by Kristen Coros
Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.
What does success mean to a writer? Do any of us write—or pursue other creative endeavours—without some notion of our effort being recognized, rewarded, lauded? And what sort of outcomes ought we to lust after?
There is, of course, money. There is fame, recognition. There is succès d’estime, otherwise known as critical acclaim. There are contests, prizes, awards. There are lines of people in bookshops waiting to have copies consecrated by the kiss of a felt-tip pen.
There are the dreams. There is imagining the look and feel of your book in your hands, intellectual effort become form and heft. There are fantasy interviews. (“Oh, from a very young age I knew I was meant to write.”) There is the seductive idea of your voice being able to speak after you are gone.
But what are the odds? It has never been easy to ‘make it’ as an writer; current trends in publishing, as many have noted, have made it more possible than ever to become a published author … more difficult than ever to become a published author with ‘a following’.
The truth is that we might not succeed even though we work hard, though we have grit and all necessary ingredients. The annals of art are filled with terribly talented people whose work went unrecognized during their lifetimes. In the writerly sphere, we can reference Kafka, Zora Neale Hurston, and Stieg Larsson, among others.
Still, we can believe we will be the exception, reaching the money, the awards, the interviews, and the rest.
Then we can do a thought experiment: suppose we get there—achieve those dreamed-of things. What then?
Success generates noise. It causes phones to ring and email inboxes to swell to unmanageable proportions. Heads have been found to bloat unbecomingly. It gives rise to extensive air travel and public speaking and too many handshakes.
It can be a mental succubus, an enervating circumstance, bestowing greater pressure and expectation. With success, there is more opportunity to be praised, but equally more opportunity to be castigated, to be the subject of scathing reviews. (Pity the writer who causes Michiko Kakutani ennui.) With more scrutiny comes a greater fear of failure.
And what of privacy? This is an issue with which writers (owing, perhaps, to the introverted character that suits the work) have famously battled. Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger retreated from the public after their smash successes, producing little afterward. Others—Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon among them—have strenuously deflected intrusions. Short story master Julio Cortázar told the Paris Review not long before his death,
Listen, I’ll say something I shouldn’t say because no one will believe it, but success isn’t a pleasure for me. I’m glad to be able to live from what I write, so I put up with the popular and critical side of success. But I was happier as a man when I was unknown. Much happier.
In his own audience with the Paris Review, William Faulkner spoke dismissively of success as something “good [writers] don’t have time to bother with”. (He also called it “like a woman,” but that’s a discussion for another time.) While it may strike us as harsh if we’ve been using success as a motivational tool, the idea is also somewhat freeing. Simply not bother with it! That sounds good, actually: thanks, Mr. F!
The writers who seem best able to weather success—to remain healthy and productive in spite of it—are those able to turn their backs to the maelstrom of noise and pressure it generates. Those who can, in spite of it, go back to doing what they did before: entering a room alone, sitting down at a desk, and putting words to paper. In order for a writer, no matter how accomplished, to continue to be a writer, this must occur for hours on end, and without immediate reward.
But if we’re not dreaming of wealth and fame, won’t we need some other kind of sustenance—another source of fuel?
Well-established in the literature of social psychology is the idea that so-called intrinsic motivation—that which stems from inherent interest in or enjoyment of a task—is more valuable at fostering skill development than that which flows from extrinsic, or external, factors, like money and praise. Another finding is that the application of extrinsic rewards can, in some cases, reduce intrinsic motivation and desire to perform an activity. In other words, wanting to get paid or famous is not as powerful as wanting to do something for its own sake, and receiving external payoffs might mess with our mojo.
One way this is achieved is through an interest in mastery which, broadly defined, is a goal orientation in which an individual is interested not as much in performance measures (which are usually external), but in those relating to learning and improvement: to getting better. Commitment to this can sustain us through the externally-measured failures all writers must endure, like rejection by agents or literary magazines.
For a more concrete look at mastery, we can refer to an interview in which Ira Glass, host of the radio program This American Life, discusses the yardsticks creative people use to evaluate progress. A main reason we’re drawn to a creative endeavour in the first place, Glass claims, is because we have good taste in that area. Said taste allows us, when we begin creating ourselves, to recognize that our work doesn’t measure up to the standard of that which we have admired and been inspired by. For a number of years, we have good taste and our work fails to measure up to it. This painful state of affairs, Glass says, is the reason so many people quit early on. But, if we’re able to persist, to produce a volume of work that we know is subpar, eventually we’ll be rewarded by the sight of the gap between our work and our ambitions closing.
This can be intoxicating. You pen a scene with five characters in dialogue, when previously you never had more than two in a room together, much less conversing. You finish a work of a new length or in a new genre. You finally pull off something that evokes emotion while skirting the quicksand of mawkishness.
This, too, is success. Perhaps the most important kind.
When we start to think about personal mastery as success, certain crusty old aphorisms begin to sound true. Maybe it is the journey, not the destination. Maybe, though we’d love for our writing to pay, the work is the reward. Maybe intense love of an art form is fulfillment enough to keep us creating, to make money and acclaim feel incidental.
As Dani Shapiro noted in her memoir, Still Writing:
It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive … The rewards cannot be measured. Not now. But whatever happens, any writer will tell you: This is the best part.
So let me offer you this journey, and these rewards along the way. There is what Stephen King termed, “that buzz of happiness, that sense of having found the right words and put them in a line.” There is writing something you didn’t think you would be able to write. There is the thrill in toiling on something: sweating and self-flagellating until, in a blaze of inner triumph, you’re able to proclaim “The End.”
Kristen Coros lives in Zürich. She is a lover of words, a writer of fiction, and an Associate Editor at Vine Leaves Literary Journal.
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