As I prepare to send The In Crowd into the wild next month (Yay!), I’m finding myself thinking about success. Or rather, what I want success to look like.
To be clear, I am talking strictly about writing success. Life success is a completely different matter. Life success is about leaving the world in a better place. Anyone who has successfully raised a child, spent their years being kind to others, or navigated the ups and downs of life and come out the other side – is a clear success.
In my head, I have an image of what “Successful Barb” looks like. She’s got an office that’s oh-s0-Instagram ready with tons of clean windows and French country furniture. She’s impeccably organized with labeled research files and the bulletin board above her desk is simultaneously functional and whimsical. When she shows up every morning – either dressed-for-success or wearing clothes that make her look hip and at least 15 years younger – she gets right down to business, effortlessly banging out books that are first-draft perfect. When she’s not tackling marketing or fielding invitations to speak about her bestsellers.
I have been chasing this image since my mid-twenties, when I began writing. Three decades in, I must finally face the truth “Successful Barb” as I imagine her, doesn’t exist. She’s an unobtainable, idealized fantasy created out of childhood programming, where success could only be achieved via perfection and accolades. I will never have a white French country desk nor will I have be impeccably organized. Nor will I be banging out bestsellers with ease.
I’ve managed to accept all of that except the bestseller part, and that’s the part I’ve been thinking about.
Chasing Bestselling Success
Any writer who tells you they don’t care about making bestseller lists are lying. Of course we care! We don’t write our books with the intention of shoving them under a bushel. We want people to read our stories, and hitting a list means we’ve got many people reading them.
I would kill to hit the USA Today or Times lists. Hell, right now I’d kill for an agent and a publishing contract. But none of these things are guaranteed. There’s a good chance that no one will want The In Crowd, and I’ll find myself back at square one. Or it will sell and no one but my closest friends will buy it. I have been a midlist writer for the last decade, and a midlist author I shall remain, doomed to obscurity (and poverty).
Does that mean I’m not a success? Successful Barb would say so. Two years on a book and no one wanted it? Clearly I suck. My indie friends would say so. Why did I waste my time chasing traditional publishing when I could have bypassed the gatekeepers and made actual money? Though to be honest, they would probably say that even I sold to a Big 5 publisher. For them financial success trumps making a list anyway. (Their definition of success versus mine is a blog topic for another time.)
Zen Barb, however, the Barb I am striving to be these days, disagrees with the naysayers. She reads a lot of Marcus Aurelius and is quick to point out that when all is said and down, and I have shuffled off this mortal coil, I will be forgotten by all but a handful of people. In three generations, I’ll cease to be remembered at all, let alone my accomplishments.
Earlier this summer, while speaking at the Bennington College, poet Mary Ruelfle passed around a book that she’d buried in his backyard. The point of the semi-decaying book was to remind her that nothing lasts forever. Even if we reach the pinnacle of success – seven figure deals, weeks selling at #1 – unless we are Stephen King or Nora Roberts or one of the few anointed greats, our work will be forgotten in favor of someone else’s. Today’s “it” authors will be replaced by tomorrow’s. Worldly success is temporary at best.
Then why bother? Why strive for success at all? Same reason my son wants to climb mountains. For the challenge and self-satisfaction. The thrill of typing “the end” and knowing you did something special. Who cares if you didn’t make the NY Times list. You wrote a freaking book. Or two. Or thirty. Something very few people have ever done. Mary Ruefle sums it up perfectly.
…all those names you know– the ones on your bookshelves
some of whom lived hundreds of years ago– are only the
tip of the antennae. Think of the cave painters, the
story tellers, think of John Hall Wheelcock, Mara Zaturenska,
Leonard Bacon, Audrey Wurdeman. Because it’s not what
they did, it’s who they were, living a life that has
forever been and forever will be, decomposed book after
decomposed book. It is an honor to
be a member of that tribe….
Which brings me back to my original question. Am I a success if I never get those vaunted initials? If I spend the next twenty years of my life chasing the goal and coming up short?
LitHub has a transcript of Mary Ruefle’s entire talk. I urge you to read it. Visit https://lithub.com/mary-ruefle-on-bringing-joy-to-your-writing-practice/
Thanks as always for reading my weekly posts. I’m hoping to pull together a quarterly newsletter soon that will feature reviews, articles and other tidbits I think you’ll find useful. More info to come.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll tune in to my two YouTube shows: Barb’s Book Reviews and Off the Shelf, which I co-host with my bestie, Donna Alward. Our next episode is September 20th. Keep an eye out for details.