Success, Ambition, and the Body: How Do We Define Success as Writers? And What Do We Do When Circumstances Defy our Expectations?
I am staring down my 44th birthday next month, in the middle of a bunch of medical testing I had to put off while I was sick the previous couple of months. I have noticed that many of my conversations with friends lately – younger friends in their twenties and early thirties, older friends in their mid-fifties and sixties – are about whether or not we are feeling successful in our lives as writers.
What does success mean to us? Is it a full-time, tenure-track teaching job (I used to think so!) What about getting an NEA grant? (Though now, after seeing the Trump budget proposal which I dearly hope will be turned down by Congress, the NEA may in fact disappear, so,…) What about getting a poem published in a dream publication? What about getting your first book published? What about your second? What gives you happiness and satisfaction in your work? Would a MacArthur Genius Grant make you feel happy with what you have done, or would it drive you to work harder? Do you just want to get paid enough to cover rent and food?
I asked this question of Facebook and got a myriad of answers from writers just starting out and writers who have several of the accomplishments I’ve listed above. (You can check out the thread here at this link, I think: https://www.facebook.com/webbish6/posts/10155904705729951)
You can see that success, satisfaction, happiness with your work on a writer can be hard to define, can be a moving target, and can often feel like it depends on external factors we cannot control.
I was talking to a writer friend of mine who, like me, is often limited in her drive to succeed by what her body is able to do (or is not able to do.) I had to turn down a reading visit I dearly wanted to do next month because I have been so sick this year and I was worried the travel would send me back to the hospital. When I have to do stuff like that, it feels like crap. I feel like a failure. Though I know I can do a Skype visit (which I love! And thank goodness for technology!) I miss the in person visiting. I’m one of those writers who actually likes being around people – other writers, students, etc.
When I consider applying for full-time jobs I’m worried my body would not be able to handle…but on some days when I feel optimistic, I feel like I could do…when I wonder if I’m letting down my publishers by not traveling more to promote my books, or skipping AWP… I’m running into the problem of drive versus limitation. My friend whose been laid off from her job of twenty years and is stressed out looking for something new, or my friend who’s looking for her first job that can sustain her financially – they are also running into limitations, different ones. Our lives are defying our ambition, our plans for success, our road to what a writer is supposed to be able to do and be.
I wrote last year when I was diagnosed with terminal cancer that I was happy with what I’ve accomplished so far in life, and you know what? That’s still mostly true. I’ve been Poet Laureate of my city, I’ve published five books, all with publishers I consider friends. I’ve published in a few “dream” publications. But now that I’m looking at the possibility of a little more time, and the possibility of being slightly more mobile (I’m mostly not in a wheelchair or on a cane right now, due to 6 grueling years of twice-weekly physical therapy for neurological issues) it feels like I SHOULD be doing more than I am. But I’m still worn out, the cancer tests keep going, my immune system has been a big FAIL for three months. I’m grateful that I may not be facing death in six months. But I’m also anxious about what I should be doing in the meantime.
Last night I turned in two articles, turned in the judging of a poetry contest, and finished my first organized draft of what will become my sixth book eventually (possible titles: Post-Life? Sitting by Yourself at the End of the World? Self-Portrait as Accident?) and am thinking of what I can do to help promote Field Guide to the End of the World that I’m not already doing. And you know, today, I’m getting ready to go undergo more tests at a medical office which will take a couple of hours, and I’m like – can I get a submission in? Or write a new poem?
My ideas about what I expect for my life are different now, my ideas about what success as a writer consists of has changed. Sure, I would love a part-time job I could actually do from home, I would love a best-selling book or more prestigious book reviews or an award for Field Guide to the End of the World, I would love an unexpected award or fellowship out of nowhere, but I’m thankful for what I do have: a whole bunch of poems I’m pretty proud of, a great bunch of writer friends around the globe who are supportive and helpful when I need it, a spouse who values the work I do (even when it doesn’t bring in the kind of money I’d like it to.) I am thankful for today, which I would usually classify as a “bad day,” as it involved a company coming to cut down one of my backyard trees, a birch that’s gotten infested with birch beetles, which was sad, the news about Trump wanting to cut Meals on Wheels, which at least several of my house-bound relatives are reliant on, the NEA, and PBS, and the aforementioned several-hour-long medical testing. But the sun shone a little today, I made plans about new things to plant, and when I get home, I’m going to make more plans, submission and writing plans. That’s what we do to truly succeed as writers: we hold on to hope, we plant seeds, we try again. We keep writing.