I was having a conversation yesterday with my therapist about the definition of success, and Life Purpose. If you are a bit of an addict for self-help blogs, as I am, you will be familiar of the idea of Life Purpose. Everybody talks about it. Why am I here? The self help industry wants you to define your Life Purpose, because they say it will help with setting goals and achieving success – yes, there is that word again. The thing we all want to achieve, or are told we do.
I always believed that my Life Purpose was to write and publish books.
Unfortunately that sentence has a big fat bear trap in it.
When I meet someone new at a party, and they ask me (as people invariably do when they are making small talk with strangers) “what do you do?”, I have always replied: “I am a writer.” Two questions then follow:
“What sort of books do you write?”
and, “Can I get your books in Waterstones?” (Insert the name of your local bookseller chain as appropriate).
When I explain that I haven’t been published by a conventional publisher yet, I can see the light die in their eyes. The words are practically written in neon on their faces:
“Oh, well you aren’t really a writer then, are you? You’re just one of those hobbyists who likes to talk about themselves like they are the next JK Rowling, but what you actually do is write crap that nobody wants to read!
Society’s definition of success is publication by the conventional publishing trade. You aren’t a writer till you are in print.
The fact is, I have written seven novels. I have published nearly thirty short stories and novellas which get an average of 100+ readers a day on the internet, an audience size which most conventionally published writers would kill for. I have taught writing dayschools, mentored other writers and judged short story competitions. I have written a monthly column for a paper with a circulation of 7000, and have two academic papers to my name. And I have kept a diary for more than thirty years. What part of this does not constitute success?
The more I have written, the more I have realised that my definition of Life Purpose is flawed. My purpose is not to get published, because that is only half the story, and frankly, its really not the important, interesting or exciting half. I have realised that the part of writing I really love is the writing part, the process. I love coming up with new stories and characters. I love visualising scenes and dialogue. I love the rush I get when I am in full flow, in the middle of writing a scene or chapter, when I am in the action, experiencing what my characters do, feeling their feelings, seeing through their eyes. And I love the sense of satisfaction when I come out the other end and look at what I’ve done.
My purpose is to write. Simply that.
Because the thing is, you are a writer if you write.
Talking about getting your novels published, dreaming of a bestseller, imagining yourself on talk shows explaining how your stories have been adapted for film or TV – none of these things are what a writer is, although it is true that they may occasionally have to do these things. To be a writer, you have to love the process enough to do it.
The point I think I am trying to make here is this: what is your definition of success as a writer (or in whatever art form you choose)? Are you measuring yourself against society’s outdated or material idea of success, or do you really see what you have achieved, regardless of what other people think?
I struggle continuously with the idea that I have failed in life or as a writer because I am still at the bottom of somebody’s slush pile. I have to fight constantly against that prejudice within myself, as well as in others. But the truth is, I am a writer because I write.
These days, when someone asks me what I do at a party, I say:
“I write gay erotic fiction for the Internet.”
This solves both the patronising questions at once, gives me a sense of my own achievement, and also tells me a lot about the person I am talking to, through their response. Either they blanch and change the subject, or they look fascinated or perplexed, and want to find out more. And then we really have a conversation worth taking part in!