Success and the Long Game

What does success mean to a writer — or any artist?

My mentor, Laisha, very early in our collaboration talked about “playing the long game” — treating writing as a long-term commitment, working at the craft regularly, finishing projects that may take months or even years to reach completion. Most importantly, continuing whether or not the work is recognized or celebrated.

I will tell you that I am not, by nature, a patient person. It is very hard for me to follow through with ideas, to let things unfold in their own time, to stay with things that offer no guarantee of reward. What has made the difference with my writing — unlike flamenco dancing or other true but less gripping loves, like sewing or painting — is passion. I need to write, and that need has kept me going since I first started recording my thoughts, ideas and experiences in journals when I was 12 or 13 years old.

This love affair I have with words experienced a cooling period this year. The passion didn’t disappear, but it seemed my ability to create anything new did.

I got what I wanted for my work. My writing was published, shortlisted for awards, and it even won a few. People read my work — or heard my work, when I was invited to read it — and responded to it. I tried to step back and see my writing as objectively as I could in the context of this little bit of success. I tried to read it fresh, as if I wasn’t the author. When I did this, I began to really wonder how I made it — where on earth this writing came from. I knew it was mine, but it no longer felt like mine. It felt like this work had been given to me as a gift; that anything that received recognition arrived through some kind of channel while I was in a particularly receptive phase.

In June I was invited to read as part of the Southbank Writer’s Series and I accepted with excitement and gratitude. But as I tried to choose what to read I asked myself, “If a piece of my writing hasn’t been recognized in some way, is it bad? Can I, should I, read it?”

That’s where a little bit of success got me. Not to a new, relaxed confidence in my work but a deeper kind of self-doubt.

I stopped believing I could ever write anything like those poems or essays ever again. It wasn’t up to me. It was up to the benefactor, the source of these pieces that I happened to open up to and embrace, in a particularly magical time. It had little to do with me at all. I stopped believing this art was borne of my own hard work, years of labouring at a craft; it came from somewhere else, something I didn’t have control over.

Of course, I won’t ever write what I’ve written before. That’s the thing about art; you’re always a beginner when you start a new project. You begin from the same place, no matter how skilled or experienced you are with your craft. And that is a little bit terrifying.

Here’s what I’ve learned about playing the long game. Extrinsic rewards, like publication or a writing prize, don’t necessarily feed the work — at least not directly. It is wonderful to be read, for my work to be shared, and especially to have met so many brilliant writers this year because I kept writing and kept submitting my writing. I’m so very grateful that my work has led me to so many amazing writers, who have inspired and encouraged me in so many ways.

Back to that godsend, Laisha, who says: writing is a practice. It’s an art, a craft, something she practices every day. I’m back to trying to experience writing as a process, a spiritual practice, too. Reconnecting with what makes me most happy, most fulfilled — going deep, discovering new connections, insight into what my experiences mean. Finding stories where I didn’t realize there were any. Feeling purposeful, doing what I’m supposed to be doing, whether or not the pages I write turn into anything more.

What does your art mean to you? How do you define success? Have long, fallow periods been part of your process? I am very interested in the ebbs and flows in the work of other artists and writers. Please, do tell. Leave me a comment. Drop me a line.

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