At this time of year when everyone’s making resolutions I’ve been thinking a lot about that slippery beast success. It’s something we probably all wish for ourselves and our loved ones but it’s a fickle creature. A hologram. You think you know what it is, but as you reach for it it shape shifts.
I was further prompted by Vinay Patel’s excellent blog on reviews and how to respond to them – he said “there isn’t necessarily a correlation between success and a sustained peace. I’m sure a part of me thought that was the case when I was a younger man, but the final thing 2018 has taught me is that this is categorically not true.” Spot on.
Hilariously I’m now thinking ‘the two people who will read this will think I’m a big head who reckons she’s really successful’. To be clear: I don’t think of myself as ‘successful’ – well not all the time anyway. And even when I feel I have achieved success it can be a disappointing thing. Elusive, then disappointing and can ruin my creative mojo.
Sometimes there’s that awful thing of wanting something really badly, but then once you have achieved it it becomes less worthwhile BECAUSE you have achieved it. It’s attainability by me somehow makes it less worthwhile. And that’s a dreadful place to be. One where happiness is impossible.
The fact is: what success looks like changes as we do. My personal idea of success has morphed from writing a play, to getting a play on, to being paid for it, to being able to write full time – but all of these successes came with their horrid realisations and compromises.
Of course that’s life, nothing’s perfect or as we imagine, but a writer’s sense of self can be fragile so we have to be careful. I think my main fault has been thinking of the goal, the big picture, and not being thoughtful, exacting or rigorous about the steps towards it. Sometimes making compromises I shouldn’t – working with or listening to the wrong people, not demanding more time if I needed it, and not calling out behaviour that is unacceptable because I don’t want to rock the boat.
I’m good(ish) at knowing my own boundaries but not always at adhering to them or laying them out to others. This means the pursuit of whatever the particular success I’m after at the time becomes all important and that can be damaging: To my mental health, my relationships, my financial health – you get the gist.
Obviously it’s hard – as a writer you can feel powerless and want to grab every opportunity that becomes available – be flexible and adaptable to the point of contortionism – but as a very wise man (David Eldridge) once said, a writer’s power is in their ability to say ‘NO’. Backed up by a very wise woman – Maggie Smith in Nothing Like a Dame who said: “if in doubt, say no”.
And I have to remind myself that even when I’m are feeling rubbish and unsuccessful others will be looking at me and wishing that they has what I do – we all know the writer’s tendency to compare themselves to others and it is deathly. That subjectivity and in-your-own-head-ness can also be damaging to a writer’s creative life. When I’m in that mode I remember some thoroughly good advice Jon Jacob gave me: “Mentally pull back and look at your thoughts like bugs on a window. Observe them moving around – they’re just thoughts” – this has been extremely useful in overwhelming moments.
Measuring success through other people’s judgement is also a no-no for your mental health as Vinay’s aforementioned blog attests. So few reactions to your work will ever be ‘right’ for you – in my opinion you cannot write to please other people, only yourself.
So it’s about figuring out what success looks like for me. Figuring out the steps to get there and the boundaries.
So my New Year’s resolution is to not look for ‘success’ but to be more specific than that, decide what I want and what I’m prepared to do to get it. Oh and to not seek happiness through my work. Well not only through my work. Wish me luck 🙂