When I was in the midst of writing my first novel, I gave up. I’d never written fiction before. I had never even taken a class on how to write fiction. I had no idea what I was doing, and I knew I would never get published. I explained all this to my husband.
“You know, even if you never get published,” he said, “It is a huge accomplishment just to finish an entire novel. How many people actually do that?”
And I thought, he’s right.
Sometimes in writing we can get so focused on what recognition and success look like in the world around us that we forget what success looks like to each of us, on our terms. Of course I want my books to be published; I want readers and reviewers to adore them and I want to sell a million copies. I’ve published three novels now, and pored over every review in every periodical and blog, compulsively checked my Amazon reviews and rankings, scrutinized my royalty statements, and done endless marketing and PR for my books, including once driving 1400 miles in seven days to visit 28 indie book stores.
But with each book I’ve gotten less and less invested in the outcome, because I realize that the only part of the whole process I can control is the writing. I have learned that there is great satisfaction in writing as well as I can every day, and in challenging myself to make each book better than the last, and in celebrating the accomplishments that matter to me.
Celebrating ourselves doesn’t come easily to many people, especially writers, who are often (stereotype alert!) smart, introspective, shy, and yes, insecure. All those adjectives fit me to a T. I am a nice Mid-western girl. I am polite. I often defer to authority (or at least I used to, before I became middle-aged and cranky). I am modest. Self-promotion makes me queasy, and I’m uncomfortable being the center of attention. But I have two daughters. I see how hard they work, and I see how eager they are to please. I want to show them that there is nothing wrong with cheering for yourself when you’ve earned it.
I sold my first novel when I was 47, on a day when I had such a bad head cold I couldn’t breathe. What I remember most about that week is going to the dress rehearsal for my daughter’s Odyssey of the Mind competition, the day after returning from New York, where my agent had introduced me to several editors and publishers who, to my amazement, wanted my book. At that point I was so sick that all I wanted to do was sit propped up in bed with some Vicks’ Vapo-rub and a glass of orange juice. Instead, I had to go to the dress rehearsal, lugging cardboard scenery and a hot dog costume. When I arrived, my friend Steve pulled out a bottle of champagne.
“I’m sick,” I said. “I can’t drink champagne.”
He popped the cork. “Everyone,” he said, “should have a glass of champagne on the day they sell their first novel.”
And he poured me a glass of champagne and I drank it.
The champagne stands out for me because even after I had done it, even after I had written an entire novel and found an agent and sold it, I still wasn’t quite ready to celebrate my achievement until Steve insisted. And I am eternally grateful he did.
This summer I put aside the 100+ pages of a new novel I’d been working on because it didn’t feel right to me. I haven’t written since. It’s plagued me, this not writing, and opened up the door for many doubts and fears. But then last week I opened a blank document and wrote the first few pages of something new, something that feels intriguing and scary and exciting. I wrote three pages. The next day, I wrote a little more. No one read my pages, or congratulated me on getting back to it, or asked for a synopsis. But the pages are good; it feels like a victory to have survived my dry spell.
So last night, I opened the champagne.
What is your next big milestone, and what do you plan to do to celebrate that once you’ve reached it?