I recently listened to this speech by Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love. What she had to say interested me, not least because she touched on something that has been swimming around in my mind for a while now. (Nor am I the only one: my friend Aniko Carmean recently wrote a beautiful post about much the same topic.)
Success and failure. Failure and success. Two sides of the same coin, perhaps. Two spectres that always appear at a writer’s feast sooner or later. And also two rather unclear terms: what exactly is success, or failure? If you write an exquisite book that sells two copies, have you succeeded or failed? If you write a book that takes the world by storm, does that automatically qualify as a success? What if the book in question is mediocre, or worse?
Gilbert’s story is interesting, not least because there’s a part of it to which I think most writers could probably relate. All she ever wanted to be, she said, was a writer. For years she worked a day job, wrote in her spare time, and sent what she wrote to agents and publishers. The results were disappointing, if predictable: for a very long time all she ever got in return were rejections. It was a dispiriting process; frequently she found herself wondering whether she should just give up and spare herself the trouble.
This is a feeling that most of us, I imagine, have experienced. “Quit while you’re ahead” is a common piece of advice; “quit while you’re behind” often sounds like a much better piece of advice, especially if you’re of a pessimistic disposition. Why keep going when the whole enterprise seems doomed? Why not just spare yourself the time, the trouble, and the potential embarrassment?
Gilbert didn’t quit. She kept at it, and was in due course rewarded by a publishing deal and a bestseller that went on to inspire a Hollywood film. A bit of a modern fairytale, you might think.
However – and this is the most interesting part of Gilbert’s speech, in my view – there is an interesting postscript to this particular fairytale: success, she found, did not automatically lead to happiness. Quite the opposite, in fact. Success was bewildering and unsettling; it blinded her, briefly, to what was most important to her. It was, in fact, an experience hauntingly similar, in subjective terms, to failure: a queasy feeling of being out of your depth, out of control, and horribly far from where you want to be.
Gilbert’s method of finding her way back was simple and, I think, sound. She focused on what she loved most, which in her case – and in the case of most writers, I suppose – was the simple joy of writing and creating for its own sake: “that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.” And, as if to prove it, she notes that when her follow-up book went on to become a (relative) commercial failure, she actually felt all right with that. The success or failure of the book was a side-effect; it wasn’t the most important thing about it, or her.
We live in a world where money talks, and loudly; success or failure is often measured simply, crudely, in terms of commerce. And if you’re a creative person (as opposed to a business person), living in such a world can be a deeply distressing, alienating experience: you know that not everything can be valued in terms of its commercial clout, but the rest of the world doesn’t seem interested in hearing that. And you know too that your beloved book, the work into which you poured so much love and effort, will (by some people, at least) be measured in terms of these outcomes: Was it published? Who published it? And, more to the point, how much dough did you make out of it?
Perhaps the best thing we can do is to disregard those giddy highs and depressing lows, and just concentrate on doing what we do: writing, crafting, creating. This is easier said than done, admittedly: nobody can help but be influenced by the world in which they live. But perhaps it’s the best prescription for a writer hoping to remain sane. What do people think?
10 thoughts on “The Ups, the Downs, and the In-Betweens”
Great post. I can definitely relate to this. It’s hard to define the boundaries between success and failure. Publishing is such a competitive task, that to get published at all right now is success in some way. Though whether or not the book actually sells requires a whole new evaluation. In the end, we can’t change how the world will judge us — we can only change how we judge ourselves and our own work.
Hi Michelle, and thanks for commenting. I think you’re absolutely right that we can’t do anything about how the world will judge us; indeed, I think there’s a sense in which it’s not even worth thinking about, still less worrying about. We can only do our best by our own standards. I actually find this liberating – life’s too short to waste time second-guessing what other people might think!
Mari, I agree that the best thing for a writer to focus on is the act of writing. Like most sound advice, it is almost impossible to follow! There is an inordinate amount of “guidance” to measure success in numbers: copies sold, Amazon ranking, dollars made, page hits, downloads. The choice to measure differently is one that isn’t well understood, and is certainly not encouraged. Some people will even say that if you don’t measure by what you make, you are devaluing their art! Here’s the best thing that’s happened to me since I stopped measuring by money, and started measuring by my sense of joy: a complete stranger I met on a train downloaded the free PDF of my novel, read the whole thing, and a couple of weeks later gave me three dollars because he enjoyed it. I got paid by giving it away! It was the most amazing money I’ve ever made, and not because of the amount (obviously!), but because it was my sign that my way of doing things is right for me.
May you find your success and your joy!
PS – Thanks for linking to my post!!
Hi Aniko, and thanks for commenting!
I love that story about a stranger giving you money freely because he enjoyed your book, and I can see that that must count as some of the best money you ever made. I wish more people measured success in those terms! I’m a little disappointed that self-publishing in general, which offers writers the freedom to do things completely differently, has been reduced by many people to the same old number-crunching. Oh well – to each their own, I suppose. I’m very happy doing things my way!
Being happy is a great indicator of true success. In that sense, I hope you are and remain very successful indeed!
I love that signpost image- where did you get it?
I so agree about the distortion of standards in a commercial world. As you know, sadly, that’s nothing new; Van Gogh (I nearly typed ‘Van Goth’ – Freudian or what?) never sold a painting in his lifetime, and I assume, was considered an arch failure; his paintings going for millions now seems obscene, somehow. I always find it comforting that Tchakovsky’s fifth was, I believe, booed off the stage when first performed, too innovative…
Not sure if my comment came through or not,so will re-type.
I love that Signpost image – where did you get it?
I so agree about your comments about false standards of what constitutes failure or success.
As you know, not a modern phenomenon; Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime and must have been seen as a complete failure. I always remember reading how Tchakovsky’s fifth was booed off the stage when first performed – too innovative….
Sorry, Lucinda – for some reason your comment went into the spam box! Why is this happening??!!!
Glad you enjoyed the post. Poor old Van Gogh; he was the model of a dedicated artist, but I wish he’d received a little more appreciation during his lifetime…
I don’t like much Elizabeth Gilbert but good for her that she confessed though her failure.
I agree with your point – don’t care if your book(s) sell or sink down, just write (if you have an inspiration). That’s what Hugh Howe did and how he succeeded. Yet, sometimes any artwork be it a book, song etc. needs wide distribution in order its message to be spread away.
Do you manage to stay indifferent to success and failure? Btw, In yoga this is very important quality called detachment or vairagya.
Hi, and thanks for commenting! I’ve tried a little yoga, but as a physical rather than a spiritual activity. It’s one of those things I really want to do more of.
I’m largely, but not entirely, indifferent to commercial success. That was never the most important thing for me, and books are, for the most part, difficult things to sell, so no author can really expect success. Besides, once the book is published it’s largely out of my hands: I’m very sceptical about the efficacy of advertising campaigns and the like.
Writers can only really write what they want to write. Readers can only really read what they want to read. That’s very simplistic but it’s my best belief at this point in time!