It’s the end of another year. Maybe — depending on whom you ask — it’s the end of a decade. It’s certainly a moment to look backward in reflection and forward in anticipation.
Ten years ago, in December 2009, I posted the following video blog, reflecting about the fairly successful writing year I’d had in 2009. It’s about how, as writers, we are constantly moving the goalposts, creating new definitions of success so that we never feel like we’ve really achieved our goals.
As I re-watch this now, I think two things. I think:
- “That really is the problem, isn’t it? It’s so hard to just enjoy the successes you’ve achieved without constantly beating yourself up over what you didn’t accomplish, or still could.”
- “Where is that red sweater now? I really liked that for wearing at Christmas time. Did I give it away?”
But some things have changed for me in 10 years, besides losing or possibly giving away a perfectly good Christmas sweater. Personal things have changed, of course — our two kids have grown up, my mom has passed away, our dog died and we got a new dog. I tried quitting my day job for a semester to focus on writing, and loved the time off but realized that financially, I’m not ready to do that on a long-term basis yet (the aforementioned two kids still being in college has something to do with that) and I’m lucky to have a day job to go back to that I love (still the same one I had in 2009).
One of the biggest changes, though, has been in my approach to writing and to success. And I think it all began with a blog post I wrote about a duck. That was back in 2012, and I was thinking a lot about what constitutes “success” for me as a writer. Is it enough to be a medium-sized duck paddling about in a small puddle (my puddle being the local literary scene) or did I want to strive for the Big Pond (national and international fame and success!) and risk getting hit by a car crossing the road on the way there?
I maybe straining the duck analogy here, but such were my thoughts in 2012.
In 2015, I turned 50. And I thought a lot, that year, about what it means to be a 50-year-old writer, about being more than half a lifetime past the age at which anyone could be pleasantly surprised by my early success, about how I wanted to spend my time and energies in the remaining years of my writing life (which I hope will continue into, like, at least my 70s, but you never know, do you?).
I made a very conscious decision back in 2015, which I didn’t talk a whole lot about at the time but which grew out of that “never satisfied” video from 2009 and the duck blog post from 2012 and many other similar thoughts. It was this: I wanted to focus on being the best duck I could be in my little pond. By 2015 I had three books of local historical fiction published with regional press Breakwater Books. My career writing inspirational fiction with a Christian press was behind me (because of changes at that press: they were no longer publishing the kinds of things I wrote, and anyway I had written most of those stories that I had good ideas for, so I was OK with moving on). I had put a lot of time and energy into querying agents, etc., and trying to get a wider, more mainstream market for my books, but nothing clicked. There was no magic moment where I could say “And that, kids, was when I found success, which just proves you should never give up!!”
I’ve heard a lot of writers say things like that, but only when their story ends with a major bestseller and usually a movie deal as well. And what I realize the year I turned 50 was: not every writer’s story is going to end that way. Most of us — including me — are going to have middling levels of success, and are either going to learn to be content with that, or beat ourselves out trying for something bigger.
At 50, I decided I was going to be in the “content” category. Of all the decisions I made in the decade of the 20-teens, this is the one that’s been the biggest game-changer and brought me the most happiness.
Who I am? I’m a writer who writes historical fiction based in, published in, and mostly read in Newfoundland and Labrador. My fifth novel with Breakwater Books, A Roll of the Bones, came out this fall. It’s the first in a planned trilogy, which is something new and exciting for me, and already in the two months it’s been on bookshelves, people have been telling me they’re reading and loving it.
I’m still exploring other types of writing, other pathways, as well. Twice this decade, when I’ve had a story to tell that didn’t fit into the “NL historical fiction” category, I’ve self-published a book: What You Want in 2015 and Prone to Wander in 2019. I love both those novels and I’ve learned a lot from self-publishing them, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility of self-publishing again when I have another story that seems like it would fit that niche.
I set a goal for myself in 2019 to learn to write plays, because I’ve always loved the theatre and never written for it. I took a wonderful class from Robert Chafe (Newfoundland’s greatest living playwright and a brilliant teacher) and wrote a very short play that, combined with pieces by two of my friends, found a home in the St. John’s Short Play Festival this year. And yes, I’m writing more plays in 2020!
So I am happy, and busy, and stretching my limits and trying new things. What I’m not doing is querying agents anymore, or trying to figure out how to “make it big.” As far as is humanly possible, I’ve stopped agonizing over why someone else’s book is selling better than mine, or why they got nominated for an award I didn’t. While that spark of discontent is deep in the writer’s nature and I’ll probably never entirely stamp it out, I feel very differently about these things than I did when I made that video in 2009. I believe I’ve defined what I want “success” to look like within my own writing career, and that’s the definition I’m striving to reach. It may not involve Giller Prizes and international best-seller lists. It involves visiting a lot of local book clubs and hearing readers say, “I loved this book!” a lot. Most important, it’s my own definition of success and it’s working for me.
As you embark into the 2020s, I hope you are crafting your own definitions of success and moving, even with baby steps, towards them.