Emily Dickinson, 1830 – 1886
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Does anyone, with the possible exception of Donald Trump, really feel successful for long? Some people certainly deserve to feel successful, at least from the viewpoint of those of us who aren’t, but there do seem to be many who can’t enjoy their own success, or, for some, even believe in it. There’s a potential downside to success.
I’m not approaching this topic in a sour-grapes sort of way. At least I hope I’m not. I’ve realized for some time that as far as my writing goes I’m a small frog in a bog so small that I occasionally get to feel middle-sized. I chose the bog to live in, the niche-within-a-niche that is lesbian erotica, and left behind the somewhat larger pond of science fiction and fantasy where I was a mere tadpole but beginning to make a few ripples. At least I took the plunge, so late in life that it didn’t feel like I had time to do novel-length work so I focused on short fiction, another case of a niche that almost never leads to much in the way of success. The closest I’ve come to success is as an editor of that niche-within-a-niche, and that doesn’t really feel like personal success, since so much depends on the writers who trust me with their work. That may all be in the past, anyway; anthologies are fading fast as readers go for single stories self-published on Amazon for $.99 rather than books with twenty stories for $9.99.
I didn’t mean to say so much about myself, but at least it fits in with what I really mean to write about. Would I be incapable of feeling successful if I did have something worth calling success? I don’t think so, but it’s definitely true that many people suffer from “imposter syndrome,” never able to accept and enjoy their success, always thinking that they must be deceiving people, or succeeding by accident, and afraid they’ll eventually be found out. Maybe they’ve internalized certain cultural memes of “don’t be stuck up,” “don’t think you’re better than anybody else,” “who do you think you are?” so deeply that they’d be ashamed of feeling successful.
Then there’s the matter, for writers, of stress over whether success can be repeated. Can you make the next book as good as the one(s) that succeeded? Yeah, I know, we should all have such problems. But it’s real source of anxiety associated with success. And there’s another related problem with success that I hadn’t thought of until I recently saw a link to an article about Jack Kerouac: http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/the-picture-that-captures-why-jack-kerouac-will-last-forever/ The article is subtitled, “His ambition, his hunger, what was lost when they were sated – it’s all there in a single frame.” (The photo in question is of Kerouac crouching next to a radio, listening to a recording of himself.) The main point the article tries to make is that Kerouac fought so hard for so long to get On the Road published, certain in spite of rejection after rejection that his book would eventually be recognized as a great and revolutionary work, that once the battle was won he lost the energy that had driven him. I don’t agree with the writer of the article that Kerouac could never write anything as good after that—I think Dharma Bums comes close, and Big Sur has its virtues—but the point that success can sometimes destroy creativity is a valid one.
Still—when I was a kid I wanted to be a successful writer, in part as an “I’ll show them!” statement from a geeky girl when being a geeky girl was even more of a heavy burden to bear than it is today, and in part as a hope to make my name immortal. That was then. I got over it. I had to get over it. Still, I do, in a way, envy Kerouac his success.
I envy many writers, but more because of their skill when I know they’re better than I could ever be, than because of their success. Some of the ones I most admire and envy aren’t very successful at all, by most measures. I’m not jealous; jealousy implies resentment or even malice, while envy just means you wish you had what they have.
Okay, I admit it. Talking about the downside of success must be sour grapes after all, at least to some extent. I’d like to have “an admiring bog” like Emily Dickinson’s frog. But I wouldn’t want to change my life for hers, even for posthumous “success.”