Writers’ perception on creative success & failure
What’s this episode about?
Welcome to the fourth season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full first episode and/or scan the blog post below for the main takeaways.
Today I will try to define what writerly success and failure is, and how they impact your writing routine. I’ve asked writers about what they perceive as success and failure and their answers were eye-opening. Listen on to find out why these two seemingly opposing things can affect a writer’s mental health in unexpected ways and how the pandemic has contributed to lowering many writers’ self-esteem.
Success and failure
Maybe you’re listening to this hoping to hear how to be a successful writer, or how to avoid failure. But I can’t tell you that, and beware of anyone who claims they can define this for you and get you there. How writers, and people as a whole, view success and failure is deeply personal. For some, success might be selling a million copies of a book, for others it can be research being noticed by a renowned scholar. It could be writing every day for a period of time, or sharing a piece with loved ones after dinner. I wanted to explore what writers believe success to be, so I asked around a few writing communities.
Most of them put great emphasis on tenacity and determination. Author and blogger Eden Gruger argues what makes a writer successful is their “perseverance, [to be able to] put words on a page even when life is really challenging. Which […] can be a lot of the time.”
Others say success is for a writer to not ignore their true self and write because there’s no alternative, because of that compulsive passion within many of us. The answers all circled around the same idea of putting words on a page and focusing on bettering your writing craft always and without excuse. I was interested to find no one mentioned money or fame.
Many writers avoided giving their opinion on what constitutes failure in your writing practice. A few brave ones mentioned that stopping to write renders a writer unsuccessful. Going from their definitions of success, it’s pretty much impossible to fail at being a writer, because if you stop writing for a time, it’s a hiatus, you can go back to it when you’re ready, on the path to success once again. And if you stop forever, you’re not really a failed writer, you’re simply choosing to step away from being one.
A reaction to change
If you are wondering why I’m looking at success and failure together, it’s because they’re two sides of the same coin. And for many creatives, when you put something out in the world, it’s like the flip of a coin – there’s so many variables, it’s hard to predict results.
What is almost certain though, is that if you hit is big, or receive a disappointing response to your work, your resolve to continue working the way you were will be tested. Perceived success and failure brings about change and throws people’s routines off. They’re either celebrating or wallowing in despair. No matter which, they’re not being their most productive selves.
Writers’ desire for things to remain within their control and their comfort zone is not surprising. A study on people’s resistance to change asked students to abstain from a habit and record their daily experiences for 3 weeks. Most of the students found that challenging in many different ways. Some found they set themselves up for failure by focusing on a big, difficult to reach goal; others self-sabotaged by putting themselves in situations where the cues for their habits were screaming at them and they had to work way harder to resist them; others found “ the actual amount of difficulty that a person encounters when implementing a change could be vastly different from the level of difficulty estimated by others”, meaning the people around you might not understand how difficult it is for you to go through with the change. All these barriers make people resistant to change.
Before I continue with the stories of a couple of fellow writers, I want to plug the book to which you owe listening to this podcast. The Lavender Phantom, my upcoming romance thriller, is now available for presale at a special price for all the early birds. It’s 25% off and if you preorder now, you can join me in my preorder giveaway.
All details can be found on my website www.laineydelaroque.com/books. The creation of that book has informed a lot of the content I’ve discussed in this podcast, so I’m excited to share it with you all. It’s not been an easy journey but I’ve learned a lot along the way about writing, mental health and productivity.
Success and failure in the time of a pandemic
Unsurprisingly, when I asked writers about success and failure, there were those who referred to how the pandemic had affected them. It’s hard to imagine what the world was like when one could plan ahead comfortably, and rely on their surroundings to be predictable.
With chaos comes uncertainty, anxiety and inevitably, change. That same change that people fight against for the sake of known comfort. And I’m not judging anyone’s response to the difficulties of current times here, I’m only saying it’s unsurprising many people have slipped into unhelpful habits to cope. I’m one of those people too.
Here’s how Writer Jerry Greif shares his experience of writing and the pandemic: “I am finding that a general environment less engaged, less motivated, less focused is quite prevalent, understandable, right now. It’s reciprocal, I perceive and I contribute to it. Without an author partner […] I languish, doddle and develop more convincing (to me) distractions and excuses. I have two books well on their way developmentally and they currently are proficiently collecting dust. One is on pandemics and Covid for kids. Couldn’t be more appropriate and timely!”
To Jerry I want to say that his book on the pandemics will be relevant for years to come so he shouldn’t feel too bad about being distracted by an international health crisis. Now is not the time to be harsh and punish ourselves for diminished productivity. From episode 1 of this season, which focused on self-care, I’ve been advocating for writers to treat themselves with respect and kindness, and take time to rest and replenish their creative energies.
While we’re in the middle of the pandemic, it’s difficult to see the big picture. Writers feel they’ve failed if they haven’t written anything during these turbulent, stressful months. But the truth is, this too will pass. And writers will write again. So be gentle with yourself and take it easy, one day at a time – if you can write, great, put pen to paper, if not – you’re not failing at being a writer, you’re just taking a much needed break to take care of the other parts of your being.
Author and Activist Victoria Noe shared her story to motivate those of us who think the pandemic is doom and gloom. Here’s what she said: “I think the thing that has enabled me to achieve what success I have is a willingness to adapt and learn – to be open to change. This is my fourth career, so I’m used to making big transitions. When all of my speaking engagements for the year were canceled in March, I had to regroup, because that was the major focus of my year. I was not resistant to change or to learning new skills. So success to me is a constant willingness to grow.”
So, to sum up, while it is pretty much doom and gloom, there’s always opportunities for those who are prepared to be flexible and to embrace a little bit of discomfort to welcome change. The ability to pivot after a rough time is crucial to develop. Especially after we’ve established the path of a successful writer is one of perseverance and grit.
sO, TO SUMMARIZE…
Overall, success is in the eye of the beholder. Writer Terri Thomas commented that “the basis of mental health and success depends on a person’s personal definition of “success.” If it’s defined by other people or by the expectations of “society,” then the person may feel failure and never see their accomplishments as success.”
And I fully agree with that. Which is why in the last episode of this season I’m looking at exactly how to manage those external pressures and expectations and how not get discouraged while on the journey of being a writer.
But before that, next Tuesday (15th December), I will teach you how to deal with growth and success, whatever that means to you. It can introduce new stresses and unexpected time black holes in your writing practice, so reestablishing your routine and keeping your focus on the important things is crucial.
If you want to be up to date on Pen Garden news, subscribe to the show and sign up to my newsletter – sign up form available on the right (or bottom if you’re on mobile). Newsletters come once in the beginning of a season and once at the end so your inbox won’t fill up. As a bonus, all of them feature a cute animal and a book recommendation. So no spam, only cups of writing joy.
If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. Thanks very much for listening everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.
- Eden Gruger (Author and Blogger)
- Understanding Resistance to Change: An Experiential Exercise (journal article)
- Victoria Noe (Author and Activist)
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Or the episodes from seasonS 1,2&3: