Almost every writer starts out thinking that publishing her (his) book will define a successful career arc. Envy of published writers seems to be part of the territory of being young and in love with writing. If a writer is serendipitously fortunate, or happens to personally know someone in the publishing industry, that goal is much more likely to happen when the writer is still young. For most writers, however, publishing their work happens only after a long, monumental struggle, if at all.
Even renowned writers in the literary canon found the journey to publishing often maddeningly absurd. Accounts of James Joyce’s issues with trying to get Dubliners in print read like soap operas. After a comedy of errors, but not particularly funny to Joyce who was trying to support his family in Paris at the time, Dubliners finally appeared to be under contract before another eight years passed. Then the publisher informed Joyce he would not receive royalties on the first 500 copies. To add insult to injury, Joyce’s publisher required him to buy 120 copies. Sounds familiar to most writers today. (That stigma on self-publishing needs to be banished.) Even after the book came out, Dubliners supposedly sold only 499 copies, apparently one short of the threshold for royalties. Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses fared no better in the early stages of its literary life—censorship being one of the main hurdles—in its eventual climb to published novel.
Joyce is only one of thousands of great writers who were met with disappointments, delays, unfair practices, and frustrations in attempting to publish. To avoid being drawn into a lifetime of frustration, writers in every genre would do well to redefine success for themselves.
Although we live in a culture which is obsessed with money and how much money a person makes or inherited, we do not—nor should not—have to accept these hollow measures of accomplishment. Coping mechanisms over writing insecurity related to lack of publishing “success” sometimes trap us in cycles of covetousness or into demeaning another’s art. This kind of mean thinking leaves us hopelessly stranded on sandbars of the trivial.
How many times have we heard writers offer a nasty condemnation of another writer’s work? There is a difference between a fair, critical analysis and a cheap shot. This movement toward the green-eyed monster jealousy appears emblematic in the competitive arena of creative writing. Yet writers should be each other’s greatest advocates. Who knows and fully understands the struggles, mastery of techniques and language competency skills better than another writer? Jealousy often disappears with a writer’s death or toward writers from other countries, as if proximity makes all the difference.
The secret to a healthier relationship with our own writing and assessment of others is simple but not an easy one: redefine what writing success means for you. When you have achieved a writing goal—finishing a poem, short story, play script or novel; getting positive feedback from others on your work; knowing that what you’ve written is good regardless of audience size or appraisal—stop and appreciate the moment. Appreciate the work. That marks ascendancy and, paradoxically, our dive into unexplored, wondrous depths.
Image art by Katie Turner from my book of poetry Innermost Sea (Finishing Line Press, 2018).