Saturday, February 11, 2012

Is "Happy Writer" an Oxymoron?

If I ain't happy now, I'm not going to be happy when I'm "successful."  Because apparently, being a successful writer is a formula for misery.

In a recent Huffington Post blog, Lev Raphael describes "a contemporary writer whose first novel was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It was subsequently on the NYT best seller list, and sold 500,000 copies. That's the kind of exposure, notoriety, and sales record most writers would kill for...This author... turned out to be very unhappy. Why? He hadn't gotten a Pulitzer nomination, and couldn't let go of the disappointment and frustration."

From "Nobody will publish me" to "I can't get nominated for a Pulitzer," writers are...Whiny?

"Illegible." Now that's an unkind cut.
Do Men Have It Better?
Raphael cites Roxane Gay's trenchant observations on Salon  that male authors in fact receive more attention than female authors.  (She points the finger at him, BTW.) Gay also states, "The (gender) disparit(ies)...are significant and worth examining, but we’re talking about such rarified air (when it comes to highly successful authors) that it’s difficult to make broad conclusions."  In other words, most of us barely make the auditions, let alone being sent to Hollywood for the real competition. 

I'm Not Asking for Much...Just a Billboard on Times Square
As Gay says, "All we (writers) want is everything."  No gender distinction there.

Perhaps it's a blessing to be as little known as I am.  In order to KEEP GOING and get the work done, I can't afford to indulge in jealousy & toxic mental comparisons--and I need to deeply treasure every gift of affirmation a reader gives me. (Thank you! You know who you are!)

What is Success?
So how do I see myself in the illustrious glow of our unnamed friend in the first paragraph who has not only attained critical acclaim, but untold riches (and who probably lives in a really cool apartment with a sub-zero fridge from which emerge the artisan cheeses he serves at the fabulous parties he throws for other fabulous authors I wouldn't dare 'friend' on Facebook)?  After all, I'm writing and publishing; and some people actually really like my stuff.

And how do you see yourself in the light of other people's success (or lack thereof)?


Catherine Stine said...

The author Lev cites sounds troubled. As witnessed by creative types like the late Michael Jackson, and the latest victim, Whitney Houston, you can "have it all" and still be a miserable hot mess. It always burns me up when someone with such talent doesn't get help and chooses to burn out. And, I do believe that it IS a choice. Wasting one's talent is the closest thing to the word sin that I can think of.
Whenever I start to feel that toxicity that comes with anxious, neurotic comparison, I meditate, and then take immediate action. That action is usually to write, but sometimes it's calling a fellow writer, or forcing myself to do some publicity for my work--whatever needs doing at that time.

HelenQP said...

Thanks for your thoughts--it took me a little while to realize I CAN do something about that 'toxicity'--meditation is a big part of that. I used to think the attitude stuff would take care of itself, and all I needed to do was write. !! Not that simple, but I'm much happier as a result.

Unpublished Life said...

Hi there! Just popped over from She Writes.

I think this argument is not necessarily particular to writers ... it's any job/ career/ goal. How do we measure success? The more we have, the more we want.

At the moment all I want is to get a novel published. Just one. But, from personal experience, I know I will want more. And more. Are we ever truly satisfied?

I think it's important to be thankful for what we have achieved and what we are producing in the present. And see anything else that comes along as a bonus.

It's hard for natural over-achievers though.

Good post!

HelenQP said...

You're right, this problem is not limited to writers--wanting more is built into the human heart, and many professions feed off that. Keeping present is indeed key. Thanks!

Brian Hodge said...

Tough call, here. With the anonymous writer first cited, it's easy to point a finger (even if you don't know who you're pointing at) and ask, "Why can't you be grateful for what you've achieved, and enjoy it?" Then again, in any endeavor, if we don't feel that itch, don't have that next mountain to climb, it's too easy to stay in stasis. Then again again, I always seem to come back to the great line from the movie Chinatown: "How much better can you eat?"

I can't help but contrast this writer with Elizabeth Gilbert, and the wonderful TED Talk she gave. She talks about dealing with a kind of shock after the unexpected success of Eat, Pray, Love, and realizing that it was very likely that nothing she ever did in the future would be as successful. Accepting that was a big part of being able to move forward, and she seems to have dealt with it beautifully.

Ultimately, I think a huge part of success is learning how to regard yourself by what you do, rather than other people's reactions to it, both the snubs and the accolades. Once your happiness depends solely on things you have no control over, that's when you've stepped into the marsh full of quicksand.

Anyway, thanks for pointing me over here, Helen. It was good food for thought.

HelenQP said...

Brian, thank you! There's a fine line between seeking to push oneself, push the work, and (as you say)defining yourself by the reactions of others. I sometimes need to go back to the elemental reasons for writing in the first place. This always makes me think of reading in the closet late at night as a child, when I felt simple joy to live the world of Mary Poppins or the books of E. Nesbit. Creating a world is an amazingly hard thing to do, and it's sad when people get thrown off by "things we have no control over"--Elizabeth Gilbert seems to have walked that beautiful edge without falling off.

Jane Lippman said...

Lots of above most helpful; 'toxicity' indeed a constant threat, often comes in the form of merely thoughtless, banal, but nasty asides; during such moments, vs. being felled by such, I recall a few quotes: from filmmaker Mira Nair: "I get a lot of energy from rejection," says Nair. "When someone says it's bad or you can't do this or it's impossible. I have this feeling in my stomach I'm going to show you." Plus, my fave from Fran Lebowitz, always makes me chuckle: "How do you know if your child is a writer? she says, “Your obstetrician holds his stethoscope to your abdomen and only hears excuses.”

HelenQP said...

"How do you know if your child is a writer? she says, “Your obstetrician holds his stethoscope to your abdomen and only hears excuses.”

I LOVE this. Humor is definitely one of the major food groups.