First Draft Issue 9: What is success anyway?
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In 2014, I was a mentee in the pilot season of AWP’s Writer-to-Writer Mentorship program. Recently I received an email from them soliciting 30-second videos from alumni that share their successes. My mentor Amy Wallen and I are still in touch, and we decided it would be fun to collaborate on something to highlight my forthcoming debut novel.
For the past two weeks, while we’ve been working on the video, it’s been really great to catch up with Amy and reflect on the fact that it’s been eight years since we met and she mentored me through a revision of my first novel — one that didn't end up getting published.
In our video, we’re telling the 30-second version of that journey — my discovery of the mentorship program, my joy and heartache through the guided revision process, the rejections I later received from agents and publishers, and the resilience I was able to tap into in order to keep going and write another novel.
The 30-second version is fun and lightning fast, but I hope it captures the ups and downs as well as the value of having a mentor who believes in you and continues to cheer you on as you climb that hill toward success.
The process of making this video has also made me think a lot about the idea of success. What does it mean to me, and how has it changed over the years?
When I first started writing, success looked like publishing a short story in a literary journal. I wrote my heart out, researched lit mags, made spreadsheets, took classes, joined a writing group, and hoped with everything I had that one day I would be good enough to get published in those pages I’d been admiring as a reader.
It took time, but eventually it happened. For the first time in my life, I was a published writer! Yet I was already onto my next goal, so it didn’t really feel like I’d achieved success. Next I wanted to write a novel. And then get an agent. And then a publisher. And then maybe win an award or two. Sell the next book. And then the next. And on and on, until what? When would I achieve that elusive success?
Even though I think it’s healthy and smart to have goals, I also don’t want to spend my life overlooking the things I do accomplish or wishing precious time away pining for the next big achievement. So, early on in my writing habit, I started keeping two lists: future goals and things I’ve already accomplished.
On the second list, I include everything — workshops taken, conferences attended, friendships made, stories and chapters written, pieces submitted, encouraging rejections received, acceptances, pieces published, etc.
When I look back on these lists, it shows me a much happier picture than I see when I’m waiting for that next “yes.” It shows me not just the obvious successes, but all of the ways in which I’ve created a writing life and community for myself, all the ways I’ve believed in and invested in my craft, all the great people I’ve connected with solely because of writing. It shows me a rich, nourishing, and active writing life in which I’m always challenging myself and growing. It shows me all the successes I would otherwise overlook or not count if I were only measuring success by publications and awards.
The truth is, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t feel damn good to have my first novel coming out in just over three months. But when I acknowledge all the things I’ve done to get to this point, it makes me feels more grounded in the full journey and helps me stay grounded for all the anxiety yet to come — about reviews, sales, awards, future books, and things I don’t even know I should worry about yet!
So wherever you are in your journey, this week I encourage you to take a few minutes to look backward and acknowledge all the things you’ve done, all the friends you’ve made, all the ways you’ve believed in yourself. Even if you’re just starting and the list is tiny, it still counts. It shows you’re making progress. So notice how far you’ve come, and celebrate it.
Meanwhile, I look forward to next time.