We writers realize that the chances of any one thing we write being “successful” are slim.
At least that’s true if we define “successful” as “reaching an audience,” “getting produced or published,” “bringing in income,” or even “advancing a career in some way, like landing a manager or doing well in a contest.”
Of course, we all want those things, with every project. But when we define “success” in those terms, we put the power over our sense of accomplishment, fulfillment and satisfaction in other people’s hands — people who usually don’t even know us, or have any reason to care. And it can be awfully disheartening when that “success” doesn’t come. And it usually doesn’t, to the degree that we hope it will.
I know this, because I have generally fallen into this trap — focusing on the “successful outcome” as the whole point. I chose writing as a career, and from a practical point-of-view, it can only be that if some of these things are consistently happening, right? And I have always worked hard to try to make them happen. (And I certainly don’t discourage other writers from “working hard,” in the sense of “a dedicated devotion to one’s craft and projects.” As opposed to some sort of painful struggle, which I think can be counterproductive.)
But the focus on waiting for others to validate one’s work, and only feeling good about it when they do — is a not very happy, empowered or inspired way to live. And it tends to lead to burn-out and bitterness. Ironically, it also may lead to not producing one’s best (and even most sellable) material.
At least, that’s the message of a book I just read by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert.
It’s called Big Magic, and it’s now the most highlighted book on my Kindle. It’s also the new number one on my list of books about the creative process, and th possible emotional struggles inherent in it. (Overtaking The War of Art and The Artists Way.)
One if its main points is that being creative is a great and fun way to live, if you do it a certain way. And that way involves detaching yourself emotionally from concerns about your work’s outcome in the world. Then it’s much more about serving the work, and even seeing it as something that wants to come through you. And then letting it go.
In a sense, this means what you’re writing is largely for you, not anyone else. Gilbert says she wrote Eat, Pray, Love for herself, to work through her own stuff, and was no more attached to (or expecting) a particular outcome in the world with it, than with any of her other books. (Which were mostly published, but never wildly successful.) And she credits this approach with allowing her to sanely experience — and then move on from — its huge worldly success (and the backlash that can come after that, including inner doubts about whether one can ever follow such a hit).
She also has a lot to say about perfectionism, and how it’s not just the enemy of good work, or of getting things done, but also of fun, which she considers a key part of the process. (I might paraphrase “fun” here as “greatly interested engagement” with some “thrill of discoveries and breakthroughs” along the way.)
She even tells the story about how, in a recent novel, she kind of knew that a certain character wasn’t quite working, but instead of going back and reworking the whole story in order to fix it, she decided to just put the book out as is, and move on. And lo and behold, the world didn’t stop turning on its axis. The book had its fans and its detractors, as they all do, and not much was said about this one character issue, by critics and readers. And rather than taking on what felt like a struggle for her, to do that work, she moved on to her next project. Happily.
How does all this square with the need to get notes on one’s work, and rewrite and rewrite until it’s really “ready”?
My view is this: notes are part of the process — the creation of a piece, and the “serving it,” until it’s everything it seems like it could become. This may be especially true in the unique medium that is screenwriting. But at a certain point, when you don’t feel you’re getting much out of the feedback, and not learning, or happily improving the piece (or just feeling “done” with it), then maybe it’s time to move on to the next. And to pronounce this one “successful,” in that you learned, grew, and served the idea, and participated in your creativity, and hopefully enjoyed it. (She says all this much more eloquently and entertainingly than I can — you should read the book.)
I also think that there is a lot of “learning the craft” in one’s early years as a writer, and that tends to require major engagement with others — who can teach, mentor and give feedback. Hopefully that process is enlightening, enriching, and fun, in some way.
But when you reach Elizabeth Gilbert’s status, where you’ve been published or produced several times, maybe you’re not so much learning the craft anymore, but applying those abilities to a new project. “Notes” might still be part of it, but not in quite the same way. At a certain point, you decide to trust your own instincts that it works, as is. Or you simply listen to the strong desire to move on. Either way you release the work, and try not to mind so much whether it leads to money, an audience, etc. Instead, you continue on your happy creative path with your next project.
Having a day job that pays the bills and is not soul-destroying is obviously a key part of it. Gilbert kept hers after four books put out by major publishers. Because her view is that we should not ask our creativity to sustain us in that way, as that’s not really its job. We are here to serve the work, not the other way around.
That work might not be writing, per se — as there are so many forms creativity takes. But she writes that being “creatively alive” is what it’s all about, and the best way to live, and kind of what we’re here to do. And I can’t say I disagree…
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.