By Steven Pressfield
Published: September 21, 2016
I stumbled onto the website of a novelist I had never heard of. (He’s probably never heard of me either.) What I saw there got me thinking.
The site was excellent. It displayed all fourteen of the novelist’s books in “cover flow” format. They looked great. A couple had been published by HarperCollins, several others by Random House. The author was the real deal, a thoroughgoing pro with a body of work produced over decades.
Somehow I found myself thinking, What if this excellent writer had never been published?
Would we still think of him as a success?
(In other words, I started pondering the definition of “success” for a writer.)
Suppose, I said to myself … suppose this writer had written all these novels, had had their covers designed impeccably, had their interiors laid out to the highest professional standards.
Suppose he could never find a publisher.
Suppose he self-published all fourteen of his novels.
Suppose his books had found a readership of several hundred, maybe a thousand or two. But never more.
Suppose he had died with that as the final tally.
Would we say he had “failed?”
Would we declare his writing life a waste?
[I’m assuming, for the sake of this exercise, that our writer had been able somehow to support himself and his family throughout his life or that, if he had been supported by someone else (as van Gogh was looked after by his brother Theo), that that was okay with him and with the person supporting him.]
Then I asked myself, What if that was me?
How would I feel about those fourteen books? Would I consider them an exercise in folly? Vanity? Demented self-indulgence?
Would I say to myself, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you continue this exercise in futility? Wake up! Get a job!”
Could I justify all that effort and somehow convince myself that it was worthy, that it had been an honorable use of my time on Earth?
It won’t surprise you, if you’re at all familiar with my thinking in this area, to hear that I would immediately answer yes.
Yes, I would consider that hypothetical writer a success.
I might even declare him a spectacular success.
No, his writing life was not wasted.
No, he had not squandered his time on the planet.
And yes, I would say the same if that writer were me.
My own real-life career is not that far off from this hypothetical. I wrote for seventeen years before I got my first dollar (a check for $3500 for an option on a screenplay that never came near getting made.) I wrote for twenty-eight years before my first novel was published.
What, then, constitutes success for a writer? Is it money? Sales? Recognition? Is it “expressing herself?” Is it “getting her ideas out there?”
Or is it something else?
I’m going to take the next few weeks’ posts and do a little self-examination on this subject, which I think is especially critical in this era of the web and Amazon and print-on-demand and instant and easy self-publishing, these days when literally a million new books appear each year. How do we, how do you and I navigate these waters, not just financially or professionally but psychologically, emotionally, spiritually?
[Thanks to our friend David Y.B. Kaufmann for suggesting this topic.]