consciously, you will find that the entire reading experience has broadened and deepened for you.
That is, reading becomes not just what it once was — a journey through the text — but also an exploration of the process that the writer used to get to this text. This includes both technical and emotional challenges. So as you read Nabokov's Lolita, you begin to see more than a lecherous narrator and a sexual prodigy and dazzling language. You also see the many strata of revision that Nabokov needed to reach this point, the reasons he decided to have humor here and pathos there, the psychological strength he had in pulling such a creation together. You see not just the what, but also, to an extent that becomes greater the more you write, the how.
Indeed, when you read after you have achieved success as a writer, you may even feel a sense of camaraderie with other authors, since you understand much better than a non-writer the hard work and patience and egolessness that was involved in getting the book done. Thus, you may well find that when you read, you are in effect holding hands with all writers, whether they be your contemporaries or your literary ancestors. That, in turn, will help you feel like one of a tribe, so that the next time when you feel alone as you're trying to overcome a technical or emotional literary challenge, you will recognize that many other people have struggled with exactly the same issues. You'll have role models to which you can turn for insight, and the security that comes from knowing that, though you sit by yourself to write, you are not and can never be really alone when you are a writer.
Writing — The Tough Stuff
The writing process follows a cycle: starting, revising, finishing — and starting again. But sometimes, when we have completed a successful piece of writing, we find we are unable to start again. Maybe we worked so long on the successful story that now, whenever we think about writing a new one, our thoughts pour back into the identical structure of the previous piece. Or we can't even get new ideas; all we can do is think of slight variations on the successful one. Or our present content is the same as our past content. Or our present themes are precisely the themes we wrote before.Our successful story has gone from first draft to final draft to publication to precedent. It is now the established format. It has become our standard.
And we can't seem to move beyond it.
There are several reasons this phenomenon occurs. One of the most obvious is that, since the successful story was, well, successful, our fears prevent us from being able to experiment with anything that might risk our losing that success. We may want to try something new, but doubt we could — or should. (A writer sold his first novel to Hollywood for a huge amount of money, and the resulting film made a fortune. For months he was assaulted by calls from all his supporters in the book and film industries: "Write another book just like this one!" After pondering this statement for a while, he concluded that these people wanted him to write the exact same book. Which, in practice, meant he couldn't write at all.)
Another reason for this phenomenon is that we fear we have only one story inside us. This kind of thinking derives from the common sentiment that everyone has a book inside him, which we sometimes interpret to mean that we each have one perfect shaping of our experiences into one piece of writing. Although this is as fatuous as the myth that each of us has one true love with whom we are a perfect fit — or the myth that there is a singular political leader who will deliver our country from poverty and crime — we sometimes believe it's true. Yes, we must have only one story inside us. How could anything that worked so well not represent the apex of our being? We toiled until we found the true realization of our spirit on the page; how could it be surpassed?
Sometimes, though, the reasons behind why we can't move beyond a work we've already written are less grandiose and more everyday. We feel used up, tapped out, or tired. Old. We feel we failed, even with our success. We feel we were frauds who managed to pull off that one piece, but if we do anything else, our sham will become blindingly apparent. We feel we said all we have to say. We feel too smart for our own good. We feel too dumb.
Always, the inability to move beyond the prototype of a successful work comes from forgetting (or trying to forget) that humans are dynamic, not static, beings, from ignoring the fundamental truth that change is the only constant in our lives. We fear the stamp of the successful idea because we fear we can't — or shouldn't — change. We don't trust that change will occur no matter what we do; that the successful story can't keep its hold over us unless we work very hard to let it.
These are the ways I have found to handle this dilemma.
1. Throw up your hands and keep writing the same piece, or slight variations thereof. You can try to sell them and possibly succeed. Some audiences do truly want the same work over and over, with a few changes. If this is the case with your audience, see if you can live with it. If you can, you'll be fine. If you can't, or your audience demands more variety, then follow one of these other suggestions.
2. Keep writing the same piece, but let your work pile up until, by slow incremental changes in successive drafts, you inch your way into a new model and, consequently, new challenges.
3. Keep certain elements but change others. Your successful story was an illustration of the tentativeness of youthful intimacy, focusing on a girl and a boy in a rowboat on a creek. Then try a piece about the tentativeness of adult intimacy. Or keep the youthful intimacy theme but focus on a pair of cousins running off to a clubhouse during a family reunion. Or keep the idea of the creek, but change the theme to being about the battle of loneliness. That is, retain the content but change the theme, or retain the theme but retain the content.
