Success when you aren’t going to Succeed

Sometimes I think that if writers lived in a rarified environment of other artists, the notion of ‘success’ would be less esteem-killing. But I also think we’d be really, really irritating. And broke.

When I was last among a group of writer-friends, the Carver/Lish controversy came up, and someone asked, “If someone was going to publish your work on the condition that they changed it dramatically, would you go ahead?”

It’s a difficult question to answer. There were some yes’s and some no’s, but for me, it comes down to what is the reason for publishing these days?

The harsh reality is that fame and fortune as a writer is governed more by luck than talent. As the publishing environment gets tougher, the probability that you will make a living solely from creative writing goes from highly unlikely to near impossible. You will spend perhaps five years writing a book, and if you make a couple of thousand dollars, you are fortunate.

So what does a publishing contract really offer? In a word: legitimacy.

Now, I’m not knocking legitimacy. It feels good. It’s very helpful for getting access to grants and residencies and other writing-related opportunities. I’ve found it extremely effective for shutting down people who are all set to poo-poo the idea that I am a writer. My non-artist friends and family take my writing more seriously now that I have publication and production credits.

But the issue is tying your own sense of yourself as a writer to conventional success. It’s hard not to, because that’s the kind of world we live in. So in some ways, saying, sure, “You can change anything about my work as long as you publish me,” is another way saying “Please, tell me, tell the world, that I’m really a writer.”

It’s a hard thing to feel confident enough as a writer to just say it and stand behind it, no matter how many people just look at you like some Loser with Delusions of Writing. It’s hard to feel like you’ve made it as a writer. But you have to ask yourself, why am I writing at all?

I write knowing that I will more than likely not have any significant financial success from it. But I still write. I am still a writer. Once I was able to make that mental leap for myself, the idea of selling out my work for something with so little actual benefit seems like a bad idea. If I am going to do this knowing I’m unlikely to be rewarded for it, why should I change it for a reward?

I’m not saying we should never listen to editors–the Gordon Lish’s of the world are pretty rare, and a good editor is a excellent help–but at the end of the day, this is your work. It has your name on it. If you look through the archives, you’ll find that Raymond Carver begged Gordon Lish not to change his work. Carver had fame and fortune and legitimacy… and felt horrible about the results.

Why do this, why put your heart and soul and time and effort and love into a work, for a result you can’t stand behind?

The feeling not good enough, the feeling legitimate as a writer… this comes from within. Sure, it’s fantastic when someone else recognizes it, but part of being a writer is learning how to make peace with these feelings. I don’t know that they totally go away, but at some point, you realize that these are feelings, not facts.

Publishing does not make you a writer. Success does not make you a writer. Other people recognizing you as a writer does not make you a writer.

That you can look at the impossible odds of conventional success and write anyway? That makes you a writer. That you keep writing? That is success.


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