Nearby Success

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A writer friend of mine once met a man who was having what seemed like a pretty successful career as a literary writer. He had sold short stories to Harpers and The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and he had published three novels that had done well enough that he didn’t have to teach in an MFA program if he didn’t want to. He had not, however, won the National Book Award, and so, he told my friend, he felt like a failure.

This story seems emblematic of every writer’s slippery relationship to success. As a concept, success is slippery no matter what you’re doing. A professional football player can succeed in getting drafted to a team that fails to win a single game. Does that player feel successful? I don’t know, but I do know that success can appear tantalizingly concrete to writers because of certain Big Events: The Publishing Contract, Making The Bestseller List, or The Award, to name just a few. These events dot the otherwise quiet life of the writer with the noise and light of recognition. So much of our time, no matter how many books we have or haven’t sold, is spent in solitude, with only the story we are telling for company. Where am I going? What will come of all this work? The answers to those questions remain obscured in the future while we find our way toward the story’s end.

It is understandable then why writers measure their success by how many and which Big Events they’ve experienced. In fact, these Big Events can burn so bright in a writer’s mind that we might forget that we were the ones who decided to shine the light of our attention on them in the first place. In other words, everyone’s defining success for themselves. It’s like a game we’re all playing in which each of us gets to decide whether we’ve won or lost.

What a strange game. Still, once you’ve accepted this, which I must continue to do every day, I think it’s critical to define success by something other than Big Events. I am happiest when I define success in the smallest and nearest terms possible: a completed chapter, a new and interesting idea for an essay, a lovely sentence. Big Events are just the natural consequence of accumulating many, many small successes. In fact, Big Events are impossible without these small successes.

Strangely, if I am very disciplined in my attention, and if I am just paying attention to the story I am telling, and if I am appreciating all the small successes I’m experiencing, when the Big Events finally come, they don’t seems big at all. They’re just another thing that happened. Meanwhile, success remains as close as the next idea, the next story, the next word.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.