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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Defining Success

I don't normally post a video, but many writers are going to identify with this one. My husband played it for me for the first time (and he specifically wanted me to hear it) at a time when it actually hurt to listen to the song because I felt like it summed up my life as a writer. A novel had just come off submission and the rewrite of my first published novel was hung up in an editorial board, and I felt like a failure.

And before anyone says "Hey, Weird Al is still making songs?" the answer is yes, this is from his 2011 album Alpocalypse. This isn't a parody song. Except it is. Except it isn't.

Here's the deal: Dan opens the song talking about his great potential as an actor and all the accolades he got, except "the years have come and the years have gone," and it never worked out the way he planned. 
My ten-year-old daughter said at dinner, "What did Skipper Dan do wrong?" and I said, "Nothing." My husband added, "That's the way it goes. Sometimes you do everything right and it still doesn't work out." 
I recently listened to it again, and I realized the real source of Skipper Dan's failure. Because what is he doing? He's acting. He wanted to be an actor, and he's paying the rent as an actor. The video makes it even more explicit: the kids are delighted to listen to him; families want their picture taken with him and they want his autograph. Three or four hundred people a day watch his shows. 
In other words, he's got what he wanted, only on a different scale than he'd planned.
Janet Reid linked to a Salon.com article by Corinne Purtill, a journalist who opines that writing her book was a mistake. Why? Because no big publisher snapped it up, and that makes her a failure. She got what sounds like a handful of rejections on a nonfiction work and then a memoir, and she called it failure.
And yet Purtill is earning a living writing. She's using her words to enlighten and educate and entertain. What's the problem? The problem isn't rejection. We all deal with rejection. Editors and agents can reject us. But only we can decide we've failed.
The problem Purtill faces and the problem Skipper Dan faces, and the problem that I was facing, is not our lack of success but our inability to recognize it when it comes.
To put a finer point on it, our problem is the way we define success. Right now there are over 300 million Americans, and there are only five "big" publishers, but how many writers are defining success as landing a deal with one of those "big five"?  It's the same with acting, with music: we've narrowed the peak of the mountain so much that very few are going to stand on it, but that doesn't render everyone on the slopes a failure.
I've received letters from people who found my stories life-changing. I'm not making that up, and even saying it makes me uncomfortable, but the whole topic of failure is uncomfortable so I'm doing it anyhow. One reader tweeted that she named her son after one of my characters; another reader nearly got her grandson named after one of my characters until the child's father stepped in. I've had readers use my stories to engage in discussions about the Divine, the world, and human nature, and they've opened up to new possibilities because of something I wrote. But my agent couldn't sell my last novel and my next isn't yet on submission: so am I a failure? Or is my definition of success skewed to something well-nigh impossible to achieve?
And at what point would it be enough? After ten novels published with the big five, is it "Yeah, but I never got on the New York Times Bestseller List" or "Yeah, but I never got a movie made"?
Technology is great, but maybe writers should pretend we live back in time two centuries, back to before mass distribution would have ensured every American (and many other English-speaking parts of the world) all had free access to the exact same thousand authors at exactly the same time. Maybe you or I would have been the local story-tellers in Springdale, and the folks in North Cupcake and Mill Pond would have sat around saying, "That's really awesome, if you can hear get over there to what she says." The local bookstore would have had a few copies of your one or two works, and when one sold, you'd be thrilled.  Meanwhile your brother would be the best musician in about the same area, and he'd feel like a success because people listened to his music, and it wouldn't matter that people in Los Angeles and Phoenix and Austin and New Orleans didn't also listen to his music, because no one would have expected it to work that way.
In other words: maybe a small press is just fine for a specific book. Maybe a letter telling you a reader didn't commit suicide because of something you wrote is your success. Maybe writing a memoir that your grandchildren will read is the success you need to have, and maybe the other fifty-six thousand readers who would have landed you on the bestseller list aren't the key to being a successful writer, a successful person.
Maybe your words being in the right place at the right time is a success, but you need to keep putting those words together to make sure it happens. When someone needs them, they'll be there. 

___

Jane Lebak writes books and knits socks. You can see all fifty million of the books over at Amazon, and maybe read one or two. She has, you see, defined her own success. 

13 comments:

Victoria Dixon said...

Wow. That is so powerful. Thanks for the vision check! It's funny, I never thought about how my stigmatism applied to my writing career, but I guess you can have a problem focusing in a variety of ways. LOL

T.W. Fendley said...

Thanks for the reminder -- success can take many forms!

Sherry said...

This great reminder applies to all of us, in every aspect of our lives. I copied, to my desktop, the one line that says it all for me:

"The problem isn't rejection. We all deal with rejection. Editors and agents can reject us. But only we can decide we've failed."

On any given day I could say I have failed in my writing, but I haven't because I haven't given up trying. Thanks again.

Sherry Hudson

Linda Jackson said...

Thank you. This post is so inspiring.

Margo Rowder said...

This is always so important, Jane. We just forget it sometimes. Thank you for reminding a whole bunch of us!

Susan said...

Great post. Perspective is so important, and so easy to lose.

KarenDiane said...

So many fine and insightful nuggets of truth in this article - thank you for the reminder.
Karen W.

David Rockwell said...

This is a good head check for anyone, in any line of work (or for activities outside work). It's also sold some Weird Al (heading to iTunes, now).

Normandie Ward Fischer said...

Well said, Jane.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

OMG - I'm book marking this and reading it every day! Thank you! :) e

Leslie S. Rose said...

I'm a theatre major, I so totally get Dan. I've had a lot of friends who really did work on the Jungle Cruise ride.

Alec Breton said...

Here is my extra 2¢ on the question "What did Skipper Dan Do Wrong?"

http://alecbreton.blogspot.com/2012/07/what-did-skipper-dan-do-wrong.html

A person can think of repetition as practice and "practice makes perfect." The key is to make the practice more creative and fun. Then, the chances for good things resulting will be increased.

Jane | @janelebak said...

Thanks, Alec. I'll check it out!