I recently listened to this speech by Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love. What she had to say interested me, not least because she touched on something that has been swimming around in my mind for a while now. (Nor am I the only one: my friend Aniko Carmean recently wrote a beautiful post about much the same topic.)
Success and failure. Failure and success. Two sides of the same coin, perhaps. Two spectres that always appear at a writer’s feast sooner or later. And also two rather unclear terms: what exactly is success, or failure? If you write an exquisite book that sells two copies, have you succeeded or failed? If you write a book that takes the world by storm, does that automatically qualify as a success? What if the book in question is mediocre, or worse?
Gilbert’s story is interesting, not least because there’s a part of it to which I think most writers could probably relate. All she ever wanted to be, she said, was a writer. For years she worked a day job, wrote in her spare time, and sent what she wrote to agents and publishers. The results were disappointing, if predictable: for a very long time all she ever got in return were rejections. It was a dispiriting process; frequently she found herself wondering whether she should just give up and spare herself the trouble.
This is a feeling that most of us, I imagine, have experienced. “Quit while you’re ahead” is a common piece of advice; “quit while you’re behind” often sounds like a much better piece of advice, especially if you’re of a pessimistic disposition. Why keep going when the whole enterprise seems doomed? Why not just spare yourself the time, the trouble, and the potential embarrassment?
Gilbert didn’t quit. She kept at it, and was in due course rewarded by a publishing deal and a bestseller that went on to inspire a Hollywood film. A bit of a modern fairytale, you might think.
However – and this is the most interesting part of Gilbert’s speech, in my view – there is an interesting postscript to this particular fairytale: success, she found, did not automatically lead to happiness. Quite the opposite, in fact. Success was bewildering and unsettling; it blinded her, briefly, to what was most important to her. It was, in fact, an experience hauntingly similar, in subjective terms, to failure: a queasy feeling of being out of your depth, out of control, and horribly far from where you want to be.
Gilbert’s method of finding her way back was simple and, I think, sound. She focused on what she loved most, which in her case – and in the case of most writers, I suppose – was the simple joy of writing and creating for its own sake: “that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.” And, as if to prove it, she notes that when her follow-up book went on to become a (relative) commercial failure, she actually felt all right with that. The success or failure of the book was a side-effect; it wasn’t the most important thing about it, or her.
We live in a world where money talks, and loudly; success or failure is often measured simply, crudely, in terms of commerce. And if you’re a creative person (as opposed to a business person), living in such a world can be a deeply distressing, alienating experience: you know that not everything can be valued in terms of its commercial clout, but the rest of the world doesn’t seem interested in hearing that. And you know too that your beloved book, the work into which you poured so much love and effort, will (by some people, at least) be measured in terms of these outcomes: Was it published? Who published it? And, more to the point, how much dough did you make out of it?
Perhaps the best thing we can do is to disregard those giddy highs and depressing lows, and just concentrate on doing what we do: writing, crafting, creating. This is easier said than done, admittedly: nobody can help but be influenced by the world in which they live. But perhaps it’s the best prescription for a writer hoping to remain sane. What do people think?