I just finished reading a column by author Tayari Jones on the website She Writes. I don’t know Tayari, but these words in her column really hit home for me:
“My purpose in sharing this is not to say that you can find success by not striving for it. My point is that success is yours to define.”
Like many writers who are working hard to get published in literary journals, struggling to finish their first manuscript, and trying to find the right path to “success,” I’ve often felt as if success is unreachable. It’s something that happens to other people, not me. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve had what some people would consider success in other areas of my life, professionally as a journalist and personally in my travels, and even, many moons ago, on a stage or two. But the success that remains elusive to me, and that I’ve always felt would really mean something, is success as a creative writer.
Once, during a lunch break at my MFA program, I found myself sitting next to Dennis Lehane. I was shy and nervous, and couldn’t get a word out while he talked to his fellow faculty members about the work he was doing on “The Wire.” All I could think was that I was sitting next to a writer who had achieved the kind of success I could only imagine.
Two years later, I’ve earned my MFA, and my personal essays have begun appearing in literary journals. My goal, this summer, is to complete the manuscript of my first essay collection, and then to start the difficult process of revising it tirelessly and trying to get it published. And I’m doing it all with this undercurrent of feeling that none of it, yet, feels much like success. There are so many accomplished writers, so many books that will sell more copies than mine ever will (if I even get it published — I’m realistic, it’s an essay collection). I get paid more for writing blog posts about kitchen appliances, or for publishing interviews with other authors, than I do for my own creative work. In fact, I have never been paid a dime for my published creative work. It’s easy to feel, sometimes, that I am chasing something that will never be anything but a dream. At the same time, I’ve surprised myself with my stubbornness. I’m just not willing to give up on this dream, and I’m willing to work pretty hard to achieve it.
I identify with some of the things Tayari writes about in her column. Like her, I have never been interested in developing an “elevator pitch.” I have never enjoyed attending events purely to network. I spent most of my time at the one writing conference I attended worrying that I brought the wrong clothes. I don’t especially want to draw attention to myself; I’d rather draw attention to my writing, and spend my time figuring out what I was really put here to say, so I can make the writing worthy of that attention. And the truth is, I don’t want to talk to someone just because they might be able to do something for me. I’d rather talk to someone who cares and inspires me, and who, frankly, won’t terrify me. As a result, I’m not particularly good at the business part of writing, except in the sense that I don’t let rejection stop me.
Tayari says this in her column: “…I am grateful and excited by the momentum around the publication of Silver Sparrow [her most recent novel], but for me, the real moment of success came when I finished the manuscript.” I think these are important words for me to remember this summer. Success, as Tayari says, is ours to define. Of course, I want that book. What writer doesn’t? But for me, success will come the day I finish a good manuscript, because that is what I’ve set out to do. Whatever happens after that, is out of my hands.
I don’t ever expect to make a dime from my creative writing, but I hope it gets published because of the legacy it could leave behind when I am long gone. Someone will read it now and maybe a hundred years from now. I won’t be forgotten, not entirely.
And neither will you. I can only hope to achieve half the “success” that you have in publishing so many of your beautiful essays. Your book will get published, too. You may never make money from it, but you will leave the legacy of your beautiful words for generations to come.
Good blog post, thought-provoking and real. And, of course, well written. Let’s get together and talk books.
These are such great words! Thanks for sharing.