Success and Failure

Two things writers–like a lot of people–tend to obsess over. Yet we tend to do it without a very clear idea of what either term really means. Is success being published by a mainline publisher? Widely read? Lots of money? Writing full time? Critical acclaim? If the answer is “All that and a ton of other stuff you forgot to mention” then by that definition there may be ten to fifteen successful writers in the entire country, tops. I’m not one of them and chances are you aren’t, either. Everyone fails by some standard; the question is what standard you apply. And I submit that applying any standard outside your own control is programming yourself for real failure. Too much of that can, as noted elsewhere, screw up your entire life, writing included.

Let’s consider an example: A few years ago, before ebooks mattered and we were still in the mini-explosion of the Print on Demand craze, a new writer proudly posted an excerpt from their novel, just published by some vanity house that I won’t dignify with a name. The prose was, no two ways about it, godawful. “Eye of Argon”‑class bad. Can I make that any clearer? I had absolutely no problem proclaiming both novel and writer complete and absolute failures. I didn’t see even the vaguest spark of talent in the work and their judgment was badly flawed or they wouldn’t have put that work out for the world to see in the first place. So. was the writer a failure?  Ummmm, no. Why not? 

Simple: I don’t get to decide that.

And before you say, “Of course you don’t, Jerk” consider that you’re making my point. Publication? Acclaim? Money? There’s nothing at all wrong with wanting those things. It’s human and ‑‑ most of us ‑‑ are of that class. The problem arises when we judge our success or failure by how much we get of the things we want. That’s human, too. But it’s self‑defeating. This isn’t about “things.” This isn’t about what we have. This is about who we are.

If you fixate on externals, how do you guarantee you’ll get them? By being talented, working hard, and doing really, really fine work? Oh, puh‑lease. Let’s nip that silly notion right in the bud. Oh, as Judy Tenuda was fond of saying, “It could happen.” Just as likely your best work will be misunderstood, your stories critically unfashionable or too esoteric, your novels uncommercial and therefore, unpublishable. And, even if they are published, the readers may, for whatever reason, reject you. That also can happen, and there’s no appeal from this. Those lovely tangibles either fall for you or they don’t. And for heaven’s sakes no, this is not a license to slack off. You can and should work hard and prepare the ground in case that lovely fruit does fall ‑‑ luck favors the prepared ‑‑ but that, as others have pointed out, is not enough. Success on those terms, as above, is simply not up to you and never will be. Maybe you’ll get lucky, but don’t mutter about the unfairness of it all if you don’t. If you choose to place your fate in someone else’s hands you have no right to complain if they spike it outside the endzone.

Yet consider–when you’re not obsessing over “things” and turn your attention back to your own writing, something wonderful happens. Your opinion not only matters, I contend that your honest, informed opinion is the only one that matters. This does not mean that you don’t listen to criticism, and certainly that you shouldn’t constantly work for improvement. That’s not the same thing. This simply means that you have the final say, and that’s where the honesty comes in. You owe yourself an honest opinion, an informed opinion (which leaves out the vanity press person at the moment), but when the lines are drawn it’s still all up to you. You decide when the story works. You decide that you’ve done or not done what you set out to do. You decide whether or not what you’re doing is worthwhile. You succeed on your own terms or fail on your own terms, but the final judge has to be you. Not the critics. Not the editors. Not even the readers. If they go along, great. You may be writing for an audience of one merely to maintain your own sanity and, if so, so be it. You may be writing for an audience of millions, and that’s ok too, but the one doesn’t change the other.

This is the true “Writer’s Arrogance” in action. Not being a jerk or a prima donna, but simply believing in yourself and not seeking validation elsewhere. External validation is great when it happens, but you’d be crazy to depend on it. As Hemingway is reported to have said, “If I believe the critics when they say I’m great, I have to believe them when they say I’m lousy.” Or to misquote a certain extremely patient goddess from “The Trickster’s Wife”: “When have I failed? When I say I’ve failed. And not one damn moment before.”

Maybe my horrible example above did learn better. Maybe they matured past the notion of getting published for its own sake, buckled down and developed their craft. Maybe they cured their ignorance enough to form a more accurate opinion of their work, and let the chips fall, etc., whatever that future held. Maybe. Maybe they didn’t. Either way, it was entirely up to them.