Defining Yourself by Work, not Success

These tidbits from the February 2016 Nelson Literary Agency Newsletter (not my agency but their newsletters are great!) really struck a chord with me:

Your Writing Should Not Be Your Main Source of Validation For Who You Are as a Person – Kristin Nelson

I think this can be the most debilitating mistakes an aspiring writer can make. There be dragons if you start down this mental path.

But here is the reason you need to start thinking like an agent and less like a writer when it comes to submitting your material. If someone passes on your work, that rejection is not a commentary on your qualities as a human being. In a lot of instances, it’s not even a commentary on your ability or talent as a writer!

No matter what an industry person’s response is to your written work, your writing is only one facet of who you are as a human being. Don’t make it everything, or you may lose your joy of writing and find the whole business very depressing indeed.

Ms. Nelson’s article is inspiring and reassuring, but I have a different perspective on her ultimate conclusion. Writing absolutely defines who I am–but my writing career does not, and the difference is an important one.

I used to define myself by my ‘career.’ Ever since I decided in fourth grade I was going to be a writer (abandoning dreams of ‘flying’ as an astronaut), I judged myself by my talents. For many years I was thankfully blind to my faults due to the attention I received from friends and English teachers. I say ‘thankfully’ because if I knew how bad I truly was I might not have written so much or dared to dream so big. And in high school it was fairly easy to shine–I even had an article published in TeenInk which bolstered my cockiness significantly, not to mention the medium-sized but sincere following at Fictionpress for Nameless.

Although it hurt my ego not to have a novel published while still a teenager, like my imaginary rival Christopher Paolini, I did sign with my agent at age 19 and that was a comfort. But even as my understanding of my weaknesses increased, so did my expectation that my worth was defined by my ‘success.’ And for the first year of having an agent, that was good enough. But selling a book just sort of… kept… not… happening. Around me, friends and colleagues were signing deals left and right. But it didn’t happen for me.

I’m on the far side of my twenties now. Still a baby, to most! But my perspective is a lot different than when I was on the other side. At the time, it seemed like there was no tomorrow. If I didn’t catch the debut circles of 2009… 2010… 2011…2012… Then I’d miss the boat entirely. No writing career. No success. Thanks for playing, goodbye.

Maybe it’s because I truly joined the industry in those years, and thought the writer circles I was aware of would be permanent and unchanging, that the big names of 2010 would be the big names for all time. That the incredible frenzy of debuting would always surround the new writers I’d come to know and admire.

But it doesn’t.

And slowly, my awareness expanded to realize that despite how it felt, writing isn’t a race. It’s a marathon. And you’re not really competing against anyone but yourself. Sure, you can see the other runners’ times if you want to, but the only marker for success is the one you place for yourself. Look, I’m 6’2. I weigh 200+ pounds. I’ll never be able to sprint along at an eight minute mile for miles at a time. But when I ran a single (12+ minute) mile without stopping for the first time in my life I was as proud as if I’d completed a full 26-mile marathon. For me, for my journey, that was a win.

Writing is the same. As Maggie Stiefvater put it, it’s not Maggie versus other writers, it’s Maggie versus Maggie. I’m not trying to keep up with anyone else anymore, I’m simply trying to do the best I can in comparison to myself. The market–that’s out of my control. You know what isn’t?

Writing. I can’t stop telling myself stories. I can’t stop imagining new situations, characters, heartbreaks, exchanges. It’s part of who I am. I don’t have a book deal, but that hasn’t stopped me from working on the novels clamoring to break out of me. I would keep writing books my whole life even if I never sold one, because that’s me.

And I think it’s okay to define myself like that. I’m a writer. I’m not an author–yet–but you know what? That word never really did it for me. Writing is exciting. It’s a personal journey with a magnificent destination at the end. It’s a way to share the things that grow inside my mind–A truly bizarre concept, by the way. Why on earth do I feel the need to express these made up scenarios just to describe a fabricated sense of emotion I’ve never felt in real life but want to synthesize because it’s fun? No idea. But having the kind of mind that creates those abstract things, and honing my skills so I can better express them–that’s an irrevocable part of who I am.

As I learned more about yoga and meditation last year I realized that writing is my spiritual practice. It’s expression and self-improvement rolled into one. It is the art that compels me to improve myself in all aspects, and to pursue wisdom about life and being human.

Writing is the garden I work in. Bearing fruit will be satisfying, but that’s only a few minutes of sweetness. Do you think any reasonable person would put in all those months of labor just to eat a single, consumable piece of fruit at the end? No, they’d trot down to the store and buy it instead. But I’m not laboring for the moment of fruition. Not really. I’m doing it for the work itself, for the deep satisfaction of growing something, especially because sometimes that something is me.

And yes, part of my spiritual practice is to keep my eyes on my own paper and focus on writing the best book I can, and to not worry about the rest of it.

Savannah versus Savannah.

Savannah is winning.

As long as I keep writing.

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