The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Success Part Five
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Longtime readers of this website and the section I call “Recommended Reading” know that I read a lot of biographies. Some are for my historical fiction—someone else’s interpretation of lives long past—but many are autobiographies, written by writers.
I went on an excessive binge in the deep, dark days of this thing the press has started to call the Great Recession. During December and January of last year, I read the autobiographies of two Grand Masters of Science Fiction—Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl. Jack’s Wonder’s Child helped me through last December, when the future looked particularly bleak. His chapters on writing during the Great Depression helped me over my fears of the future of publishing in this economic downturn. (I figured if publishing continued then, it would certainly continue now. And that turned out to be correct.)
Fred’s autobiography The Way The Future Was served a more typical need for me. I was reading to see how a longtime writer coped with the ups and downs of a career. Fred’s had spectacular ups and spectacular downs, and while he was candid about them, his analysis made them seem more intellectual than personal.
Right now, I’m reading the autobiography of another Grand Master, Robert Silverberg. Bob’s book, Other Spaces, Other Times, came out just this year and, unlike the other two books, is a compilation of autobiographical essays published throughout his career.
The net result is a very personal look at one writer’s changing emotions about his life and his writing. I, of course, know how the field feels about Bob, and what has happened in the last 30 years of his career. I vaguely knew some of the early stuff.
What fascinates me the most about his autobiography, however, is its ever-changing view of success. The young Robert Silverberg—the boy who started mailing his stories to the pulp magazines in the 1940s—wanted to be published in those magazines. Then he wanted to be a science fiction writer. Then, while he was at Colombia, he became one.
He even survived a distribution collapse in the late 1950s that killed most fiction writers’ careers. But by the mid-1970s, he had retired from science fiction—and, in some ways, from writing entirely. He wrote a famous, bitter essay about why he left, which he included in this book.
I recognize that essay. I could have written something similar at one point in my career. Like Bob, I had a great feeling of being unappreciated by my chosen genre. Yet outsiders didn’t understand this. Outsiders—meaning people who were not me.
Because, at the time I felt that way, I had a long career. I’d been published—and recognized—in every genre I tried to write. I had awards and bestselling books and acclaim. But I had hit a bump in the road—a big one—and I no longer saw those things.
In his famous essay, neither does Bob. He actually says at one point that the sf field has passed him by because, he writes, “though nominated every year, my books and stories have finished well behind more conservative, ‘safer,’ works.” In other words, the nominations weren’t enough; he was losing awards to works he didn’t respect. He was selling novels and short stories as fast as he could write them, but once they were on the marketplace, they weren’t performing to his expectations.
Eventually, he left the field, “retiring” until a novel practically wrote itself out of his subconscious. Then he embarked on another prolific and successful part of his career, before he “retired” again. By his count, he has retired twice from writing, and both times, he has returned.
At the end of a 1998 essay, he writes. “So my career, marked as it has been by triumph after triumph, has often seemed to me like nothing but a formidable struggle.” I came across that quote just this morning, and it made me stop reading for two reasons. First, I’ve felt that way more times than I want to admit, and secondly, it echoes the Miley Cyrus song I mentioned last week.
I’ll get to the Miley Cyrus song in a minute. But let’s focus on the quote for a moment. I like this quote a lot. It shows two kinds of self-awareness. First, he recognizes the triumphs for what they are. Actual successes—successes he didn’t seem to value as a much younger man.
Second, he knows that the process—the internal process—is very different from the external one. That’s what I’ve been getting at in all of the success essays when I’ve discussed the differing definitions of success.
What I haven’t explored in depth is that success itself is an ever-changing target. Last week, a former student of mine wrote me a panicked letter about the state of the publishing industry. Publishing news has been dismal of late, but as one pundit put it a few weeks ago, the book industry always reacts to any kind of change as if the world is going to end. Unfortunately, this writer either didn’t know that or didn’t remember it. She looked at the publishing industry, and decided that her recent sales were a fluke.
They weren’t. All I did in my return e-mail was remind her that the woman I had met nearly a decade ago would look on her current career as an unmitigated success—which occurred in the middle of this awful downturn, making it even more of a success.
She took a virtual breath, laughed, and calmed down. Because I was right.
Bob deals with that in the same essay that has the great quote. It’s hard to dismiss your own success when you’re collaborating with one of your childhood heroes—as he had done, working with Isaac Asimov. I’m sure he had other undeniable benchmarks for success. I’m just not sure what they are.
After I finished last week’s section on success, my husband, Dean Wesley Smith, asked me if I knew what his definition of success was. I told him I had known in the early 1990s, but didn’t know now. He nodded, and then said he had thought it a trick question. It wasn’t; we both know he’s in the process of redefining success—again.
I seem to redefine success every year or so. Once you hit a milestone, it’s done, it’s gone, it’s in the past. It is no longer something you strive for. It becomes part of your biography, not a goal to be achieved.
Success is something to strive for. If you look at it as something you’ve achieved, you rest on your laurels. There’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of people stop striving after attaining a particular goal.
