WARNING: This is a no-edit zone…
One of the greatest challenges we face in our professional lives is success.
That sounds like an oxymoron, but truly it isn’t. Why? Because too often we allow others to define success for us and then we generally find it impossible to meet their measure of it–or our perception of their measure of it. As much as we crave success, too often we don’t recognize it when we’ve gotten it because we’ve been so busy struggling and striving for it that we’ve never stopped to define it.
This struck me last night while watching a CMT tribute to “Giant” Alan Jackson.
He’s an unassuming man. Classifies himself as “simple.” He’s all about family, values, and staying true to himself in his work. Admirable, in my estimation. He hasn’t forgotten his roots, and never pretends to be other than he is.
Now Alan Jackson has known professional success. He’s written 32 Number One (#1) hits and has sold 50 million “records.” He’s also been named Entertainer of the Year a total of nine (9) times. By industry standards, by the estimation of his peers and colleagues, by his fans and the general public, he’s considered successful–and deservedly so. For me, the song he wrote about September 11 was a significant contribution to healing for Americans, and that alone qualifies him as a huge success in my opinion.
And yet he remains humble (a becoming asset more should adopt) and–here’s the zinger–he still feels he hasn’t achieved the status to be on par with his heroes (George Strait and George Jones were there, and referenced.) When approached, Alan assumed the CMT Giants tribute extended the honor of “Giant” to him because he’s so tall.
That this was earnestly spoken set me to thinking. And what I thought was that there’s good lessons for writers (and everyone else) in Alan Jackson’s attitude. Ones worthy of adoption.
He knows who he is and makes no apologies for it, no bones about it. A calm acceptance, contentment, and comfort in his skin. Those are great qualities for anyone and particularly helpful attributes for a creative writer.
He’s earnest. In the writing I see in judging competitions and from critiques, one challenge often repeated is mannered writing. Where an author works so hard at perfection that s/he edits the voice right out of the work. Much of the realism and relate-ability is unfortunately lost under the manner hammer. Let’s face it, when an author writes to sell, what s/he is selling is his/her voice. So that’s significant.
He still doesn’t see himself as being on par with his heroes. Now some would say this is a good thing, and in a sense it is. He’s still striving, stretching and growing, and that’s something we all want to do throughout our careers. Never stop growing is a widely embraced mantra among writers.
But some would say that’s a bad thing because it intimates that one never feels successful because one either hasn’t defined it or has allowed others to define it for them. And that too is true.
It also brings home the importance of defining success for yourself. For some, it is to simply write. Not to write well, not to write to sell, but simply to write. For them, having written, they have succeeded. For others, they use benchmarks to measure their own success.
Typical benchmarks might be to write and finish a book. To submit a book to an agent. To submit a book to an editor. To sell a book. To sell a trilogy or a series. To sell x number of a single title. To make this or that list. To earn this or that amount of money. To get a review in this or that magazine or a Starred review, an award.
There are no wrong answers when it comes to benchmarks, provided they are ones you set. An industry, an editor, an agent, a colleague, your author peers–none of those people, talented as they might be, should define success for you. That is your domain, and your choice. And only you truly will feel the weight of regret or the joy of triumph on it.
You see, agents and editors have a vested interest, but they also have other books, other clients, other authors. Your colleagues and peer authors have their own success to measure and while they well might have a vested interest in yours (particularly in the case of mentors and critique partners and the like), ultimately their focus is on their own success.
So it’s down to you. You and your view of your work, and by extension, your view of yourself.
It’s also about sacrifice.
We all sacrifice to attain success. Perhaps there is the rare bird that falls into it without sacrifice, but typically the overnight success in this business takes five to ten years of serious effort. Some are willing to make those sacrifices, but that too is a personal choice. No two paths are exactly the same, of course, and no two authors start out at exactly the same place. Some have more education, some have more grit. Again, only you know what sacrifices you must make in your life to attain success. And so the caveat here becomes to make sure you sacrifice that only which you’re willing to sacrifice. That you don’t forfeit yourself, your values, that which is most important to you. And only you are capable of making that decision and drawing those personal sacrifice lines.
I can’t stress this enough. It is your choice. And it should be made deliberately and with thoughtful consideration. While some might sell their proverbial soul to get published and do it, afterward many of them will wonder why they ever did it. Just an observation on that, but one worthy of mention.
Some sacrifice all, thinking they’ll be happy if only. But then they reach that goal and they’re still not happy. I have my own thoughts on happiness and it can’t be found in publishing a book, but contentment is another matter.
An author can be content with a work. Feeling it’s been a job well done. Feeling the purpose for which the book was written has been accomplished. Those are worthy things for the author and the human being.
I guess the whole point of this post is a cautionary one. Know who you are, be true to yourself, true to the work. Know why you’re writing this work, and what you hope to gain from it. Give yourself measurable ways to determine your own success.
And consider the sacrifices you’ll make. Be sure that they’re worth it to you.
Making sacrifices is a good thing. It’s a strong measure of your determination, forces you to focus and make calls on what you’re doing. Those are paths that help you avoid regret. But only if you embrace them. If you don’t consider and weigh the costs, then you lose the benefit inherent in them and that negates the good. Character is built in such ways. Opportunities are given to know one’s self and one’s purpose. Much good can come from that.