Are You a Success? By Whose Standards?

November 4, 2013

I’m still a little bleary-eyed and disjointed from odd train schedules and driving throughout the night — I just got back from the annual Call To Action conference, where I came up with ideas for at least two blog posts for Young Adult Catholics, so overall, I think it was a fruitful trip. Between audiobooks on the drive and traditional books on the train (not to mention a 7-hour wait at the station), I also finished three books–one of my favorite parts about traveling–including APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, which I’ll review here by next week.

Source: Flickr: Jim Henson’s Fantastic World

On the drive home this morning, I was listening to the new biography on Jim Henson. I’m always a bit nervous when I pick up biographies of creative geniuses, afraid that I’ll feel woefully inadequate by the time I’m done. I thought that would be the case with this one; Jim was already well on his way to the legacy that would become The Muppets by the time that he was in college. But as I follow the story more deeply, I realize that success to the rest of the world and success to Jim weren’t necessarily the same thing. Jim’s characters are recognized and beloved around the world, yet he spent years trying to break beyond being “a puppet guy”–even before he worked on Sesame Street, launched The Muppet Show, or created any of his feature-length films. He wanted to expand into doing “arty” films, including experimental videography, live action, and ambiguous messaging. He only attained moderate success in that arena, with many of the projects he wrote and devoted himself to during this time failing to find an audience. Those that did find an audience met with mixed reviews, and have faded into obscurity today.

It reminded me of the article I found most intriguing in Write Good or Die, “Success” by Kristine Kathryn Rush. In it, she talked about how many writers who are outwardly successful didn’t consider themselves successes because they hadn’t achieved what they really wanted to do. I can relate to this. I used to think being published in something besides a student journal would designate me “successful.” When I hit that milestone at age 21, I wanted to have something published in a book, then write for a wider audience, then publish fiction. Around this time last year, I even ended up with my name on the cover of a book (although I didn’t write it), and I felt as though I were a “real” writer for about a week.

There are other external measures of success, too. While I’ve never made a ton of money, I’ve been privileged to find work I enjoy ever since college, not to mention work that is in my field. My current combination of working part-time as an employee for a news organization and freelancing to round out my time and my income is my “sweet spot” as far as work-life balance is concerned. By my own standards, I consider myself pretty lucky. I know others who are as smart, talented, and educated as I am who have not been so lucky in their work lives, and I remind myself often that I’ve got nothing to complaint about.

Except. I don’t really consider myself a success. My dream of publishing a novel, which I’ve cherished since I was about 10, is still out of reach. And it’s hard to feel successful after spending over half my life writing books and still feeling like I don’t have the right answer to the question, “Have you been published?” or “What have you written?” I feel that the answer to what I’ve published and what I’ve written are not really the same, although there’s the tiniest bit of overlap.

I believe that writing is its own reward; in fact, it’s so rewarding that I have a lot of trouble getting myself to devote as much time to submitting my work as I devote to writing it. The E in APE totally freaks me out. But I know that if I go through life without publishing a novel, I will feel like I’ve failed at my own measure of success, regardless of what else I might accomplish. And if I do publish one? I have a feeling I’ll be plagued by wishes that more people had read it, that it got better reviews, that it sold more copies.

This all might seem like a rather discouraging thread, but its effect on me is the opposite. It helps me keep things in perspective. Even Jim Henson received three years’ worth of rejections on a project he loved that never did get produced. I hope that at the end of his too-short life, he was able to appreciate everything he had done, and not dwell too much on what he hadn’t. I hope I’ll be able to as well.

Because ultimately, the next dream will always be out of reach. That’s the definition of dreaming. And maybe that’s why so many people who were “success stories” by the world’s standards felt like they fell short of their own. And maybe that’s not as depressing as it seems.


It’s Here: The Nov/Dec Issue of Verily Magazine

October 21, 2013

I’ve been waiting to write this post for a long time. The November/December issue of Verily Magazine is finally for sale, and it features my article, “Natural Wonder: Understand Your Cycle to Regain Your Sanity and Appreciate Your Body,” on page 87. In case the title doesn’t make it clear (and I think it does), the article is about the Fertility Awareness Method, focusing on the non-reproductive benefits, and how understanding it can give women tons of insight about their bodies.

I’m thrilled about the article, and I’m also thrilled that Verily Magazine exists. Its tagline is: “Less of Who You Should Be: More of Who You Are.” While not as overtly feminist as magazines like Bust or Bitch, what it adds to the genre of women’s magazines is distinctly refreshing. The Nov/Dec issue includes articles about female bullying, an examination of dating “rules,” the effects of pornography on women, men, and relationships, and the prevalence of rape as a tactic of war. There’s some great advice about keeping your sanity in the sometimes-insane holiday season. It has some fashion spreads and tips, too — which feature real women instead of models. There are no ads and no airbrushing.

Its target audience is women ages 18-35, which is probably why so much of it resonated with me. It reminds me of the “grown-up” version of New Moon Girls, a magazine and web community for girls ages 8-14, which I’ve worked on in various capacities for 11 years. New Moon Girls is also ad- and airbrush free, featuring girls as they are and not as the world tells them they “should be.” Both publications would make great gifts for the girls and the women in your life this holiday season.

