Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Futility of Chasing a “Successful” Writing Career

by Michelle Dean)

The writer Emily Gould has a lovely essay for Medium this week — an excerpt from a new book of essays called MFA vs. NYC — on the way her Big Triumph, the sale of a book of essays for the fantastic sum of $200,000, turned out to be a sort of professional albatross. “It took me a while to realize that my book had failed. No one ever told me point-blank that it had,” she writes. “It was more like the failure occurred in tiny increments over the course of two years, after which it was too late to develop a solid Plan B.”

I can’t stop thinking about this essay since I read it. I think one thing I would say to Gould — who I don’t really know beyond a few online exchanges and one reading stage not too long ago, and god, isn’t the conceit of talking to people through pieces published on websites obnoxious, but oh well — is that the entire lesson of my adult life has been to quit reading everything in such stark terms as “success” and “failure.” I mean, bank accounts are important, and this essay was presented as a cautionary lesson about the entrapments of modern debt. But the bottom line here, as everywhere else, is not everything.

For example, and please excuse the quasi-humblebrag that might be embedded here, people in my life have started to call me “successful” and I’m deeply uncomfortable with it. Call it Post-Success-Stress-Disorder. In a prior life people used to call me the s-word a lot. They did so mostly because I had a fancy job as a lawyer, and having a fancy job as a lawyer means something to a certain kind of person. Certain kinds of people, you see, do not know that the interior of that particular fancy job is a hollow cavern of suffering. A hollow cavern I promptly filled by buying all sorts of stuff I didn’t need. I got some lovely bookshelves out of it, but that’s about it. After that experience, I was at best a skeptic of being called “successful.”

I know why the s-word is cropping up again. It’s coming because I am regularly paid to write about movies and television and books. This seems, to some people, like a desirable way to make a living, and it is. Sort of. Sometimes. It also feels desperately insubstantial. The culture, some weeks, does not yield sufficient matter to comment on. And with every new ball-of-doom being sounded across the land about the End of Writing, it’s hard not to feel like I’ve hitched my wagon to some dying oxen. In fact, a few months ago, I was called in to speak to a bunch of interns at a national magazine about how to forge a career in writing. It’s fair to say I did not sugarcoat things: “Career?” I said. “I hope I have one of those.” (Sometimes I’m blunt.)

In short, I think it’s important to be self-critical about “career” “success.”

I spent years thinking, you know, if I could just get one piece of writing published, I will die happy. Then I got one piece of writing published and I thought, oh, what I would really like to do is get a piece of writing published at the New Yorker. And then I got a piece of writing published at the New Yorker, and I thought, I would like to write a book. And then I sold a book to a publisher, and I thought, I hope this book sells well. I hope that I achieve some measure of cultural success. And then I read accounts like Emily’s and realize, that wheel just keeps on turning regardless. Nobody’s fully successful, and no one’s fully a failure. We’re all just doing the best we can to survive in an economy that hates writers, and in fact hates pretty much everyone. There’s a level on which just continuing to try is sort of heroic.

At least, I hope so, because I’ve run out of other means to be employable.

*Blogger's note: I chose to post this because blogging is writing also. What struck me the most was when she said "The culture, some weeks, does not yield sufficient matter to comment on." As a blogger who posts a lot of book news, I find this to be true. One day you have a million things to try to post, and the next day there is NOTHING going on. It is rough to get through those days. I guess it would be different if I ran my blog differently but I do not want to. On those days where there is not a lot of news I do my best to be resourceful and wait until the next day and hope for an explosion! :)