When your best just isn’t good enough

I don’t know whether it’s because of the amount of US television/music/movies our culture is saturated with, but it seems to me that Australians are becoming as obsessed with success – usually measured in tedious material terms – as any of our North American counterparts.  It’s all about being a winner, fulfilling your potential, reaching your dreams.  If you don’t have – or strive for – a great career, a fabulous family, and a whole pile of Stuff, there’s something wrong.  (Or maybe that’s just living in a big mining town, I don’t know.)  We’re expected to aim high, and if you miss, it’s your fault.  You’re not talented enough, determined enough, focused.  It’s all about you.  You’re in a race, and there’s no dropping out. 

This attitude has become attached to writing, too.  If you don’t win prizes, write bestsellers, get grants or make a living from it, there’s something a bit sad about you.  You should be out there promoting, getting your name known, increasing your sales.  The more people buy your books the better, right?  Aren’t you going to be the next J.K. Rowling?  Not going to do NaNoWriMo?  A thousand words a day, fifty thousand words a month – write until you’re sick of your own words?*  What kind of writer are you?

So much of what is important about writing is so easily lost.  The pleasure of making a story take shape, of massaging a sentence until it is supple, of going beyond what you think you can do.  The physical delight of your hand moving on a page.  The satisfaction of printing out new pages, still warm from the printer. 

Writing is not a competition.  The point of writing for me – aside from its intrinsic satisfaction – is communication.  We’re telling stories, sharing stories. 

Finding connections. 

Getting real.

If writing isn’t about that, you’d be better off becoming a lawyer.** 

* I’m not dissing NaNoWriMo, but I wonder how there can be joy in it.
** I’m not dissing lawyers either.  Some of my best friends are lawyers 🙂

16 thoughts on “When your best just isn’t good enough

  1. normanjorgensen

    Great comments Julia. It'd be great to be the next JK but even with .00000000001% of her sales I imagine I'll keep at it as I actually write to keep myself amused. It's great to share my stories and find others on the same wavelength and it came as shock all those years ago that people would pay money to share my fictional adventures with me.

    Who am I kidding? Gimme the Scottish castle and holidays in the Maldives. xN.

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  2. lili

    Interesting post! I think there's a difference between wanting heaps of people to BUY your book, and wanting heaps of people to READ your book. And I think the line between these two things gets confused. So people go on and on about Rowling being the bestSELLING author in the UK, but nobody seems to care that Jacqueline Wilson is the most BORROWED author in the UK.

    I want people to read my books – because I wouldn't write them if I didn't. But I also want people to LIKE my books, so there are plenty of people who I don't think should read my books, because they won't like them. And I spose that's why I don't mind so much about the awards things. I want my books to be read and loved by smart, funny, a-little-bit-angry teenage girls, not people on judging panels. And if I can have both, then good. But the girls come first.

    As for NaNoWriMo, it is exactly the way I like to write. When I'm doing normal writing, I find myself procrastinating more, and faffing around and then getting anxious that there's too much faffing and not enough writing. A deadline and no expectation of quality kind of removes all the things that make me anxious about writing – I can just get down to the fun stuff, without having to worry about whether or not it's any good. I take tremendous joy in it – sort of like a month long braindump. It's like watching a story take shape through a time-lapse camera. Going so fast you can SEE it come to life and grow and flower.

    (then you do all the fun tweaking and polishing later)

    But I suppose we all write differently. Otherwise it wouldn't be as interesting.

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  3. Sari /Smith

    I agree Julia! I think it puts a lot of pressure on young writers, too. Gone is the notion of writing being a lifetime's work (for the joy!) and something can very well take years to produce something worthwhile…

    Sari

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  4. Julia Lawrinson

    Yes, Sari and Lili: connected to the sales obsession is that it becomes about being a Writer as an accessory to your product, not because it is what you are, or that writing is what you do. I hold the Romantic view of writing, I suppose, about being something transcendental – or at the very least a different way of connecting with the world, one at odds with the Nielsen Bookscan data way of rating success.
    And Lili, I really didn't mean to diss NaNoWriMo: I can see that it would be useful, and I would actually be tempted to do it were it not for f/t work. But there is an element of the hype around it that makes me uncomfortable.
    I am totally with you on the importance of the readers. I'd rather be read than awarded any day. Although, like the holidays in the Maldives, maybe this is part of cutting my coat to suit the cloth.
    Norman: also keen on the Scottish castle.

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  5. Penni

    I always thought I'd be one of those obscure authors who gets good reviews, sells minimal books and who every now and then really reaches a reader, who adores her books and feels the world has opened up a little after reading them.

    And this is pretty much exactly who I am. And mostly I am cool with that. Sometimes I think it would be nice to win awards or sell lots of books or have movies made out of my work and have the cash that goes with that (because I think I mistake lots of money with an easy or beautiful life). But then I think how unhappy with writing a certain very accoladed writer who won Rather A Lot of Money sounds (not mentioning any names) and I think it might be the path to a bigger house, but not necessarily to happiness.

    The main thing I like about writing is the actual making stuff up bit, the occasional perfect sentence, and the nutting stuff out, problem solving part.

    By the way I just read Bye Beautiful. Sob sob sob. I truly loved it.

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  6. catherine

    Hi Julia,
    I loved your post. I am unpublished and largely unread. A handful of people have ready my stories. But writing is my private joy. And that is why I call myself a writer.
    Catherine

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  7. Fiona Wood

    I agree, Julia – but when I read beautiful sentences like: 'Their cheeks as they flew down were pink, the wind drying their grins to their teeth' it's easy to remember what it's really all about.

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  8. Julia Lawrinson

    Penni, I am very familiar with discontented, successful writers – a salient reminder that it is best to approach writing with, for want of a better phrase, purity of intention – this seems to make people happier when success does come along.
    Thank you for the comment on BB, and the HHR comparison makes me blush. Too kind.
    Catherine, you're on the money.
    Fiona, Aw!

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  9. christinebongers

    Julia, this is such a wonderful topic for discussion. I wrote for a living for most of my adult life, but it was only when I started writing fiction that I reclaimed the joy of story telling that I'd had as a child. I'm grateful to be published, but the one thing that I don't want to lose along the way is that joy. Thanks for posting. 🙂

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  10. DC Green

    Great post! Expecting mega-fame and fortune as an author is the best way to invite bitterness into your life. I'd write even if no one ever read my stories because if I didn't, I'd go mad. Everything else is a bonus!

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  11. Sheryl Gwyther

    Julia, loved your post and all the thoughtful comments afterwards. And doesn't it get 'up your goat' when well-meaning people who have just found out you write for children, say, 'Ohh, gonna be another JK Rowling, then?' Grrrrr.

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  12. Marcie

    Hi, I like your take on it. I'm simply going to use it as an incentive to get some words down as I really need to get motivated – Writing is therapy for me. I don't expect to be published, I just want to say I've finished something and have the rejection letter to prove it.

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