Because I live in the Pacific Northwest, I see one of those people on the news fairly often. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, retired with his billions instead of working in the software field any longer. Bill Gates continued to strive in that field.
Paul Allen said he retired, but really, he just turned his attention to his other interests. One of them matches mine. We both want the Portland (Oregon) Trailblazers to win during every basketball season. Of course, I watch as a hobby, and he—as the owner of the Trailblazers—has an actual stake in the franchise’s success.
I have never met Paul Allen. Nor have I read many interviews with him. I don’t know how much his definition of success has changed. For all I know, he always wanted to retire early and pursue his hobbies with the same dedication he had once put into Microsoft. But I have a hunch his definition of success now is very different than it was in 1972.
I know mine is. I have always said that success, for me, is to continue making a living as a writer. I have done that for decades now. But, oddly enough, the definition of making a living has changed for me. I want to sustain the lifestyle I have now, not revert to the one I had the year I graduated from college.
Then I wasn’t sure what I meant by “writer.” I knew—knew!—that no one could make a living writing fiction, so that dream was out (even though I read books by professional fiction writers who had become rich off their writing every single day). So I figured I’d have to be a journalist. Then I realized that freelance nonfiction writers made money. Eventually I realized that fiction writers were the best paid of all writers.
My definitions kept changing.
I look around my office now and see hundreds of books and magazines that contain my work. I’ve been published in 13 languages. I’ve been an award-winner and a bestseller. I’ve traveled on someone else’s dime because of my writing. I’ve gone places I never thought I’d go—like the United Nations. I’ve done things I couldn’t imagine thirty years ago, all because of the profession I chose.
I value those things. I know they have made me successful in the eyes of other people—and in the eyes of my former self (if I could travel back in time and tell her about them).
But their bearing on my future success is minimal. I am in a different place as I define success now. I look at other things, things that I may not have valued then or may not have known about then.
This is what the Miley Cyrus song refers to. Go listen if you haven’t already. The song’s title is “The Climb,” and it’s all about success. The writers (J. Alexander and J. Mabe) of the song envision success as a mountain range with differing peaks and valleys. If you’ve ever stood in the middle of a real mountain range, you realize that the mountain peaks disappear into the distance. Once you’ve climbed one, you see another ahead of you, and another and another. And at times, you have to climb down before you can reach the next peak.
The thing I didn’t know about mountains when I was what my husband rudely calls a flatlander and the rest of the world calls a Midwesterner is that often the valleys between mountain peaks are significantly higher than sea level. So if you’re climbing and you’ve reached a plateau between the mountains, you’re still higher than you were when you started.
It just doesn’t seem that way.
My career, as Bob Silverberg writes, marked as it has been by triumph after triumph, has often seemed to me like nothing but a formidable struggle.
Exactly. Like climbing mountains. Up and down, down and up, achieving yet moving forward.
Because the people who accept their success and rest on their laurels—as the cliché goes—go no farther. Sometimes they don’t want to go farther. Sometimes they vacate the field, as Paul Allen did in the field of software. Sometimes they retire, like Robert Silverberg did for a few years in the 1970s, and rest or read or travel.
But those people have decided, for whatever reason, to stop moving forward. Maybe they’re happy with what they’ve done. Maybe (as one successful friend told me) they fear they can never do better.
I feel, however, if you’re going to continue in your chosen field, you have to keep striving—even if you’ve had success. You have to acknowledge that success but—and this is an odd sentence—you can’t let it limit you.
For example, Paul McCartney (to go back to an earlier section on success) could have quit making music in 1969. After all, he would always be a member of the Beatles, a group of musicians who changed the music industry forever. He had co-written some of the bestselling songs of all time. Even with the bad contracts that the Beatles signed, McCartney had made enough money to last him the rest of his life—and he wasn’t even thirty years old.
Instead, he has spent the last forty years making music, trying different things, learning new instruments and experimenting with new styles. In the 1980s, the joke was “Do you know who the Beatles are? They’re the band Paul McCartney was in before Wings.” Now that McCartney has gone solo for nearly two decades, a similar joke can be told about Wings.
His career has continued. I’m sure that his definition of success has changed mightily over the past sixty years.
I think if you want a lifelong career in your chosen field, your definition of success has to change. And if you have an ever-changing definition of success, you will eventually hear yourself utter a sentence similar to the one in Robert Silverberg’s essay. Even though you’ve had triumph after triumph, your career will feel like a formidable struggle.
Because a long-term career is a struggle. It’s a climb, as the song says. And that’s the point. Not the success itself.
Success is good. Success is necessary to survival in business. Celebrate your successes when they happen. Then move on to something else. Some new project over the horizon. The next mountain. The next challenge—and conquer that.
If you do that, life will remain interesting. And on those few occasions when you look back, you’ll realize you had more success than you thought because while you were in the middle of them, you were struggling mightily.
Enjoy that moment. Then turn around and look forward. Face the next challenge.
Because that’s really what it’s all about.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Success Part Five” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
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