Tuesday 11 September 2018

The Definition of Success - Kelly McCaughrain

At my teen writing group, something we do at the start of a meeting is to set our writing goals for the session. We go around the group and people say they want to finish a scene, work on a character, try a new idea. This is good because by the end of the session they have generally achieved their goals, and even if they haven’t finished a whole story, they go away feeling like they’ve succeeded.

I was once in a workshop with the writer Jan Carson, who got us to do something similar. Except that instead of declaring our goals for the session, we declared our writing goals for life. Actually we wrote them on a postcard. It was surprising how many people, myself included, had never thought about their writing goals let alone put them into words.

Which was exactly the point. Because if you don’t set a goal, how will you know when you’ve succeeded? What is ‘success’ in terms of writing?

You can’t define it objectively because you could always be writing/publishing/selling more. You can only define it for you. And if you don’t take the trouble to do this, then you’ll always feel like a failure because you could always be doing better.

I think a lot of people are reluctant to define their goals in case they don’t reach them, but they’re probably thinking of goals in terms of copies sold, money earned, reviews garnered. Things we have very little control over.

That might well be part of your definition of success. But it could also be:
  • To earn enough to live off
  • To earn enough to pay for holidays
  • To finish one book you really love
  • To go to writing classes for relaxation
  • To win the Booker
  • To write a story for your kids
  • To write something that helps people
  • To teach writing
  • To be reviewed in local papers
  • To be on a panel with your favourite writer
  • To do lots of school visits
  • To never do school visits
  • To be involved in community arts projects
  • To encourage kids to write
  • To win an award
  • To be shortlisted
  • To explore your feelings about something
  • To get traditionally published even if you never earn much
  • To self-publish

Or a million other things. All valid goals. And if you write them on a postcard and pin them over your desk then, when you’ve achieved them you’ll know you’ve succeeded. You can reward yourself. You can stop beating yourself up because you’re not JK Rowling.

It’s also OK to be realistic. Surprisingly few people win the Booker. But loads of people do really meaningful stuff with their writing and I think it’s sad if we still feel like failures just because someone else decided ‘success’ means being number 1 on Amazon

It’s harder than you think to come up with these goals. When I tried, I kept getting mixed up with goals I thought I should have, goals other people have for me, and things I want to achieve because I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t, not because I really value those things.

Goals I was sure about included:
  • Have something traditionally published
  • Have friends who write
  • Always be working on something I enjoy
  • Work with teen writers
  • Get better at short stories
  • Have a day job that allows me time and energy to write
  • Never need to make a living off my writing
  • Stop when I’m not enjoying it anymore

Also one of mine

Some of these I’ve achieved already, some are ongoing projects that I can succeed or fail at on a daily basis. I’ve had a book published by a publisher I love and it doesn’t have to win the Carnegie because that wasn’t on the list. So I’ve succeeded already. I’m allowed to feel good. But if I hadn’t made the list, I might now be staring at my Amazon rankings and Goodreads reviews and torturing myself.

Like virgins everywhere, I think most debut writers go into the publishing process with so little idea of what to expect that it’s quite easy to emerge thinking was that it? It all happened so fast… and generally not being really sure if you did it right. You have a constant feeling of waiting to see what happens, how far it will go, how well it will be received, before you can judge what just happened. 

And then one day it’s over and you never did hit that peak (because there is no peak) and you feel like a failure.

But if you went in with the specific goal of getting something published/getting one good review/meeting five local schools… and then you got something published/got the review/met the schools, then you did it. You won. There is no wait and see. You hit the bullseye and whatever happens in the future, no one can take that from you.

It seems so simple I’ve been wondering ever since why don’t we do this more? Not just in writing but in any area of life?

Before you get published you'll have 99 problems but goals ain't one. You don’t have to think about any of this. Because your goal is exactly the same as every other writer’s goal. To get an agent. To get a publisher. All unpublished writers are equal in terms of that kind of success and there’s comfort in that. You’re all in it together and you know where you’re headed.

But once you’ve been published then you have to completely redefine your goals. It’s like travelling a long straight road for years and then suddenly finding yourself arriving in the city with a dozen roads to choose from. And in terms of success, not all published writers are equal at all. Not by a long shot. So where do you draw your own particular target?