This approach applies to all elements of the story which have too strong a grip on you. Structure, voice, tone — whatever. Change one element while you leave others stable. Eventually you might feel bold enough to change several elements — or all of them.
If you are in need of guidance, feel free to nab new content, theme, structure, etc. ideas from other people's writing. Their example can become your key.
4. Stop writing fiction and switch, for the time being, to nonfiction, or letters. The form will be so different, you won't be able to replicate your earlier pattern.
5. Stop writing completely. This is not necessarily a dangerous move. There is a value in mere living; the mold of the successful story may have become so rigid because your life has become so rigid. Live until you change; them re-approach writing, and your writing will change. Just be aware that when you start again, you may have to face those big issues of discipline, commitment, patience, tenacity, etc., all over again.
6. Write a very long letter which explains to posterity why this is your final piece of writing. Then you can eradicate all the demons from your system by exorcising them onto the page. You'll learn about yourself, possibly finding out what your problem is, and what new content, or theme, is attracting you. At the very least, you'll be writing.
Writing — The Great Stuff
Remember when you last had a complete eye examination? The doctor checked your ability to discern color and distance and shapes, and then swiveled a binocular-like contraption — a phoroptor — around to the front of your face so that you found yourself looking through a pair of lenses. "Is this blurry?" the doctor asked as you gazed out into the room, and when you replied yes or no, a new pair of lenses dropped down. "Now, is this one any better for you?" On and on, the doctor trying one lens after another, until the strength of your vision could be definitively ascertained. You of course had no idea what any of these lenses meant in terms of your eyesight; all you knew was that with some, you saw the world as fuzz, with others you had greater clarity, and with one or two, you saw a sharpness that was, after all the mush and cloudiness, almost startling — and realized that you had found the lens that was the perfect match for you.
This is how writing feels to us after we have achieved success. When we were working on our successful project, we tried all kinds of lenses until we finally zeroed in on our sharpest and clearest take on the world. The result of all that effort is that now, after success, we know the one lens with which we can operate best, the one which fits us to perfection.
Our success with writing has led us to our success in recognizing our vision.
Each success, then, becomes not just a milestone for our career and social life, but for our creative development as well. Success shows us the current culmination of our efforts to reshape all that makes us unique — the memories and dreams and skills that define each of us — into art. But success isn't simply a culmination. It also an opportunity to pause, a moment of rest and reflection, during which we can, if we desire, take stock of what we are able and want to do with our writing, and determine where we wish to go from here.
We write, therefore we learn to see. But also, we wrote, therefore we honed how we see, and can hone our seeing that much further.
When I think of the role success plays in creative development, I am often reminded of something a Peace Corps volunteer once told me. In some of the sandiest parts of the Sahara, he explained, the roads are not defined by asphalt or fencing, but by a series of oil drums, each placed far apart from the other. Travelers steer their camels to an oil drum, then stop, mop their brows, and scan the horizon for the next oil drum. When they spy it they venture forth. They don't know where they will be going after they reach any one oil drum (and hence, horizon), but they do know that, as long as they keep making their way from one oil drum to the next, they will, somehow, keep going.
Each success is an oil drum. It is the end of one creative road, the spot which was as far as our eye could see. But it is also the place where we can collect ourselves, get a drink of water, and see new horizons which were beyond our scope before.
We can use success this way not only because it helps us know our vision better, but also because success shores up our confidence. We find that we are more courageous about setting out toward that next oil drum because we know that our skills and emotional resources are up to the task. We have already completed a major writing project and so, when we step forward toward the next, we usually find that we can do so with the faith that we will, one way or another, see it through to its end. We may not advance with any more speed or efficiency than we did when we were working on the successful project, but the fact of our success helps calm those ongoing fears that we can't pull it off, or figure it out, or stay on track, or learn what we need. Success helps fight the can'ts because it has already proven to us that we can.
Aside from vision and confidence, success helps the creative side of writing because it introduces us to new experiences, people, and philosophies, and thus, we might find that we have a greater range of material at our disposal. And we can always do more when our tool box is larger. In addition, our writing success has put us in touch with many professional contacts which we didn't have before. Consequently, we might feel a little more certain than we once did that what we write will ultimately find a home, and this may help us write with less fear and more comfort.
In short, success in writing benefits our creative evolution because it enhances our eyes and strengthens our gut. Which means tha
In short, success in writing benefits our creative evolution because it enhances our eyes and strengthens our gut. Which means that when we achieve success in writing, we're in a win-win position: we not only get what we want, we also get what we need.Previous chapter Next chapter Table of contents
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