The Measure of Success

dartsWhat is the measure of success as a writer? If I could grant you success, what would your definition be?

Everybody measures success differently, but here are some possible definitions:

  • to have a bestseller: we’d all love that, wouldn’t we? To have our book appear on – for example – the New York Times bestseller list.
  • to become rich: this is a definition of success in any vocation – to be able to buy whatever you want, whenever you want. As a writer – an industry where the bulk of people don’t live off their writing – how much more validation for your success could you have?
  • to win an award: it could be the Miles Franklin or the Man Booker, or even the Nobel Prize. How’s that for recognition? How’s that for success?
  • fame: you’re all people talk about when it comes to storytelling, and you’re recognised in the streets.
  • adaptation: your books are adapted for film or television.

When you consider how many published authors there are, how many of them manage to get to any of these heights? A fraction? Less? The figure’s even tinier when you think about just how many writers there are, period. Another concern here is if you do reach any of these pinnacles, where do you go? And how do you deal with the pressure of now having to maintain (or surpass) that standard? These are just asides, but they’re important asides because they demonstrate that there is a price to pay for this level of success, however alluring this success might seem.

Some might be more modest with their aspirations:

  • to live off your writing: you might be happy living a quiet, unassuming life, and just want time to be able to write.
  • having a career in writing and writing-related industries: not only do you write and publish, but work in the publishing industry, perhaps as an editor or teacher.
  • being able to publish regularly: regardless what you do to pay the bills, you churn the books out, and even develop a following.

And, honestly, this is the life of most published authors. There’s nothing glamorous about it, but it can still seem unreachable when you’ve published, but your book’s not selling; or when you’re out there, submitting, and dealing with rejections.

Some might just be more hopeful:

  • to be published.

That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

This is by no means a definitive list, but it does cover a spectrum of possibilities – all of them material.

Your goals might (seemingly) be more philanthropic:

  • to touch a reader: plenty of stories are moving experiences for the reader, the story remaining with the reader, long, long after the reader has put the story down.
  • to educate: your field might be nonfiction, and you might want readers to know about something historical, a specialist topic, or just give the reader some self-help tips about leading a better life.

There’s still an element of ego in these possibilities if the author’s intent is to be known for any of these achievements, rather than seeing these achievements exist for the sake of the achievement itself. That’s an important distinction, and it’s worth being brutally honest with yourself to see where you stand because something all these gains share is they all have a qualitative measure – you can measure how many books you’ve sold, how much money you’ve made, how many other people you’ve beaten for an award, how well you’re recognised, how many people you’ve reached, and on that list goes.

Ultimately, that begs the question of how much is enough? Even if your aspirations are modest, how modest are they? The freedom to write is a luxury. Even if your life is hectic – work, partner, kids, household, responsibilities, etc. – and all you can manage is fifteen minutes of writing-time three or four times a week, it’s still a luxury, however hard-won or well-deserved that luxury might be.

And that’s the genuine measure of success – the freedom to write, and to pursue and accomplish your goal, rather than any reward earned from it.

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