Friday, October 20, 2006

9. Setting the Terms of Your Success

So if fame and fortune are not what you should be aiming for, what’s left? How do you know when you’ve “made it”? First of all, there is no such destination. You work as hard as you can for as long as you can and then you die. When you go, you hope that you can look back and be proud of what you achieved: a full life, a happy family, a peaceful home and a long list of artistic accomplishments.

It sounds sappy (and a bit maudlin), but that’s all there is to it. You do not always get to a certain point and then automatically receive a lifetime achievement award for participation. At some point, you have to sit down and make some decisions about what your goals are in life. At some point, you have to ask yourself a very difficult question: How do you measure success?

Money is an easy answer, as is an arbitrary number of awards. Personally, my criteria for success is very simple: the day that I see someone on the subway reading one of my books, I will count myself a success. It’s very simplistic, but it serves my humble purposes, which is exactly the point.

And when I have reached that milestone, what next? Well, I’ll set another one, equally ambitious and outré. But that’s me. I have a wife, a home, a job I love, family, friends and I’m almost debt free. I’m actually idealistic enough to believe that the best rewards in life are those that cannot be put in a suitcase and moved from home to home. Besides, I’ve always been a sucker for a good story and I still believe that the best stories are more valuable than gold.

But I also recognize that what motivates me is not what motivates everyone else. So you have to make a decision about what will make you happy. Chances are you’ve never actually thought very closely about that question, even though it is the most important question that you can ask yourself. What do you want? What will make you happy?

Up until now, everything I’ve written has been predicated on the idea that art was the most important thing in your universe; the thing that kept you awake at night and kept you occupied during boring meetings at work. But there comes a time when art for art’s sake is not enough. You will want to know that what you made touched someone, made a difference in someone’s life – that what you did meant as much to someone else as the artist you most admire did to you.

So start there. Find out how to get in touch with that artist (or series of artists) who influenced you and start sending them copies of your work. Don’t ask them to promote you, just tell them that they meant a lot to you and this is what you’ve done on your own. If you are sincere in your approach, you might actually get a good response. (You might not. If you haven’t learned by now to plan for the worst, you haven’t been paying attention.)

At any rate, you are responsible for your own peace of mind and setting the terms for your own success. Don’t let anyone else tell you what makes you successful – it is always possible that they are projecting their own goals onto your career (such as it is) and one size does not fit all. Especially not among writers.