Dear Writers: Success Is Mattering to Somebody
If the writer I was six or seven years ago could have sat at my desk yesterday, snooped around in my email, spied my name on the spine of a hardcover book propped up between bookends, and discovered my writing in a stack of glossy magazines, she would have taken it all as evidence that I’d finally made it. Success.
But if she had been inside my head, she would have been bewildered to learn that I still deal with many of the same stresses, fears, and problems as back then.
She would see that there are still times when we struggle to pay the bills (this month’s been a nail-biter). That the new house gets as messy and neglected as the old house. That I wonder if I’ll ever have another book published. That I still lie awake some nights and listen to the voices that tell me none of my words will ever matter.
She’d be confused, because success was supposed to vanquish all those things. She’d be confused, because most of us are confused about what success looks like, particularly in the arts and entertainment industry. We look up at the thin spire of the pinnacle of achievement, and we assume that is where success is. Everybody below has presumably fallen short of the goal.
It’s time to stop looking up, and look around to get a broader perspective on what it means to succeed.
I recently came across a documentary on Netflix that should be required viewing for any artist or entrepreneur. It’s called That Guy Who Was in That Thing. Here’s the description:
SAG and AFTRA represent over 240,000 actors in the United States. Only those with talent, stamina, and good fortune earn a living doing it. This is a film about sixteen of them.
In a series of interviews, the actors describe their career ups and downs with striking candor and matter-of-factness. Most of them have been in blockbusters at one point or another. At least one has an action figure modeled after him. They joke that, sooner or later, everybody does Star Trek. They are accomplished, veteran professionals, yet they all continue to live with the vagaries of career insecurity, economic uncertainty, and self-doubt. They have lived with them for years and years.
What you get from it all is a portrait of life as a successful career artist. The kind of success that dedicated and talented people have a real shot at (with some luck). The kind where you often get to do work you love, receive a decent -– if unpredictable -– wage, meet interesting and influential people in your field, and occasionally get recognized by a broader public.
This is what success looks like for the midlist author, the repertory actor, the symphony musician, the freelance designer, the fine art photographer, the sculptor, the independent singer-songwriter, the pro blogger.
The actors who don’t get Oscar nominations, the authors whose books don’t make the bestseller lists, the songwriters who don’t go platinum, the cellists who aren’t Yo-Yo Ma -– they aren’t underachievers.
The artists who have a moment of fame and then carry on more quietly with the rest of their careers aren’t has-beens. Read Helen Jane’s inspiring series on the career of Billy Ocean or an example of someone whose career path intersected with the spotlight for a while, and then kept going.
We tend to imbue creativity with magical, mystical properties. It’s understandable. Creating something new can seem like magic. Creative careers are different from the traditional occupations we saw represented in our Richard Scarry picture books as kids.
But creators are workers, not wizards. We don’t look at the career of a small business owner and think she fell short because her business didn’t become Microsoft. We don’t attend a retirement party for a college professor and whisper how sad it is that he didn’t ever give a TED Talk that went viral.
Yet we look at creators and measure their success by standards that are only ever met by a very lucky few.
If you work in a creative field or are trying to break into one, you’ve probably been told over and over the impossible odds against you becoming the next big thing. It’s a habit of gatekeepers that drives me a little bit nuts. I get it -— industry people are trying to keep unrealistic expectations in check. Everybody wants their moment with Oprah.
I wish the industry people would offer realistic expectations in their place. Tell us more about the people who work in the zone between the gutter and the stars. Tell us about the success stories that don’t make the news -– the creators who earn a living ( or part of a living) making gifts for people. Invite those people to come talk in the schools so that kids can see that creative occupations don’t belong to the exceptional few.
You don’t have to be the next big thing to be a success in writing, or in anything else. You just have to make the next thing that matters to someone and go on to make the next thing after that. One thing that matters after the other, for as long as you can. That’s work anyone can be proud of.