Successful Actor vs. Successful Writer
The other night my husband and I had a friend over for dinner. He told us that his teenage son, who has been doing semi-professional theater for the past few years, is planning to move to New York after high school.
“There’s so much talent in the theater world,” our friend said. “My son thinks if he even gets a call-back in New York he’ll feel like he’s made it.”
“Totally,” I agreed. “It’s similar to the publishing world. If you even get a manuscript request from a literary agent – whether they accept it or not – that’s a big deal.”
Then I got to thinking. Only so many people actually move to New York to pursue acting. But anyone with an email address can send their manuscript to New York literary agents with the hope of becoming a successful writer.
Agents get hundreds, even THOUSANDS, of queries every WEEK! If the competition is tough for actors, it’s a whole lot tougher for us writers. Which means we might have to adjust our definition of success.
The Definition of a Successful Writer
A little more than five years ago, I quit my emotionally-draining and time-consuming job as a high school math teacher and moved to Cape Cod to live rent-free in my friend Nikki’s tiny guest bedroom as her “writer in residence.”
My plan was to sponge off of Nikki (hey, she offered!) and work on writing for one year. If, at the end of the year, I was on my way to becoming a successful writer, I would continue down that path. But if things were going nowhere, I’d return to teaching math and give up on writing, at least until retirement.
Back then, my idea of being a successful writer was getting a book deal: a novel published with a major house and hopefully many more books to come. Making a living writing, being on the best-seller list, having my book made into a movie – these things would be great, too, but to me the ultimate measure of success was simple: a traditionally-published novel.
Of course, by the end of that first year, I didn’t have a book deal. But I’d written a novel. And I’d gotten a few shorter pieces published in journals. I’d also found a variety of part-time jobs, meaning I could make enough money to stay afloat and still have the time and energy to work on writing. So I decided to keep at it.
A few years later, I got an agent who was sure he could get me a two-book deal. I was ecstatic. Finally, I was on the fast track to success.
But nothing moves fast in the publishing world, and nothing is guaranteed. After nearly a year of working on revisions with my agent, he decided to quit agenting and pursue his own writing career. (Can I really blame him?) His abrupt decision left me back where I started: an unpublished author feeling unsure of herself.
And that’s why, after all this time, I’m back to querying agents. According to my own metric, I’m not yet a successful writer.
But is having a published novel the best measure of success? I know a lot of authors who have reached that stage and still feel like they haven’t “made it.” Now they’re worried about book sales, or writing their next book, or winning prestigious awards.
We think that success will make us happy, but maybe we have to be happy first and success will follow.
A Better Definition of Success?
Back before our baby was born and we had time for such things, my husband and I used to have “spiritual time” every Sunday in which we’d read out loud, discuss spiritual topics, and meditate.
One of the books we read together was The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra. In it, Chopra says that success “is a journey, not a destination.”
He also says that success:
“includes good health, energy and enthusiasm for life, fulfilling relationships, creative freedom, emotional and psychological stability, a sense of well-being, and peace of mind.”
Nowhere does he mention that success is having a published book. (Of course, he is the bestselling author of a bunch of books…)
The point is, whenever I’m feeling like a failure in my writing career, I tell myself to stop believing in such a narrow definition of success.
After all, in the past five years I have found success. I started making (small amounts of) money by writing and doing writing-related jobs. I now teach writing classes, and I received a real writer-in-residency position in Mexico a few years ago. I’ve made lots of writer friends and learned how to create a professional blog that now has over 700 followers.
Part of me even thinks losing my agent was a good thing in the long run because I can do better than the book we were working on. In the past five years, I’ve completed five novels, and I’m pretty sure I’m becoming a better writer with each one.
Am I a Successful Writer Already?
Sometimes it’s really hard for me to admit to people that I don’t have a published book. Sometimes my ego hurts something terrible.
But here’s what The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success has to say about that:
“Attention to the ego consumes the greatest amount of energy. When your internal reference point is the ego, when you seek power and control over other people or seek approval from others, you spend energy in a wasteful way. When that energy is freed up, it can be rechanneled and used to create anything you want.”
Anything I want, huh? Like a really awesome published novel?
So if I can stop spending my energy worrying about how I don’t have a book deal, maybe I will have the energy and creativity to write something super awesome (that will ultimately get me a book deal – see how it works?).
In other words, the way to become a successful writer is to stop worrying about becoming a successful writer.
It’s frustrating, of course: the old stop-trying-so-hard-and-it’ll-happen advice. It’s sort of like when I was a perpetually-single thirty-year-old and people told me I’d meet someone when I stopped looking. Annoying advice, but in a way that’s what happened.
Because when I moved to Cape Cod five years ago, I was single. I dropped my expectations of finding someone during that year because I’d decided to focus on writing. And, of course, that’s when I met my husband.
Chopra would call this “The Law of Least Effort.” He would call it the principle of “do less and accomplish more.”
I don’t know about all that, but I like the idea of working hard at the things you want while letting go of preconceived notions of success and rigid expectations about the outcomes.
As for outcomes, let’s be honest. I still want a book deal. And I probably won’t truly feel like a successful writer until that happens. But I should remember that in some ways I already am a successful writer. Currently there are two agents reading my full manuscript. That’s like an actor in New York getting two call-backs!
And no matter what the agents say about my novel, the fact that I have written an entire book makes me a successful writer.
Not only that, I’ve found a way to make writing a part of my daily life, which makes me really happy. And which is more important: happiness or success?
There’s so much talent and so much competition in the publishing world. We writers have to celebrate our small successes. Writing a beautiful turn of phrase. Receiving a manuscript request or a few kind words in a rejection letter. Savoring that moment when we finally type “The End.”
If success is a journey, then by simply writing and finding joy in the process, we are already successful writers.
Earlier I said that maybe we have to be happy first and success will follow. Well, I’m revising that statement. If you can find happiness in your writing, then maybe you’re already a successful writer.
So write a few pages then pop the champagne. Because you deserve it.No matter what an agent says about yr novel, you wrote a book. That makes you a successful writer.Click To Tweet If success is a journey, then by #writing and enjoying the process, we're already successful writers. Click To Tweet
Steve Langston says
What about that book you wrote a couple years ago that you sent to me to read? Any bites on that?
That’s the one I worked on with my agent. He was going to submit it to New York publishing houses, but then he quit agenting! I tried to get another agent with that book. Several told me that they loved my writing but couldn’t sell a fairy tale book right now — and to pitch them again when I’d written something else. It’s a difficult business to break into!