Success: From Where Do You Come?

Courtesy of Poets&Writers

Courtesy of Poets&Writers

In a wistful (and drenched in a too high-hoped tone) article in Poets & Writers (watch a clip with one of the authors here), Emily Raboteau interviews three authors who commercially failed at their first publishing attempts, but are coming around this season with highly anticipated novels. Jennifer Clement, Miranda Beverley-Whittmore, and Nina Siegal all have one thing in common: failed sales early on in their careers. Editors retired, agents gave up on the project, and in Clement’s case, her book was published two days before 9/11. The roundabout conclusion Raboteau comes to at the end of her profile is that there’s no firm definition of “failure,” and the best way to get past that, is to keep on keepin’ on. Heard that before? Does it feel like we’re beating a dead horse over the head? Is it useful advice? Of course. As rejection letters pile in (sometimes multiple in one day, or within the same hour–that’s always a fun one), self-doubt inducing stress, and even getting stuck on material brings you down, you have to keep persistent, no?

When I think of failure specifically, I can just go back through my Chemistry binder from high school. But when we think of failure in terms of numbers, and digging even deeper to sales numbers, is our writing boiled down to the quantity of its marketability? Look at the books that sell on the mid list, they tend to follow the same tropes and plot points. Beverley-Whittmore went in that direction, after her editor at Crown jokingly suggested that she “Write a best-seller.” But is that what our writing is worth? A lot of writers can market their talents out to various publications, freelancing articles, features, and reviews. It’s a way to make ends meet.

But, when your work means something to you, having a good sale or a letter of acceptance from your favorite lit mag, it means the world to you. Clement stated in her interview with Raboteau, “I’ve never lost a strong feeling of wonder every time I see a book of mine in print and imagine someone reading it.”

The trick, it seems, is to find a happy medium. Sometimes your darlings, oh, they gotta go. They’re not going to help you further your career. See: a novel I wrote when I was ten. It was basically a gender-reversed matriarchal version of Lord of the Rings. “Before your book comes out you can suffer under the delusion that it’s going to change everything,” Siegal noted. “I though my first book was going to be a sensation, like Bridget Jone’s Diary. I thought it would lead to a TV show.” So, maybe it’s about being humble, and maybe it’s about being diligent, and a good self-critic. Sometimes, that journal entry you write at three in the morning isn’t going to become McSweeney’s top submission for the Pushcart Prize. And that’s just the way it is.

For right now, let’s pose the question of where you draw success. What are your triumphs of the day? Are they dictated by a specific word count? Do you spend a long time revising, and then writing new material, like Zadie Smith. Maybe having a routine doesn’t mean anything to you. How do you deal with failure? What is failure to you, at this very moment? What do you draw from when you’re down in the gutter?

Source: Raboteau, Emily. “If at First You Don’t Succeed….”Poets&Writers, March/April 2014, pp. 55-58.