Writers talk about failure a lot. They gather together to talk about the long roads they had to hoe in order to get their books published. They talk about the inevitable rejection letters, which arrive and keep on arriving and do not let up if you are doing your job remotely correctly.
We like the failure, as an audience. If plays to our twisted little perceptions that all artists must be punished for doing what they do. Greatness? Commercial success? All perfectly acceptable as long as it’s causing you pain, you filthy wine-swilling arty-boy. DON’T YOU DARE BE HAPPY OR PROUD OF YOUR WORK, OR WE WILL CUT YOU.
But it happens. We feel threatened by happy artists and immediately move to villify them for the crime of being arty and well-adjusted at the same time. They get demonized the way…shit, I don’t know. Adam Sandler? Stephanie Meyer? Taylor Swift? (Do we still demonize Taytay, or has she moved onto the vaguely-respectable older artist phase of her career?)
Essentially: Anyone with the temerity to fuse creative output with commerce and speak to a broad audience. Anyone where we need to pretend that the aren’t creating art to make the fact that they’re making money okay.
Creative-types are good at failure. We’ve got that part of the gig down. All the advice is out there: steel yourself, chin up, keep marching on. If you let the failure get to you, you weren’t really an artist anyway.
Let me take a moment to say: Fuck. That. Shit.
But fucking that shit is a topic for another day. I want to talk about success – I’ve had a few successes, of late, and it’s got me thinking about the relative merits and flaws of achieving big things.
When I was twenty, one of my writing lecturers suggested that the biggest thing I was going to struggle with in my career was self-sabotage. Nah, I said, that’ won’t happen to me.
Such is the follow of being young and stupid.
When you’ve been told that failure is inevitable, as you are when you say something like I’m going to make a career in the arts, success becomes a harder thing to handle. You internalise the lessons about failure to the point where success is bewildering.
SUCCESS WILL FUCK YOU UP, IF YOU LET IT
Back when I first started selling short-stories, I handled the rejection letters with aplomb. They’d come in, I’d nod, then the story would go back out. Neat and easy. No muss, no fuss. I expected rejection, which means it was easy to cope with.
The acceptances, though, those I would fret about. I’d re-read the emails multiple times, looking for ways that I may have misinterpreted the words “we’d like to publish this.”
I still maintain a standing policy of not announcing things I’ve sold until there are signed contracts, ‘cause I distrust every possible gain right up until there is legal banding enforcing it. Contracts are the safety net, the thing I can point to if the story doesn’t get published down the line. The contract is a promise, yo.
Rejection will take seconds of my day. Success will occupy hours of my time with the doubting and the wondering and the occasional prodding with a sharp stick to make sure there’s not a wolf hidden under that sheep’s clothing.
Some days I wonder how much more I could be doing if only I didn’t spend so much energy on doubting the things that go right.
Fretting about success isn’t uncommon, particularly in writing. Success means you suddenly have to deal with a whole new, different bunch of problems that are unfamiliar and strange. Your work is out there: now people can criticize you; now the pressure is on to replicate success; now you have to figure out the balance between tweeting about your cat and tweeting about your story.
You may get asked to do a reading.
You suddenly need to figure out how to deal with an editor who gives you feedback.
Oh, god, the terror of your first contract.
And, yes, if you’re a writer who has never published anything, it sounds like bullshit to be fretting about that stuff. They’re great problems to have, after all.
But here’s the thing: you’ve invested time into coping with the problems of not-success. You have processes and support networks and you understand what’s going on when people say no. That shit is familiar.
This is not.
We don’t train for success. We don’t prepare for it. That feeling of what do I do now will fuck you up if you let it, as will the fear of being put in that situation.
SUCCESS CAN LEAD TO MONO-FOCUS
Occasionally, I write things that are far more successful than expected. Horn, for example, which attracted this bizarre readership right out of the gates and got reviews in placed I never expected to see reviews. Or blog posts like yes, you are wasting your time writing or you don’t want to be published, where the content strikes a particular nerve and a metric butt-load of new people start linking to the blog and bringing in new readers.
And because the natural response to success – once you get past the lingering fear – is trying to figure out how to replicate the process, I spend an awful lot of time trying to do exactly that. Suddenly I’ll devote resources to that task that I don’t necessarily have.
For example, I usually have some pretty strict limitations on my blogging time. It gets a few hours over the weekend, much less than that during the week, but every time a post starts getting a monster number of hits, I find myself starting to break my rules. Morning writing sessions are devoted to fine-tuning a post instead of fine-tuning a novel chapter. Evenings are spent brainstorming future topics that might fit into the successful formula.
Similarly, when I first started selling short-stories, I devoted a whole bunch more time to that than I did writing a novel. End result: I have a lot of short story publications, but I still don’t have a novel-length work out there some seven years after I started selling fiction.
Writing frequently requires giving a little bit of your attention to a whole bunch of things. Hell, life frequently requires that.
And there are certain successes that encourage you to stop doing so and start giving all of your attention to the thing you’re doing swell, simply so you don’t have to engage with the project that has a significantly higher chance of failure.
SUCCESS REDEFINES SUCCESS
We build our expectations out of past experience. If you’ve got a friend who is constantly late for things, and they swear that this time it will be different, you are probably expecting them to show up late regardless. Even if you intellectually understand that they mean to live up to their promise, your gut will whisper no, no, no, they’re never on time.
Success is exactly the same. You have this idea in your head about what it looks like – if I just sell this short story inside of twenty submissions, for example, or if I can just sell out the current printing of the book – and then you get run where things happen faster and better than you’re expecting and, lo, your expectations begin to reset. You start selling stories within ten submissions, or run through the print editions of your book inside of a year, and suddenly your gut starts whispering that this is how it should be all the time.
Your expectations of success elevate in response to past experience and your gut starts whispering you know, it was like this last time, surely…
No. Stupid gut. No cookie for you.
This elevation of expectations is pretty natural, for the most part, because generally you do start achieving more as you develop greater competency in your craft. At the same time, it’s also enormously problematic when it comes to the way skills develop, because you’ll generally start hitting peaks occasionally before you start hitting a particular level regularly.
In the arts, where people have all manner of discouragement forced down their throat from the moment they decide to become a creative, it can be catastrophic to suddenly find yourself unable to meet your expectations.
SUCCESS TELLS YOU TO TAKE A BREAK
You do something big, and you want a break. It’s a natural impulse for everyone, but particularly for creative types and freelancers who are not known for doing things like taking holidays or work/life balance. The number of writer-types who feel the pang of guilt because they aren’t sitting at keyboard twenty-four seven is staggering.
Really, in an industry where you’re only as good as your most recent work, success is the time to double down and do more. Personally, I’m terrible at this – pretty much every period of my career where agent/publisher types were asking so, what are you doing after this, I’ve adopted the expression of a blue ghost fleeing from Pac-Man and mumbled something non-committal.
This was not the best of possible responses.
I know, because I’ve spent six years doing weekly write-clubs with Angela Slatter, who excels at building new successes out of her previous ones simply because she does the goddamn work to make that happen. It’s been…educational.
WATCH OUT FOR THE SUCKER-PUNCH
None of this is suggesting that success is a bad thing. Success is fucking awesome. I am in favour of success: for me; for you; for everyone who is trying to be successful at things that are not going to hurt other people.
Success fucking rocks. It just wades in with a couple of sucker-punches, so it pays to scout ’em out and keep your guard up. When you find yourself flagging and in need of a break, or suddenly seized by a need to devote all your time to a particular task, take the moment to sit down and re-adjust your mental cross-hairs so you’re actually focused on where you want to be as a writer.