Guest Blogger P.A. Cornell explores measuring success with writing . . . when can you call yourself a writer?
Not so long ago I was speaking with someone about how much I’m enjoying being a short fiction writer. I was trying to convey all the great opportunities that short fiction can offer: variety in setting and characters, finding your voice, etc. They kept nodding, but I could tell my words weren’t really penetrating, and when I finished, they said, “Okay…but why think so small? You’re working on a novel, right? I mean, go big or go home is where it’s at!”
Is it though?
In our society we tend to equate success with tangible things like fame and income, and this does have some validity, but is this the right measure of success for all of us? When it comes to writing, there are some very specific signs of a successful career: fame and fortune—if you can achieve them—are at the top, but along the way there are other markers like getting an agent, publishing a book (preferably with a Big Five publisher), and winning the top awards. Many people both in and out of the industry still have the attitude that if you aren’t working toward these lofty goals, you’re not a “real” writer. I disagree.
Before I was published, I was told I wasn’t a real writer, but every author in the bookstore was once an unpublished writer. And when you think about how many books are submitted to publishers each year and how few actually end up published, the odds are not unlike winning the lottery. Does this mean that every book that’s rejected is garbage? Are their authors not real writers? As someone who once read the slush pile for a publishing house, I can assure you that many of those rejected books are great, but there are only so many spaces to fill. Published, or not, their authors put in the work of learning their craft and completing their book—something which is no small achievement. And what about someone who chooses to self-publish; are they not a real writer?
To me, a writer is someone who expresses themselves through the written word and does so in a way that’s dedicated, with the aim of one day having someone else read what they’ve written. That’s it. I say this because I see so many writers beating themselves up for not fitting the description of the “successful author” that seems so prevalent. And if they’re not belittling their own efforts, there are so many others who will see a writer who hasn’t gotten a major book deal, or won awards, or who writes as a hobby rather than as their main career, as somehow less-than. I’m here to say it’s okay to think small.
There are so many paths available to us as writers, and none of these is superior to any other. None of them make you more of a writer. The goals we set for ourselves are so personal and have such varied motivations behind them—our measure of success should be just as personal.
It’s also okay if your goals change over time. When I was younger, I too fell into the trap of what it meant to be a successful writer. I wanted to publish a book—or series of books—and have them all become bestsellers and have the world know my name. The thing is, I didn’t so much want these things for myself, I wanted them as a means of proving to other people that I was a real writer.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve reexamined what my measure of happiness is as far as my career is concerned, and a lot of this goes back to what made me want to be a writer in the first place, when I was a little girl. Back then I just loved stories. Stories to me were magical, and when I learned that they came from the imaginations of people called writers, I just wanted to be a part of that. To me, that was how I could contribute to the world and somehow make it just a tiny bit better. That’s exactly what I’m doing right now, as a short fiction writer.
Do I have other goals? Sure, but fame and fortune aren’t really what I’m striving for these days. Sure, it would be nice to see my own book on store shelves, and I certainly wouldn’t turn down a decent advance. Likewise, if someone wants to give me an award I’d be elated. But are these things I need in order to consider myself successful? No.
My goals these days are simple. I intend to continue writing—and hopefully publishing—my short fiction. One day I’d like to publish a short story collection, but how it’s published is something I’ll decide when the time comes. I know writers who are published traditionally, self-published, or are hybrids of the two, and all these paths have pros and cons to consider, but all are valid options. One thing I do know is that short story collections tend not to be huge money-makers, especially if you’re not a big-name author—and I’m okay with that.
Maybe I’ll even write a novel one day, but I no longer dream of a long career as a series novelist. There’s nothing wrong with choosing that if it’s right for you, and I suppose if I did have a super successful first novel and publishers were knocking down my door begging for the sequel, I’d consider it. What I’m trying to say is that in the scenario where that doesn’t happen—the one where I quietly publish a book and it’s not widely read, doesn’t make me rich and famous, but a few readers do enjoy it and tell their friends—I’m still happy, and I’m still a real writer. I no longer feel the need to prove that to anyone.
I have friends who want more, and that’s fine. I’ll cheer them on as they achieve their goals. I’ll spread the word about their major book deal, movie option, or award. I’ll buy all their books and tell people I “knew them when.” I’ll be incredibly proud of them—but that doesn’t mean I want to be them.
There are real people behind every story, book, or article that’s written. People with lives that don’t always allow them to “write every day.” People with enormous obstacles to overcome. People who write for fun. People for whom the very notion of fame is enough to trigger their anxiety. People who are yet to be published but are working diligently on a story they know will one day see the light of day, even if they have to publish it themselves. And there are people who—like me—are just enjoying exploring new worlds and characters through short fiction or poetry or what have you, and who’ll decide later if they want something else. All these people are still writers, and every one of them is the real deal.
P.A. Cornell is a Chilean-Canadian SFF writer who wrote her first science-fiction story as a third-grade assignment, and still has it in her possession over three decades later. A member of the SFWA and graduate of the Odyssey workshop, her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and genre magazines. For a bibliography visit pacornell.com.
Note from Marlene: I relate to: “. . . I quietly publish a book and it’s not widely read, doesn’t make me rich and famous, but a few readers do enjoy it and tell their friends—I’m still happy, and I’m still a real writer. I no longer feel the need to prove that to anyone.”
My series of Write Spot books fills the category of “not widely read,” but for the readers who have enjoyed them: Thank you! And even if those books weren’t published, I would still call myself a writer, which took me years to be able to say.
I am a writer. How about you? Are you a writer? Say that out loud.
I am writer.
Welcome aboard the writing train!