I have to admit that as I write this, I’m feeling a little less than myself. Maybe it’s “day-after-holiday-weekend-itis.” Maybe the morning thunderstorm outside keeps me from my bike ride for the third day in a row.
Either way, it’s almost one o’clock, and I have yet to do anything really significant today.
I feel like writers are prone to illusions of what productivity looks like and then using them as a template for what defines a “good day.” Is it writing a certain number of words per day? Is it getting good news, like a literary journal acceptance or a positive critique from a friend or mentor?
For those of us who work with clients—is it getting ahead of schedule on someone’s project or getting the rush of adrenaline that comes from doing something really good to help them succeed?
There’s nothing wrong with having goals like these, but the problems start when you begin holding yourself to an agreement where if you don’t meet them, it automatically means you’ve had a “bad day.” That’s when despair sets in, and, as I’ve written about in a previous post, you become enslaved to your own expectations. You lose the joy that should come with making things.
When people ask how someone else is doing, it’s become a slightly sarcastic, kind of buzzword-y response to say that you’re “living the dream.” But what do we mean when we say that, how honest are we, and what does any of that have to do with our writing?
I want to break this down a little so we can understand how that phrase as culture understands it is inhibiting our work.
Is It Really Failure?
I was thinking about this a few weeks ago when I watched a movie on, of all places, Disney+. The movie was Hollywood Stargirl, the sequel to the 2020 film adaptation of Jerry Spinelli’s classic young adult novel Stargirl. In the movie, Stargirl, a free-spirited teenager, moves to L.A. with her mother, who has taken a job as the costume designer for a new film.
While exploring L.A., Stargirl meets one of her favorite musicians, the down-on-her-luck singer/songwriter Roxanne Martel. Years ago, Roxanne independently released her first album in the L.A. area with high expectations that she would quickly be signed by a label and become a star. However, the album went nowhere, and she abandoned her dreams of making it big. Discouraged, she relegated herself to working behind the scenes as a producer.
Stargirl and one of her new friends have songwriting aspirations, and Roxanne reluctantly helps them with their music and even gets them studio time to record a song. Supporting the young artists brings Roxanne out of her shell and forces her to confront the unrealistic expectations of stardom that led her to quit.
“Just because it doesn’t look the way you thought it would doesn’t mean you aren’t still living the dream,” she tells Stargirl.
I don’t usually expect to get schooled by a character in a Disney film, but this line really hit me. I sometimes wonder about what myself from twenty years ago would think about where I’ve ended up. I think she’d be pretty disappointed. In high school, I wanted to be a bestselling author, screenwriter, and sometimes-actress. I wasn’t interested in dating, and I was a rabid atheist.
Now I’m married, I’m a Christian, I run a business out of my house, and my book sales are barely in the hundreds, not the millions.
I’d have to explain to her that even though my success doesn’t match her definition of success, I have nonetheless made it. I’m happy. I’m still using my gifts to help others and share my creativity.
I also know she probably would give me the finger and call me a conformist because
nothing I could say would be helpful to an idealistic new writer who thinks the days of major book sales are right around the corner.
Should You Lower Your Expectations?
A couple of days ago, author Karen Swallow Prior posted a sobering screencap from Twitter on her social media:
The comments on the post were varied. Some people bemoaned the state of the publishing world. Some speculated whether this is because fewer books are being published, a lack of quality in submissions, or both.
One person noted that although many people put “likes” on the Facebook post, no one had reacted with a heart yet.
Sadly, this is the reality writers face if they’re dreaming of “making it big.”
If your gut reaction to this post is to get defensive and scream, “Never tell me the odds,” that’s okay. You can still pursue your dream. But understand that even if you don’t sell a million copies of your book, that does not mean you have failed.
Don’t sabotage yourself because you aren’t Stephen King.
You can’t define your success by other people’s success. It will eat your creativity and your unique vision for your work alive. Any time you take your eye off the ball, you risk losing sight of what you are supposed to be doing with your work.
I write a lot on this blog about being an independent author and why I have chosen to focus Inkling Creative Strategies on the end goal of publishing work independently. I redefined my ideas of success six years ago when I decided that I would rather manage all the facets of my work than have the prestige of getting an agent or working with an established publisher.
I’m a writer, editor, marketer, and desktop publishing designer. I enjoy using all these skills, and I’m proud of what I’ve created.
But it’s still easy for me to look at friends who are achieving success in more traditional venues and feel tinges of regret, wondering if I “gave up” or “settled” instead of trying harder for longer.
It reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in the Bible, at the end of John’s Gospel. Jesus has just told the disciple Peter that he will be martyred for his faith. Peter responds by asking Jesus what John’s fate will be. Jesus rebukes him: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22)
Jesus is, in effect, saying, “Stay in your lane and don’t worry about what other people are doing.” As a Christian, I feel particularly motivated by this instruction, but the message is still there regardless of what your god concept or lack thereof might be.
You become exponentially less effective in your writing when you’re worrying about what other people are doing when their success has no bearing on whether you achieve your goals.
It isn’t about lowering your expectations or comparing yourself to other people. It’s about recognizing where you can have the most influence with your work and pursuing that track.
What Does “The Dream” Look Like?
I’ll give you a quick answer.
It’s whatever scenario lets you use your writing gifts and talents to the best of your ability to benefit others.
This might mean looking for an agent to help you sell your work because you want the broadest reach possible. It might mean getting talented friends together to help you self-publish a book. It might not even mean writing at all, but instead telling stories to your kids, giving a testimony at work or a place of worship, or sharing funny anecdotes to make people laugh.
Those things aren’t dependent on book sales, and they always have a positive return on investment.
All you need to do is recognize that even if it looks different from what you expected, you’re still in it. And it’s still great.
Need some help figuring out what The Dream is?
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