Yesterday in my local newspaper, I read this piece, "External Success Can be a Mirage," from Dr. Jim Manganiello, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist.
Though he appears to live less than 10 miles from me, I've never met Dr. Manganiello, and his wellness column wasn't specifically about creative writing.
However, as I sat there munching on my breakfast cereal, his distinction between external success and what he calls, "inside-out success" really rang true for me.
Dr. Manganiello posits that "success" (as we brand it in America and most of the western world) is "rooted in a self-image that we downloaded in our family. It's a surface affair, a persona, but, unless we know better, we mistake it for who we are."
Here are my favorite lines from the piece:
In other words, we can build castles or buy cars or snag that corner-office job and title, but we still have to work on our internal lives; we still have to face up to and deal with that "existential uncertainty."
This piece has forced me to take a really hard look at why I write. It challenges why I started and continue with a writing life--often at the cost of other pursuits and people in my life. Are those sacrifices still worth it? Were they ever?
Are the end products (books, articles, essays, podcasts, movies) of our creative output motivated by that "surface success" or by some more evolved, inner version--by what Dr. Manganiello calls, "heart-based dreams and deep mind visions?"
So why do we write? It's definitely not for the money. And yes, if we're all honest here, there is an element of ego in seeing our own name on a book cover or among a publication's bylines.
The big question: As we sit here at our writing desks, how much does the projected or imagined payout (byline, fame, speakerships) influence the real-time process?
Added to these questions--for which I have no immediate or definitive answer--is the fact that most of us get to have a byline or book based almost exclusively on the "success" or track record of our past bylines and books.
From our BookScan numbers to our "author platform," to the number of online clicks our essays generate, writing--at least the public version of it--is a numbers game. These numbers indicate "success."
When and where do we writers come to internalize this quantitative version of ourselves? When do we begin to measure our own self-worth via how it gets measured for us? Driven by fear or ego, when do we consciously or subconsciously begin to write to the market, to make ourselves and our work match a version of "success" that's almost 100% market based?
Now, this was a lot of soul searching for a Friday-morning read of the local paper. Today, over 24 hours later, I've managed to reach only two conclusions:
1. Before we start a new writing project or re-direct or recast a piece from its original conception or intention, we should stop and scrutinize our own motivations for doing so;
2. I thank the stars that as a teenager, I discovered personal or reflective writing and that now, almost four decades later, I still use my hand-written journal as a route to self-knowledge and as an antidote to "existential anxiety."
If we're churning out work to meet an editor's deadline and to pay our own and our literary agent's rents--that's fine, but it should align with our own life plan. Or, in Dr. Manganiello's words, it should fit with "who we truly are and what our lives are uniquely about."
I think my greatest fear as a writer is not that I will never be published again.
I fear that, one day, I'll look in the mirror and not like what I see.
A writer's success is one of those big and amorphous topics, so I'd love to hear your thoughts (see comment section) here.