How do you define success?

Posted on May 8, 2013

Success means different things to each of us at each stage of our writing life. Early in my poetry writing days, just showing a poem to someone was triumph–and that took me a decade. In later years, standing up in front of an audience to read my poems (and surviving) became my measure of success.

Because writing was as natural to me as breathing back then, I didn’t need to set goals about writing itself. But my terror of making my inner world “outer” was so extreme, all of my “success” energy was around talking down fear. To this day, I still work with my fear of visibility in my ever-increasing public life. It took years to settle into telling the truth on my various blogs. In fact, social media has stretched my visibility fears and related success standards in some pretty interesting directions.

In different life chapters and varying seasons of my writing career, the success standards have been quite different. I wanted dual careers, with enough space in my professional life for my unpaid writing. I wanted to write and publish books. I wanted give back to writers by teaching, coaching, editing. Then I wanted to write less so I had more time for my new family. Then I wanted to write poems as transportation through my divorce. And so on. Each of these desires and goals had its own success standard baked in—some internal (showing up at the page at some incredibly inconvenient times), some external (being willing to stand in “expert” shoes, flaws and all).

A common pitfall for writers is to focus so much on a long-term goal that we forget to define the success road-markers along the way. For example, it’s wonderful to intend to be a famous novelist and hold that big sun up over your journey. And it’s even more wonderful if you have an idea what you intend your next success to be along the way. Maybe it’s showing up at your writing desk two hours a day, or taking that class that’s going to help you better understand character development, or saying no to someone you’re in the habit of saying yes to. I think all of us need a mix of those “someday” and “right now” success benchmarks to keep us striving and also satisfied with what we are able to accomplish in any given moment.

I think of it like this: Each time a success becomes built in as practice, it’s time to set your sights on the next one. And there’s no rule about timing for this. As I mentioned, I’ve spent decades on a few of my own. You’ll discover your own speed bumps and open roads as you go. It doesn’t matter what anyone else around you is doing, or at what speed.

The tricky thing about pursuing success over the long arc of a writing life is the layers of who we are and who we have been that are always reshuffling. Chances are good that all of us are living at least in part by success standards that we have outgrown, that someone else has set for us or that we have unreasonably imposed on ourselves. Can you think of one such example?

When I took a very demanding agency writing job last January, I declared my creative writing life “dormant.” Because I tend to be quite driven, it was a huge deal to step away from my many active projects (including this blog) and let it all rest as I tended other parts of my life that needed my TLC more. For me, aspiring to nothing in particular in my writing life has been one of the most important and soul-saving successes I’ve experienced yet.

Pace yourself. Honor yourself. Be willing to define and redefine success from moment to moment, week to week, year to year. It’s your writing life. You get to make it work the way you want it to work. What does success mean to you today, and how do you intend to keep moving in that direction?




  1. Edith
    May 8th, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

    A timely article, and one I really needed to read right now. Not because I’m anywhere near your productivity as an author, nor because I’ve put in the ten thousand hours yet which you quite obviously have, but because sometimes even an almost beginner needs to remember why she decided to write in the first place and not to allow other voices to drown her own voice out. A wonderful post. Thank you!

  2. Sage Cohen
    May 8th, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

    Ah, yes, Edith: staying close to our passion is so important. Glad to hear you’re listening to your own voice above the din!

  3. Cynthia Richardson
    May 8th, 2013 @ 7:12 pm

    I enjoyed this post. It connects to a piece of advice you gave me: that I would know when I was ready to submit pieces, so just keep writing as needed. What that ended up meaning for me was that submitting Two have been accepted for publication, to my surprise. poetry became more “right” than fiction. I have become even more infused with poems due to more creative work with them. Fiction seems to be waiting on the shore as I sail off on different jaunts. I feel a bit sad about it but know the writing will dictate what I need, as well as–which you stated so well here–my life. Thanks, Sage. Appreciate your finely attuned writer’s spirit and generous sharing.

  4. Cynthia Richardson
    May 8th, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

    Seems I missed a configuration/proofreading error. It should read: “What that ended up meaning for me was that poetry became more ‘right’ than fiction. Two have been accepted for publication, to my surprise.” Apologies.

  5. Tom Mattox
    May 8th, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

    If I enjoy creating something–a story or a painting, that is success. Easy! As for deciding to put it out to the world, I consider it successful if one person is moved by it. Truly, just one. If more like or someone wants to pay me, that’s a different game. I call it having an “Audience of One (Plus)”. To me the most important thing about being an artist is freedom and I am not free if I am bound to others’ reactions (positive or negative). Allowing that other may dislike or be indifferent to a work of art is freedom too. So it’s all free. Ultimately, it’s all about creating and responding freely.

  6. Sarah Coomber
    May 8th, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

    What? And give up all of the delicious guilt?! I finished a loooong-term project a couple of months ago and have transitioned into querying agents … and beating myself up for not yet launching my next creative project. Your post has planted the seed of OK-ness in my mind — thanks!

  7. Sage Cohen
    May 8th, 2013 @ 10:01 pm

    That makes me happy! A new kind of Johnny Appleseed — of no guilt! Awesome!

  8. Sage Cohen
    May 8th, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

    Ah, freedom…a value I share with you, Tom! I love hearing how this manifests for you! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Sage Cohen
    May 8th, 2013 @ 10:03 pm

    Cynthia, That’s really exciting! Poetry has declared itself in the lead, and you are following–and publishing! Wonderful news.

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