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The Practice of Success

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Because it is summertime and my kids are absolutely omnipresent, I hear myself doing quite a lot of bossing around: Go practice your typing! Go practice your violin! Go practice being a not-sullen preteen! Go practice not stinking up the house with your stinky feet! Meanwhile I am practicing patience, sanity maintenance and juggling work + kids, all of which are tricky when I don’t have much quiet in my head and the temperature is 30 degrees hotter than any Seattleite can stand. So I also practice sunscreen application and iced coffee concoctions.

All this recent practicing has led me to consider how and what we practice in our professional lives. My friend, Heather, practices medicine. My friend, Matt, practices hot yoga. Robin practices law (though she’s a Good Witch, not a Bad Witch). Tony has a meditation practice. And I suppose I could say today, I am practicing Loving My Neighbor, a hard task as my neighbors are responsible for this mess in my driveway.

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(That young man is jealous of the guy in the 9-foot hole where it’s a pleasant 62 degrees.)

To explain: our neighbors decided to replace the sewer line, including our shared line, Just In Case. Therefore, I am required to shell out thousands of dollars that I had not planned to shell. I also have lost access to my driveway and garage for two weeks which would be no big deal except that it’s just too hot out there, and everything’s difficult when it’s too hot. But I will keep trying to love my neighbors because I am called to practice Neighbor-Loving.

With so much practicing going on, I wonder why I don’t say that I practice writing. If we did think of ourselves as practicers of the craft of writing, would it be easier to remember that writing fiction is an art, and no one ever masters an art? Not even a best-selling author can write a book without struggling, plotting, plodding, revising, starting over, doubting, more revising, more doubting. Writing is a craft we must practice, not a science we can master.

If we are practicers of writing, we can also redefine writerly “success.” While our culture defines success by numbers (selling a million copies, making a million dollars, writing a million books) and by trophies (how many writing grants, publications, contest prizes and book awards someone has earned), that definition can cause not-wealthy, untrophied writers to feel rather crummy. Book sales, writing grants and fiction awards are important, but does accumulating a certain number mean we have made it? And what is that certain number? And when we reach that number, do we climb up a laurel and rest there until we die? 

It is essential to set goals throughout our writing journey: pitching to an agent at a conference, submitting a story to three publications, introducing oneself to a potential writing partner, writing a query letter, writing 1000 words every day, writing one scene before lunch. Without these mile markers, we are dandelion fluff at the mercy of wind, gravity or the breath of a child. Meeting goals is cause for celebration. But we should also understand that coming to a mile marker doesn’t ensure peace and happiness. Conversely, if and when we have trouble reaching a mile marker, that does not mean we have failed. It means we are still walking. We are still practicing.[pullquote]What if success were based on generosity and humility rather than numbers and trophies?[/pullquote]

Tidy definitions of “success,” however, are comforting to humans, and success is too often connected to the arrival rather than to the journey. A few years ago I had the opportunity to speak at the PNWA conference with a presentation titled, “Finding Your Dream Agent.” I believed (and still do) that I have found my dream agent. She and I, however, have not sold a manuscript. I acknowledged this to the 500+ folks in the audience, and after my presentation I received this question from more than a few people: How can she be your dream agent when she hasn’t sold your book?

That stung. Then I heard Ron, the imaginary bloke who sits on my shoulder and whispers mean stuff into my ear, say, Ooo, good question! How can she be your dream agent, Sarah, when she hasn’t sold your book?

After slipping Ron a mickey, I tossed him into the backseat of my car, drove him along a deserted country road until I came upon a pasture of tigers and moray eels, and that’s where I dumped him. As I was driving away, I recalled my definition of a dream agent: She is loyal, passionate, dedicated, creative, savvy, experienced, respected and willing to provide editorial support and advice. Never a laurels-rester, she is part-cheerleader, part-salesperson, part-mama bear. She uses phrases like: “Sarah, I will DIE trying to sell this book.”

Those in the audience who questioned the dreamy qualities of my agent believe in the numbers-and-trophies kind of success: if she were any good, she would have sold the book in three minutes for six figures. But I know a dream agent when I see one. She is patient. She is willing to work her tush off to sell my book because she sees my potential, because she knows I am a practicer.

We know that true and lasting happiness does not come from wealth, accolades or promotions. It does not come from losing ten pounds or watching three agents fight to represent you. True happiness is connected to peace, contentment, relationships, self-acceptance and baby elephant videos. [pullquote] My professional success shouldn’t be based on the fickle approval (or disapproval) of others. [/pullquote]

Then how should we define happiness (and success) in our writing practice? What if success were based on generosity and humility rather than numbers and trophies? What if “making it” as a writer came when we were in the position to willingly help others? What if we knew we “had arrived” when we were able to pay it forward?

J. K. Rowling gives generously to programs that fight poverty, illiteracy and multiple sclerosis. John Green spends time and money supporting Nerds [3]and fighting World Suck [4]. Dave Eggers supports young writers through his 826 programs [5]. In my mind, they have arrived. They have made it. True, their ability to give back may be possible because of numbers and trophies, but it’s not the numbers and trophies that make them so successful. I bet it’s the giving that makes them happiest.

If we are craft practicers, and if we base success on our generosity and humility rather than numbers, trophies and the fickle approval (or disapproval) of others, we can’t help but be a success. If we are practicers who sets goals and steadily grow in wisdom and craft, then we are doing our job as artists.

Your turn! How do you define writerly success? Have you been disappointed by any “numbers and trophies” success in your writing life? What does the practice of writing look like for you? Should I move to Arizona to escape this heat?

Ballet photo compliments of Flickr’s thejbird [6].

About Sarah Callender [7]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.