Success as a Writer

I am not a financially or critically successful writer. The people who have read what I’ve written undoubtedly number less than 500. If you subtract friends and family, that number is much smaller. Even fewer is the number of readers whose job it is to comment on the works of others. I don’t expect this state of affairs to change much between now and my demise.

Over the years I’ve given much consideration to my lack of success, and it has produced various levels of anxiety. My attempts to find an agent, an editor, a mainstream publisher have all gone for naught. Although that history still chafes a bit, and although I still think about what acceptance of my work by a broader public would feel like, I have mostly reconciled myself to something that 25 years of experience makes quite clear. I tell myself that I am no longer concerned about public or critical acceptance; however, the fact that here I am writing about both says otherwise.   

There are likely many reasons for my lack of success, some of which are in a sense organic, others of which I have created. On the organic side, for instance, my skills as a writer do not rise to a level that others find compelling. So be it. To paraphrase a line from Chariots of Fire, I can’t put in what the gods have left out. As to barriers to success I’ve created, my disdain for editors comes to mind. I have been told on many occasions that I need “a good editor.” With one notable exception, the few times that I’ve run up against those who would tell me how to improve what I’ve written (I exclude here works that I was requested to write, or those which were part of a collaborative process from the outset) I invariably came away thinking, “If you’d like to write that story, you should do so. I have written this story. It is my story, and I do not care to change it into your story.”

That rigid attitude, one I have never been able to shake, has led me to another conclusion: I write for myself. If I am pleased with the story, the characters, the narrative, the images, the metaphors, the descriptive passages, the dialogue, and all the rest and how it all runs together, then I see no reason to change what I’ve written. When I have tried to change what I’ve written to please someone else’s view of what will be attractive to the reading market, I simply can’t do it. The words won’t come out, or the words that do come out strike me as shallow, vain, and artificial to the point that I have burned manuscripts of stories altered to please some imagined public taste. I don’t seem to be able to think like the market, or to create what the market desires; I can only think and create the way I think and create.

I honestly envy those writers who have the ability to do that which I cannot. But I also know that many artists, not just writers, have found themselves torn between their creative instincts and plying a sustainable trade. I’ve tried hard to stop torturing myself and instead content myself with measuring my success as a writer by nothing other than completing stories that please me. That may not be very ambitious, but it is both achievable and satisfying.