Just when I'd planned to sit down and do some "real work," the following question came in through a discussion list:
Ah, what a lovely excuse not to sit down and do some work today... And what a lovely chance to knock off another column! First, this writer is actually asking two questions. One is "at what point do you consider yourself a writer," and the other is "at what point do you consider yourself a success?" I think it's quite possible to consider yourself a writer without considering yourself "successful" (by whatever definition you use).
Is a "writer" really anyone who puts words on paper, no matter how good or bad those words happen to be? Speaking as an editor, I get a lot of e-mails from people who call themselves "writers," but send me notes like this:
Think I'm exaggerating? I wish I were! And it's far from a rare occurrence.
Then there's the "oh, yeah? me too" writer. We've all met one of them, usually at parties. It's when you tell someone you're a writer and they say, "Oh, yeah? Me too! Some day I'm going to write a book about my experiences as a... (bartender, kindergarten teacher, you name it)." As the person burbles on about this someday-book, you realize they haven't a clue as to what a "writer" actually is or does, and even more irritatingly, they've just dismissed you and everything you've gone through -- all the work, sweat, stress, joy, work (did I mention work?) that it takes to become a writer. The "oh yeah me too" writer assumes that writing must be easy, like talking. He's saying, "I'm just like you, or I will be, because how hard could it be?" And though part of you would like to give this person a five-minute education on what being a writer is really all about, you realize that it would be a waste of five minutes, so you smile politely, wish them the best of success with their novel, and look around desperately for someone else to talk to.
But what if the "oh yeah me too" writer has actually gone beyond talking about his or her book and actually put some of it on paper? Does that make someone a writer? I don't think so -- any more than I think that picking up a wrench and poking at the innards of my car gives me the right to call myself an auto mechanic. If "everyone who writes" is a writer, why would we bother to complain about the fact that Poetry.com accepts "everything" that gets sent in? At the same time, neither do I think that one can only claim to be a writer if one writes "well."
Instead, I suppose I would define a writer not simply as someone who writes, but as someone who is actively striving to write better. This has nothing to do with how well (or how poorly) one writes today. Rather, it has to do with the ability to accept that (a) no matter where you are in your writing ability today, that's just fine, and (b) no matter where you are in your writing ability today, you will be somewhere else tomorrow. It seems contradictory, but it isn't. If you can't shut off that nagging voice that says "I'm not good enough" today, you won't be able to write at all. But if you can't accept the gentler whisper that points out that there is room for improvement, you'll never become a better writer tomorrow.
The so-called "writers" who have the least chance of achieving "success" by anyone's definition, including their own, are those who already assume that they are perfect and have nothing to learn. Ironically, one encounters this type of writer in critique groups all the time; they're the ones who submit their work not to be assisted but to be applauded. If anyone utters a negative comment about their work, such writers get downright hostile. (Most of us can remember a few of those, right?) When they are rejected, they are convinced that the game is "rigged" and one must have special connections to "get in," for how else can you explain how someone else got published and not me? They are also the sort of writers who can't be bothered to study markets, read how-to books and articles, or look up information for themselves. Instead, whenever they do have a question, they expect someone else to answer it for them -- preferably someone who has the "secret" to success and is selfishly refusing to share it. I get many e-mails from people who ask me to tell them "everything they need to know to get started as a writer" -- and get quite huffy when I point out that Writing-World.com already has a large number of free articles that do just that.
Are these people "writers" simply because they are, in fact, putting words on paper? It's politically correct in the writing community to say so -- to never say anything negative about someone who wants to be a writer or claims to be a writer, because we all know what it's like to have our feelings hurt. However, I feel that saying that anyone who puts words on paper is a "writer" is an insult to the thousands of people, published or not, who are genuinely trying to become better writers, whether or not they have succeeded yet.
Which brings me to the question of "success." What is it? As several others on the list pointed out, "it depends." And it doesn't just depend on what you want, because we all know that we can "want" stuff that isn't actually good for us. I used to be very much in the "you're a successful writer if you're a paid writer" camp. Now I'm moving back toward Jennifer's perspective, because I'm starting to regard some of the things I used to "want" as a writer as being hazardous to my health.
It may seem a cliche to say that "success" isn't just about money or fame, but obviously that's how the world defines it (including the publishing industry). But I think most of us know that if that's how we define our ultimate success, most of us are going to be doomed to disappointment. Ever noticed that the "top ten" lists, by definition, only have ten slots? (Rowling usually has at least three of them.) Ask anyone on the street to name a "successful" writer and they're likely to mention J.K. Rowling or Stephen King -- yet neither of these strike me as terribly happy people, and certainly not as people who have been "made" happy by their success.
One problem here is that the question, "how do you define success as a writer?" is too general. What kind of writer? What kind of success? At what stage of one's life, or one's writing? A lot of us have many different goals as writers; it's quite possible to achieve "success" on one area but not in another.
