This question is a lot harder to answer than it looks. Answers will vary from individual to individual, culture to culture. In American culture, we tend to define success in terms of the acquisition of money, influence, power and fame. No one doubts that Bill Gates is successful. Or Oprah Winfrey. “The American Dream” has given Americans a goal to work toward for generations and it promises success. But for writers (artists, in general, also), defining success becomes a mighty wrestle between belief and reality, culture and the personal.
Start with defining a specific goal. What are the actions needed to achieve that goal? Each completed action represents success — you finished something! — and a step closer to the goal. Once you’ve achieved your goal, you’re a success. This is a very basic definition of success — achieving a goal — and a template. We do this everyday in one form or another, so we can claim, at the end of the day, that we are a success or have achieved success.
But there’s more. If we step back and look at the landscape of our lives, we can see that in each area there is the possibility for long-term goals as well as short-term. Want to get married? Retire at 55? Maintain good health and physical fitness? Graduate from college? Become CEO of a company? We can choose, then, to define our success in a different way than the culture does. Or not. If consumerism or materialism are not your thing, if you have no desire to make headlines with your personal life or have Bill Clinton’s cell phone number, then success must mean something different to you. It’s important to find out what it means if you haven’t already.
Statistically (I’m guessing here, but it’s probably a good guess), writers have less of a chance to become blockbuster millionaires than winning the lottery. And yet, for some novice writers, that is the goal — write a blockbuster and earn millions from it. The writers who have achieved that goal probably (I’d guess again) didn’t set it as their goal. They probably just wanted to write good, entertaining stories to be published, read, and enjoyed.
This past week, I was talking with a friend about success. She had encouraged me years ago to define success for myself as it relates to all the areas of my life. It helped me to identify goals that I hadn’t even thought of before. For writing, she suggested that I focus more on short-term goals rather than long-term. Fame’s siren song doesn’t call to me and I’m not interested in acquiring billions of dollars. But I was interested in finishing a story, a novel, a screenplay.
However, I realized this week that I would like to write a blockbuster novel. Why? So I’d know that people were reading and enjoying the story I’d written. That’s what success is to me. I expressed it in an equation: publication + sales = success. My friend challenged my notion of success — was it about the money (sales)? Not really. It’s about the recognition and appreciation. If people buy my first novel and love it, they’re more likely to buy subsequent novels I write. I’d love to hear from readers, too. As a writer, I’m a storyteller, an entertainer, in search of an audience.
Which is not to say I wouldn’t want to earn a good living from my writing. It would be nice not to worry anymore about how to pay the bills.
So, what is your definition of success as a writer?