Thursday, March 25, 2010


Last May, in a great post, LaVerne St. George wrote about "The Successful Writer". One paragraph in that post really captured my attention. It impressed me enough that I printed it out and highlighted the paragraph: "Define Success".

From time to time, that piece of paper surfaces amid the clutter surrounding my writing space. When it does, I pause to ask myself, "How does one define success as a writer?" or, more personally, "Am I a success?"

There's not a simple answer to that question. Writing has not made me rich. Nor has it made me famous. On the other hand, I have published three books. They are on shelves in libraries across the country, some of them in places I’ve never been. Presumably, they are at least occasionally checked out and read by people I’ve never met. Sometimes I hear from someone who’s read one of my books and takes the time to contact me and tell me that they like something about it; maybe they identify with one of the characters. That is an enormously satisfying feeling. Is it SUCCESS? Oh yes! At least on one level it is. But writing is a complex endeavor, with many levels, each with its own slippery slope to ascend.

I wasn’t a child prodigy who composed poetry when I was five or wrote my first play at age seven. I didn’t begin writing until I was well into my adult years. I’ve been an avid reader since I first figured out how to decipher the marks on the page and to know that they told a story. I’ve loved books ever since I can remember, but it took a long time for me to have the courage to write one. I began with the hope (more like a prayer) that I would have the discipline to actually finish it. The feeling of accomplishment that came when I did can only be defined as SUCCESS. I had met a goal I’d set for myself. I felt successful. But the feeling was short-lived. Would anyone except me consider what I’d written a book? Would anyone publish it? Another long process began–more difficult (and much less fun) than the actual writing. But, after some missteps, I achieved that goal. Again, a feeling of SUCCESS. And, again, it was short-lived. It wasn’t enough to have a published book. A book is really only a book when it is being read. With millions of choices out there, how could I let the world know about my book? This is a piece of the puzzle that most writers deal with continuously. We have to tread the thin line between crippling modesty and obnoxious bragging. If we slip onto either side of that line, we turn off potential readers–and undercut our book’s chance for SUCCESS. Another slippery slope to navigate.

And that’s only one book–the first. After finishing your first book, and the numerous edits and polishing to make it the best it can be, you come face to face with the big question, "What’s next?" There’s only one answer to that. You start again. This time, a little more confident that you can actually write a whole book, a little more aware of what it takes to get the book published and with a few loyal readers to help spread the word. It becomes easier, but is never a foregone conclusion. You have to set new goals. This time it’s both easier and more difficult. Easier because of experience gained, more difficult because of expectations–some imposed by others and, even more important, those you impose upon yourself.

When all is said and done, I’ve come to DEFINE SUCCESS not as reaching a single goal, but as a series of achieved goals, each leading to another, each requiring you to reach higher, work harder, dream bigger.

How about you? How do you define success?


Zelda Benjamin said...

I agree - we thread a very fine line between blatant self promotion and not believing those books in the box were written by me.
I'm still not sure what it means to be successful. Does reaching a goal define success? It does for that goal. So, I guess each little accomplishment is its own success story.

Sandy Cody said...

Zelda, it sounds like we have very similar ideas about success. We're both figuring it out as we go - as, I suspect, most writers.

Thanks for sharing.

LaVerne St. George said...

I am a successful writer, Sandy, in that a bit of my writing has touched you, a reader! I'm honored. So I know that I judge any piece of writing a success if it has touched at least one person--quality, not quantity. Right at this moment in my life, however, I would also count my writing a success if I made regular time to work on my fiction writing. Ha!
I have a feeling that our definitions of success may change over time and with circumstances. How freeing--and disconcerting--that is!

Sandy Cody said...

So true, LaVerne. We also need to remember that our writing touches people in many ways. Writing a sympathy note can be more important than finding the perfect ending to a novel. One of the things I've come to appreciate about this blog is the opportunity it gives us to get to know each other in all our diversity.

Beate Boeker said...

The thing I appreciate most about writing is that it lets me be myself. That is the biggest success. The rest, well, much of it isn't in our hands.

Sandy Cody said...

That is so true, Beate. I find that not only does writing let me be myself, it helps me figure out who I am.

Jane Myers Perrine said...

Someone famous (sorry, I don't remember who) said success is just showing up. I agree--in many ways, we can't predict the outcome. I may have written the best book in the world, but if I don't find a publisher who sells it, I'm still a success.