In a really interesting essay on her blog, Jesse Burton wrote about her experience of being a huge breakout success with her debut, The Miniaturist, and how it drove her to depression. Her therapist said that ‘When you actually achieve your dream, exhaustion of arrival can set in, meaning that the usual barriers of rationale and self-awareness and self-love are lowered. Feelings of imposterhood, fraudulence, guilt, worry, fear, are magnified, allowed to become far more powerful than they should.’ 

If achieving your dream is actually a stressful experience (because do I deserve this? Am I doing it right? Will they find me out? What if I can’t produce another one?), then I guess the easier option is just to keep putting off the arrival. Just keep aiming slightly over the horizon and you’re right back to that comfy pre-publication state of dreaming about impossible goals. You’ll never have to deal with success if you think ‘success’ means being on Oprah’s book club (is that still a thing?)

So, I don’t know, maybe we’re actually afraid of success. I worked in a class once with a teacher who used to say to his students when they were shy about trying new stuff, ‘Are you afraid you’ll be bad? Or are you afraid you’ll be good?’ Because being good means you suddenly have something to live up to, for yourself and others.

But actually, if you define it for yourself, ‘success’ just means achieving something that is meaningful to you. Maybe Burton’s ‘success’, though probably lovely in lots of ways, also involved dealing with a lot of stuff that actually wasn’t on her list of meaningful things to achieve, all while everyone told her how lucky she was.

It seems sad to think you might never get to enjoy what you’ve achieved because you didn’t take a moment to think about what is meaningful to you. What would make all this worthwhile to you? It might be something much simpler and more achievable than you realise.

Either way, decide. And then go for it.

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at weewideworld.blogspot.co.uk 



A. Colleen Jones said...

This is a really great blog post, Kelly! Thanks for giving me something to think about, and some goals to create! Colleen :)

Eileen Moynihan said...

Very good blog.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks guys! Nothing like a bit of goal-setting to while away a morning.

Rowena House said...

You're so right! A truly worthwhile thing for anyone having doubts in this endlessly challenging business to think about. (I do LOVE your blogs. You often articulate something that's nagging away, half-formulated, in the back of the brain.) I suspect I'm guilty of setting a beyond-the-horizon goal atm. On the other hand, if being a writer, and having writing friends sharing the journey, maybe reaching the end of the rainbow is actually an OK goal. Dunno. But will have a jolly nice time reflecting on it.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

I think we do it unconsciously, Rowena. No one sets out to 'win the Booker' but somehow you unconsciously judge yourself based on that kind of success. Very weird. Always pays to sit down and examine what's going on your head! Mine's full of wee sweetie mice, as they say.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A very powerful & succinct blog... in fact it made me cry. We DO beat ourselves up. I've been published and still am... since 1987. (yes I'm ancient!) If I had written down a few goals along the way, I'd be able to assess what I've gained from a writer's life... not just in achievements and accolades but in happiness. We're always comparing ourselves to others... whereas in fact it should be more personal. We should be saying: this I've done and it's made me happy! Maybe it's not too late to reach for that postcard.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Never too late, Dianne. And 1987! Pour yourself a prosecco, woman!

sara gethin said...

A great post, Kelly - it's made me realise I need to make that list. I'll recommend it to my writer friends too as whenever we get together we all have a tendency to say we feel like failures no matter what we've achieved. I think you've identified the reason very astutely - thank you!

Hilary Hawkes said...

Such a wonderfully helpful and encouraging post. Thank you. It's so easy to keep feeling dissatisfied with writing achievements (even after you've got past the agent and traditionally published bit which doesn't make sense). For me it's definitely partly due to never having defined my goals properly and so struggling to achieve what are really what I see as (or maybe just imagine) other people's definitions of success. You're right, we should all make our own unique lists:)

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thank you Sara and Hilary! I've found it really helpful actually, it just anchors you when you feel a bit at sea I think. I remember an English teacher at school telling me I got 80% in an exam and I said, 'is that good?' He looked at me like he was a bit worried about my maths exam but what I meant was, 'is that good compared to everyone else?' Which is not a healthy attitude at all! I wish I'd just been able to enjoy what I'd achieved.

Jennifer Moore said...

That's such a good idea! Off to write down my goals now... :-)