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The Futility of Chasing a “Successful” Writing Career

The writer Emily Gould has a lovely essay for Medium this week — an excerpt from a new book of essays called MFA vs. NYC — on the way her Big Triumph, the sale of a book of essays for the fantastic sum of $200,000, turned out to be a sort of professional albatross. “It took me a while to realize that my book had failed. No one ever told me point-blank that it had,” she writes. “It was more like the failure occurred in tiny increments over the course of two years, after which it was too late to develop a solid Plan B.”

I can’t stop thinking about this essay since I read it. I think one thing I would say to Gould — who I don’t really know beyond a few online exchanges and one reading stage not too long ago, and god, isn’t the conceit of talking to people through pieces published on websites obnoxious, but oh well — is that the entire lesson of my adult life has been to quit reading everything in such stark terms as “success” and “failure.” I mean, bank accounts are important, and this essay was presented as a cautionary lesson about the entrapments of modern debt. But the bottom line here, as everywhere else, is not everything.

For example, and please excuse the quasi-humblebrag that might be embedded here, people in my life have started to call me “successful” and I’m deeply uncomfortable with it. Call it Post-Success-Stress-Disorder. In a prior life people used to call me the s-word a lot. They did so mostly because I had a fancy job as a lawyer, and having a fancy job as a lawyer means something to a certain kind of person. Certain kinds of people, you see, do not know that the interior of that particular fancy job is a hollow cavern of suffering. A hollow cavern I promptly filled by buying all sorts of stuff I didn’t need. I got some lovely bookshelves out of it, but that’s about it. After that experience, I was at best a skeptic of being called “successful.”

I know why the s-word is cropping up again. It’s coming because I am regularly paid to write about movies and television and books. This seems, to some people, like a desirable way to make a living, and it is. Sort of. Sometimes. It also feels desperately insubstantial. The culture, some weeks, does not yield sufficient matter to comment on. And with every new ball-of-doom being sounded across the land about the End of Writing, it’s hard not to feel like I’ve hitched my wagon to some dying oxen. In fact, a few months ago, I was called in to speak to a bunch of interns at a national magazine about how to forge a career in writing. It’s fair to say I did not sugarcoat things: “Career?” I said. “I hope I have one of those.” (Sometimes I’m blunt.)

In short, I think it’s important to be self-critical about “career” “success.”

I spent years thinking, you know, if I could just get one piece of writing published, I will die happy. Then I got one piece of writing published and I thought, oh, what I would really like to do is get a piece of writing published at the New Yorker. And then I got a piece of writing published at the New Yorker, and I thought, I would like to write a book. And then I sold a book to a publisher, and I thought, I hope this book sells well. I hope that I achieve some measure of cultural success. And then I read accounts like Emily’s and realize, that wheel just keeps on turning regardless. Nobody’s fully successful, and no one’s fully a failure. We’re all just doing the best we can to survive in an economy that hates writers, and in fact hates pretty much everyone. There’s a level on which just continuing to try is sort of heroic.

At least, I hope so, because I’ve run out of other means to be employable.

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