Some Thoughts on "Success": Why Getting a Book Deal Doesn't Guarantee Eternal Happines
When I was writing the first draft of The Ethan I Was Before, I had one goal: get myself an agent. Having an agent meant that someone who “mattered” liked my work enough to represent it. In my mind, getting an offer from an agent was the definition of success.
And there was a period of probably…47 minutes where this was true. I sat back on my golden throne of glorious success and felt happy and proud of my accomplishment.
And then the Voice started again. The Voice that had previously whispered: everyone knows that a writer is no one until she has an agent. Now, suddenly, it was: everyone knows that a writer is nothing until she gets a book deal.
Just like that, the goalpost for success had shifted.
Suddenly I was dreaming about getting the phone call from my agent. I fantasized about telling my friends and family that I was actually going to be a published author. I knew that if I could just get a book deal—any book deal—I would be minted as a "real author." I would forever be able to look in the mirror and see success staring back at me.
TWIST: that’s not what happened. What happened was that I was delirious with happiness from the time the first offer came in to about a week after I accepted my offer from HarperCollins. Ditto for the UK and my Orchard deal.
And then came the lull.
For most authors, there is a long period of time after they accept an offer before anything happens. As it turns out, after an editor buys your book, she has to, you know…edit it. And during that time, there’s not much for you to do, which can make you feel a bit like a life-size Elsa balloon slowly deflating in the corner after a super awesome birthday party where all the little girls fought over you and hugged you and said you were going to be their best friend forever. (What, like you guys don’t have Disney franchise balloons at all your birthday parties? YOU LIE.)
Oh, this is a real thing all right.
So I had plenty of time and energy (that I should have spent writing my next book) to listen to the Voice, which dogged me everyday. Everyone knows a book deal is no big thing. What matters is if people buy the book. And what makes you think anyone is actually going to buy your book? it said.
The Voice became my biggest enemy. It was always coming up with a new way to make me feel like what I had already achieved wasn’t good enough. It constantly moved the goalpost of success further and further away. You’ll only be successful if… it told me. If your book is a bestseller. If you can sell another book. If, if, if…
And maybe having that voice in your head isn’t all bad. I’m glad that I have a drive to always keep striving. It keeps my nose to the grindstone. It keeps me from becoming complacent.
It becomes a problem, though, when it keeps me from being happy, from celebrating what I have accomplished with real pride. Because that’s a very quick way to suck all of the joy out of the thing you love to do more than anything.
For example. Last week, I received ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of The Ethan I Was Before. I was literally able to hold my lifelong dream in my hand. I stroked the slippery-smooth cover, breathed in the woody smell of the pages, read and reread the words that had emerged from my brain jungle. I danced around my living room clutching one to my chest. I took far, far too many pictures. I may or may not have fallen asleep curled around a copy.
Some authors get manicures for their "holding my ARC" pictures. I am just not one of them.
But when I woke up the next morning, I had fallen back to earth, back to wondering if it was really enough to call myself a “success.” Whatever, said the Voice. It’s the second book that people really care about anyway.
A large part of me hesitates to publish this because, honestly, I am ashamed of this voice that is, undeniably, me. It feels like ingratitude. Why is it so hard to let myself be happy and proud of what I’ve achieved?
But I’m posting it anyway because when I held my ARC, I thought back to the days when I promised myself that once I had an agent, I would feel successful. That’s where this cycle began for me, and I hope in reading this, maybe one or two of you out there will recognize the same kind of feelings and (a.) know you are not alone and (b.) maybe, just maybe reconsider them.
If I could go back in time, here is what I would tell myself: Wherever you are in the process, celebrate your progress. And I don’t just mean give yourself a pat on the back. Really do something to celebrate it. Did you finish a first chapter? That is an act of artistic bravery. Have a glass of champagne. A first draft? YOU WROTE A WHOLE BOOK. That right there is a huge success. Now treat yo’self. Did you get a request from an agent to read more of your manuscript? Go wild and give yourself a whole day off. These milestones are just as important as the ones that come later (you can’t sell a book you don’t write), and you deserve to be proud of them. Allow yourself to be joyful about the things you have achieved rather than always anticipating the next thing—even if you have to retrain your brain to do so. Because if you can’t do that at this point, you probably won’t be able to do it down the road either, despite what you may think.
Two years ago, I would have given anything to know that I would one day hold my book in my hand. I assumed, like—I think—many writers, that the high of that accomplishment would be enough to last forever. And certainly, the highs have gotten higher and higher along the way. But highs are just that—peaks along the journey that are inevitably transient. We don’t live our lives in the highs, and it’s the times between them that don’t necessarily change just because we sell a book, or ten, or a hundred.
The only thing I can do to change those parts of the journey is to decouple my estimation of my self-worth from my ever-changing perception of success. I think it’s natural to keep moving the goalposts forward. But when I only look forward, and not back to see how far I’ve come, I'm doing myself (and, for that matter, the people who believe in me) a disservice by not honoring the work Ive done to get myself to this point.
So, moving forward, I am making more of an effort to honor my work. To celebrate successes in whatever form they come, great or small. To stay hungry, but be proud. And most of all, to learn to live in the valley between successes past and those yet to come. That’s what I’m going to be striving for this fall, as I work on some of the biggest challenges I’ve ever set myself as a writer. For now, though, I’m going to eat a double chocolate chip cookie the size of my head. Because like I said. Treat yo’self.