If you’re like me, you fervently hope that your work will be recognized by an audience. When you’re making your artistic work you do it partly, yes, for the creative expression; and you also do it partly for having your work recognized by an audience, by having it published/shown/purchased/displayed.
And when one of my friends or colleagues has their work published or selected for an honor, I’m really happy for them. But – sometimes – I’m also feeling a little sad, like I didn’t measure up to the same standard, that I’ll never achieve success, that my work will languish in the darkness of never-read, never-viewed work.
And yet I so often forget about the relative success I have enjoyed! What’s up with that?
What have I done? I’ve achieved an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. I’ve written three novels. I’ve written countless stories. I’ve had my work published in professional-level fiction markets – recently!. Not only that, but I regularly receive compliments on my work in the form of personal rejections from submission editors. “We like your writing, we just couldn’t use this story.” I have a blog that connects me with other writers and artists who are pursuing their own artistic paths, who share suggestions and encouragement for writing and art processes, and who often take the time to read and respond to my blog posts. All achievements, all successes.
We are wired to compare ourselves to the next person. Last year I read a helpful article in the New York Times about how to diffuse the intense envy that comes from learning of the success of someone close to you. The research indicates that yes, it does hurt more when the success is for someone you know well, friend or family member; isn’t that interesting? The suggestion to counteract the sting of this personal form of envy was to reflect on your own path and how it has been different from the successful person’s path. So, for instance, if one of my fellow MFA colleagues published a memoir and he seems to be getting rave reviews and large-audience book reading events (as happened recently), following the suggestion in this article I might say to myself, “Yes, that’s great that he’s finally got his book published, hooray! And even better that it isn’t just sinking into oblivion, that’s wonderful . . . and unlike him, remember, you have a Ph.D. in engineering, a successful and happy relationship with spouse, children, and extended family, not to mention the work you’ve been doing recently as a community and neighborhood activist. Making a difference. Along with all that you’re getting somewhere with your own writing!” And indeed that helps me to feel much less like a failure and much more forgiving of my friend’s success.
As an aside, if you’re like me, it’s temping to think that you’re running out of time, that if you don’t achieve X success by Y date, you’ll never make it. Well, I read another article recently about research indicating that the “big discovery” or the “big achievement” in well-known accomplished people’s lives has come at all different points in their career; not necessarily at the outset, not necessarily when they are toward the end of their career, not necessarily in the middle. That Big Success can happen at any time along the way! So, even if like me you’re in a later phase of your artistic career without having won a distinguished award or having seen the success you are hoping for yet, that does not mean you won’t achieve an amazing accomplishment down the road!
And of course, we’re at our most envious when the other person’s achievement hits home, when they have a success that is exactly the kind of success we are hoping for: a published book, the sales record of a best-seller, a particular award or honor that is the same field as our own work. Right? But a good friend always reminds me, “When you’re feeling super-envious, that only points to the thing that is most important to you.”
So, in this early part of the year, perhaps you’ll take a moment, like me, to remember that that “ouch” point of another person’s success is like a compass pointing to the thing we want most. And then, we might take a moment to reflect on what we have already accomplished, and remind ourselves of the successes we have already achieved. And if you’re feeling particularly hopeful, perhaps you’ll take a moment to imagine that “big success” that may still be ahead in your artistic career. Woo hoo!
I have a friend who tells me he really enjoys the little flash pieces when I post them. This week I did a small flash in my “word improvisations” that I wanted to share. Here’s it is!
When the sea curls its granite lip
The poem found itself gleaning, gleaning, what was in the poet’s mind. Turbulence, seagulls, fortresses. Foundational elements of poetry. Meter and rhyme.
And yet detritus, so much detritus in among the salient bits. Robert Hass’s book is somewhere on my bookshelf, where did I see it last, I would like a clubhouse sandwich for lunch but I’m hungry now. Where did that pen go, I only want to use my good pen, my lucky pen, the pen I used for that last poem that the New Yorker almost took, but that pen seems to have disappeared. Oh, now the dog has come in, she needs a walk but I won’t get anything done if I take her out now, old Mrs. Pendleton waters her lawn at this time of the morning and she stands there with the hose hoping people will walk by and she can corner them and talk to them about the city’s inability to pave the streets properly and hasn’t she been here since 1949 and they should know that there is a law about citizens being served properly by city government since her husband was a city attorney for many years before he died in that awful plane accident and left her a widow with only her schoolteacher’s salary to raise four boys on, and do they ever call her or see how she’s doing? Not a one, those ungrateful boys-turned-men who married women that moved them out of state and for all she knows there are grandchildren now who she’s never put eyes on thanks to those women with their cutting-remark eyes and avaricious tendencies, but she was only a widow who did her best, including doing her best for all the students in her classroom who didn’t follow rules but made her life more difficult, not easier, as a teacher in the schools, where did the discipline go, where did it all go away, once they took away juvenile hall and detention everything went to pot, but now all she has is this house and the unevenly paved streets the city should have taken care of long ago and not only that, there was this cat that hung out, peed in her garden and killed her vegetables, must have belonged to the new neighbors who look like they moved here from out of the country and she’s not saying anything against them but you can tell things have changed since they moved in.
And now the poem is writing itself, all about xenophobia but not in a direct way, the poet using the pen that is not her lucky pen but just her second-choice pen lying next to the desk lamp and the white-white watercolor paper she salvaged from the kids’ art class when they were still in school, no need to let it go to waste, and the poem spools itself out over white textured paper as though it were the watercolor paint spilling, spreading, falling into microscopic crevices prepared for paint.
Ah, the poem thinks, this is the life, this is really the life, spilling and falling like a waterfall, like the enormous waterfall pictured in so-and-so’s blog that the poet viewed yesterday, the poem can feel the fluidity of movement in the words, the vocab the poet is trying out, juxtaposition of words that is a thrill all its own, and then and then and then the final sweeping phrase, the turn at the end that cinches it, the feel of cleverness that is not too cloying, and the poem breathes, breathes, breathes until it is closed and the draft is done and the poet sits back and smiles. Smiles because there is something new that was never there before and it has taken the form of poetry and movement and a waterfall despite there being no water in sight. A good day.
Take care and good writing,