Many writers have a clear idea of what “success” looks like to them. It’s a publishing deal, or selling millions of copies of their book, or the green-light for that movie script…it’s usually something BIG.
When I was a younger, child-free (and hence much more time-rich writer) I had these aspirations too. I still have some version of them, but expectations change the longer you’ve been at this writing thing. It’s hard, it’s ultra competitive and writing something good is no guarantee of commercial success. What it takes many writers quite a while to work out is that commerciality is concerned with how much money your writing product will make for the producer of said product and no matter how artistically wonderful it is, (and I’m thinking of friends who’ve won major awards, yet not been picked up commercially) it all comes back to money.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, it’s subjective. Years ago when working on my first novel manuscript, I applied for an both Arts grant and for a literary award to develop the book. In the same week, I had two very different responses to the same work — the grants board rejected my application with the off-handed remark that my work “lacked spark and artistic merit”, while the literary awards mob shortlisted my work at a national level. Had it not been for the short listing, those ill-thought out words from the arts board may have crushed me so badly that I’d have given up right then and never written another creative piece. But the important lesson I learned was that it’s SUBJECTIVE. What one person may love, another may hate. That’s true of even the most successful books and movies. I mean, I really didn’t like Mad Max (the new one with Charlize in it). Nope, was bored sh*tless. Many others disagree. It’s subjective.
Which brings me to my point. A few weeks ago, I entered a short story in a prestigious competition, then forgot about it. The announcement date for winners passed and I heard nothing, so assumed I’d won nothing. Then, a few days later, I received this in the mail. My story had been given a Highly Commended. My critical self reacted by first thinking that just wasn’t good enough. It was acknowledgement, but not a win. There were at least two other stories better than mine, which wasn’t good enough to win.
In a sense, that’s true. But again, I remind myself that it’s subjective. Different judges may have liked my story more, or others less. Receiving some acknowledgement of the quality of my work is still “success”. Affirmation is important as a writer, but what I’m learning more and more is that affirmation is empty if you don’t simply love writing. Sitting down, committing your story to the page, that is the real reward. Of course, the major, best-selling book deal is still a dream, but even if that never happens, to quote Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog):
“I write because it makes my life shine.”