I’ve written 19 books now and hundreds of articles. I’ve won book and magazine awards. Respected literary bodies—not to mention friends, fellow writers, and colleagues—have favorably reviewed my work. My audience, however, remains small, as does my bank balance. Am I successful? What defines success for a person compelled to write? These questions inevitably plague thoughtful people; no matter where they reside in their travels from the first compulsion to express themselves in words to their—final draft—shall we say.
I find myself asking the following questions:
1. Has writing made you happy and/or fulfilled?
2. If one goal of writing is to communicate, have you successfully touched others?
3. If another goal of writing is therapy, have you healed yourself?
4. How important is the elegance of craft among your writing goals? Should that supersede the mere act of effective communication—or are they inseparable?
5. How important is the need to be recognized for what you do—as either reflected in monetary success or number of readers reached?
I like the process of using words to tell stories. Human beings excel at this process. In fact, writing (and speaking) defines our species. We chronicle our successes and failures and send them into the future with our children and tribe members, and thus evolve culturally with a speed that far outruns genetics. So yes, writing fulfills me because I have a talent for it that I have groomed and exercised, producing a body of work I can be proud of. I am as happy about that as my temperament allows.
If awards and assignments are any measure, I have communicated successfully with at least a select group of individuals. In the past, writers wrote and others who believed in that writer saw to it that the words found an audience. Today, writers are expected to disseminate their own production. Some find that much easier than others. Do we fail at writing if we fail (or fall short) when marketing? Perhaps. But I think we are in danger today of losing some voices (and delightful words) that may be elegant and on point, but crafted by timid souls. Noise should not be mistaken for music.
Regarding writing as therapy: I remember one poet from my youth who claimed that he didn’t care if anyone saw or heard his words. The act of creating them was enough. Perhaps the creative act either aroused him—or healed him—in some way. Writing can be therapeutic, not to mention titillating. You can kill your enemies in fictional stories, say everything elegantly on paper that dies on—or tangles—your tongue in face-to-face encounters, engage in all kinds of carnal acts or change the way somebody else perceives the world with your words. Skillful writers become non-invasive brain surgeons, subtly changing the chemistry along the neurons of their targets.
Have I healed myself? To some extent, I suppose. At least I haven’t had to spend money on professional shrinks and have not shot any friends, strangers or neighbors. I leave my craziness on the page.
The elegance of craft. Writers are invariably readers too. The writers I choose to read are those who make me gasp, or cry, or tremble, or my heart change rhythm. We learn by doing, by being told, by example—but we remember everything better or with more clarity when the message is beautiful as well. So, I would feel less than successful as a writer if I didn’t struggle sufficiently with telling my story just right. I want to make my writing a work of art—something to admire not just for the information residing there, but also for the turn of phrase that turns information into rapturous epiphanies.
I confess. I have always liked the teacher’s kind words or a pat on the head. I like getting rewarded with allowances and grants for work well done. But those rewards are insufficient. I wouldn’t want to write the same things over and over, even if people paid me well to do it. I like the process of learning and creating something new. I like admiring something original gleaned, but transformed, from all the other human and original things generated by those who came before me.
Would I write again if granted another incarnation? Yes. To that extent I consider my writing to be successful. The act of writing, especially when it rises within you like lava ejected from a volcano, is an exercise worth repeating—and a very human thing to do.