For example, if one were to ask "what defines success for a freelance writer?" I would have to say "being published." The term "freelance," by definition, means someone who is independently selling a service, in this case a writing service. If you are not able to sell that service, you're not a successful freelancer. It doesn't mean that you're not a writer, but it does mean that you haven't achieved this particular goal. Therefore, while I feel qualified to call myself a "successful" freelance writer, I definitely don't feel qualified to call myself a "successful" fiction writer. I've had a grand total of two fiction sales, and both were for the same story! But more to the point, I'm not a successful fiction writer because I still haven't taken that all-important step of working on improving my fiction-writing skills.
I suspect the reason the writer who sent this is asking this question in the first place, however, is not because she's wondering whether you can call yourself a success before you've reached King or Rowling levels. The real problem is that many of us can write and be published for years, and yet when someone asks us what we do and we blush and mumble, "I'm a writer," somehow we feel like a fraud.
Part of the problem is that most of us have a perception of "what a writer is" and a perception of what we are -- and they don't match. Back in the days of real-world writing classes, I taught a course called "Freeing the writer within." One of the first exercises I did with the class was to ask them to complete the sentence, "A real writer is someone who..." I'd write down all the responses on the board, which filled quickly. Then I'd ask the students how many of those answers fit their own lives or writing habits; the answer, of course, was practically none. The object lesson was simple: "You don't think you're a real writer because you don't do all the things you imagine a real writer does."
Saying that everyone has their own way of defining success also doesn't address the central problem, which is that regardless of how we're defining it, a great many of us feel we haven't reached it. I suspect for most of us, money is the least of the issues involved. Instead, I suspect that many of us don't feel successful not because we define success "differently" but because we haven't actually defined it at all. And part of the reason is that we're often far better at recognizing what we haven't done than what we have done.
As an example, back in 1987, I'd just completed my first book (Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet). Shortly thereafter, I accompanied my husband on a business trip, where we hobnobbed with a bunch of business types who spent lots of time posturing and looking important. I felt extremely UN-important in this crowd, until my husband leaned over and pointed out that while all these "suits" were talking about the great things they were going to accomplish, I had already written a book -- and thus had already accomplished more than most of the people in the room.
I'm still learning to define success based on the area of my writing life that I'm applying it to. Thus, I consider myself a "successful" nonfiction writer and freelancer, but not a successful fiction writer. I consider the memoir that I wrote last fall to be a "successful" book even though, so far as I know, it hasn't sold a single copy -- because I feel it's a wonderful book and I had a wonderful time writing it, and I didn't write it for "sales" in the first place. I consider the book I wrote back in 1987 to be a "success" because even though I'm only selling about 30 copies a month, I know that every one of those copies is actively helping someone. I was considering my new British travel website a "failure" because it hadn't achieved its original goal (to make money) -- until I realized that it might lead to a new book that wouldn't have come about if I hadn't built the site in the first place. Success also means milestones; I will consider it a huge success if I ever actually finish one of my novels -- and if I manage to get it published, that will be a different kind of success.
I think another reason that we have trouble defining the successes in our lives is that we tend to think of "success" as something we are always moving toward. In reality, successes are often something that we are moving on from. Almost by definition, a success is something that is over and done with; it's what we have already achieved, not what we are working on today. Because we are always working toward (and looking at) the goals that we have not achieved, or perhaps moving into areas where wedon't have a history of success, it's easy to end up feeling as if we are never successful.
For example, after having written close to 100 articles and four books on writing, I'm ready to do something else, and I'm getting very interested in photography. But it's scary to move into an area where I don't know the ropes anymore, where I'm the "newbie" and the "wannabe" once again. So it's tempting to stay where I am, where I already know that I am successful and can continue to be successful.
Unfortunately, in the publishing business, that's exactly what the world wants. If you are "successful" at something, such as a novel, your publisher and your agent don't want you to think about moving on to the next goal or stage of development in your life. They want you to keep repeating that success, as often as you possibly can, because that's how they make money. Thus your publisher is going to try to lock you into a contract to produce another five books just like the one you just wrote -- we've all seen endless "series" that started well and steadily deteriorated as the author cranked out one volume after another.
So I suppose the bottom line is not how you define success, but rather, that you do define it, because if you don't, you'll never see it. That doesn't mean that you won't achieve it; it simply means you may not recognize it when you do. If you have defined success and you still don't see it, chances are that you need to redefine it, because you may have (a) used someone else's definition, (b) set up a definition that is insufficiently measurable, (c) set up a definition that is somehow internally contradictory, or (d) set up a definition that is so far "out there" that you are constantly frustrated by the reminder of how far you have yet to go.
For more information on defining goals, see Setting Effective Writing Goals.
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