Writing and the Immeasurable Payout

September 3, 2013

Recently, I subscribed to Holly Lisle’s e-newsletter on a recommendation from Publishing E-books for Dummies, which I’m reading as part of my Rumpled ebook project. Although my inbox is full with newsletters and updates that I often don’t have time to read, I’m glad I took a look at Holly’s post about whether writing is worth the price. I recommend that not just writers, but anyone who wonders about the “price” of their dreams, take a look.

As a freelancer who juggles work for a variety of clients, as well as a part-time job with fluctuating hours, I often find myself weighing costs and benefits in my head before I accept any project, knowing that to do so means I may have to give up others. Questions include …

  1. How long will the work take me, and how much does the project pay? In other words, what will be my approximate “per hour” rate?
  2. How enjoyable is the work? Or, conversely, how boring, difficult, or frustrating is it?
  3. How reliable is this client at paying on time, or how long will I have to wait to get paid?
  4. If the pay-rate is low, are there other benefits — such as building up my portfolio, reaching a certain audience, or bringing me closer to something I want?

The best projects, of course, are the ones that are enjoyable and that pay well. But I will sometimes sacrifice higher pay for work that I find more enjoyable. Ultimately, though, my goal as a freelance writer is to get higher pay for fewer hours of work … so that more of my time is freed up for my own writing. In fact, being able to make my own writing a priority was largely the impetus that pushed me to transition from work as a full-time staff person to a freelancer. The reality of making money as a freelancer means that I don’t have significantly more time to write than I did when I worked for a company full time; what I do have is greater flexibility, which means I can work my other commitments around my writing. And that is worth a lot.

Still, I learned long ago that I cannot apply this cost/benefit model to my writing. Doing so would utterly depress me. Ultimately, I want to publish a novel with a major publishing house — that’s my most desired tangible outcome of the investment I make in writing. But even if that happened, there’s no way that the advance would ever compensate for the years that I put into getting me to that point. If it takes approximately 10,000 hours to attain true mastery, and you secure a $10,000 advance (a fairly generous sum, and unlikely from small presses), that translates into $1 per hour for your work. As a freelancer, I won’t work for those rates, and neither should anyone else.

But I’m not writing this post as a freelancer. I’m not writing my novels or my journal entries as a freelancer, either. I’m writing them for something else, something that is not easily quantified, and that has meaning even if they never bring any money in. I don’t write with hopes of payment and recognition; but I think these things would be mighty nice perks, since I’m going to be writing anyway.

And I am going to be writing anyway. I appreciate a “break” from writing between big projects, but after a month or so I start to feel “off” without a writing project threading through my life. I still get excited for new ideas and for old ones; I still feel as though there may never be enough time in the world for me to do all the writing I want to do, to tell all the stories I want to tell. This both daunts me and inspires me. I expect that my writing will take different forms throughout my life, but I know that to stop writing would be to lose a part of myself — perhaps even a crucial one, without which the other parts of myself might crumble apart. And who could put a price on that?

Free Writing Ebook from Scribendi

June 7, 2013

business writingSince early 2009, Scribendi, an online editorial services company, has been one of my most steady freelance clients. The experience of working for them has only improved over the years, as they’ve raised wages and begun offering other juicy incentives for helping out during especially busy times or receiving positive feedback on an order. But perhaps one of the things that has impresses me most about Scribendi is their dedication to improving their clients’ writing. This isn’t an organization that wants to keep clients dependent on their services; it’s one that believes it can be most valuable by guiding clients to become stronger writers on their own … even if that means they might eventually outgrow Scribendi’s services.

Along those lines, Scribendi is currently putting together a series of writing ebooks. Their first one, Effective Business Communication, has just been released. Most of us have probably had days at work where we hit “send” too soon on an email or CC’d the wrong person, causing embarrassment at best or downright humiliation or harsh reprimands at worse. We’ve had days where we’ve stared at a blank screen, inert at the thought of beginning that big report or grant proposal or marketing plan (I’ve had tasks stay on my to-do list for weeks, not because of lack of time, but because of how daunting the blank screen is.) Since most professions require written communication of some sort, this book can be helpful to anyone who has a job or is looking for one. And for a few days, you can download it for free. Enjoy!

Writing: My Difficult Task Done Well

June 3, 2013

When I was taking the Know Thyself course through Coursera earlier this spring, one thing that stuck with me was the finding that lottery winners are not happier than the general population. I had heard this before, of course, and, as someone who doesn’t find a lot of happiness in money or in stuff, it always made sense to me. But Timothy Wilson, one of the researchers who has studied the phenomenon, suggested that one of the causes of stagnating or even declining happiness in lottery winners was the fact that many of them quit work.

He reflects that, although many people don’t take much note of it, much of our happiness comes from the feeling of satisfaction we get for “a difficult job done well,” something that most people encounter in their work lives at one time or another. Removing work therefore removes that particular, possibly significant, source of satisfaction.

My first thought was, “But I could get that from my writing!” (So yes, I think that I could be quite happy as a lottery winner. ;)).

In the past year, I’ve really reframed the way I think about writing so that I don’t see its purpose as being a means toward achieving my dream of publishing a book, but so that I take value from the journey itself — the satisfaction I get from untangling a thorny plot issue, creating a beautiful sentence, or understanding my own experiences more deeply when I journal. Writing has essentially become a spiritual practice, something that threads a layer of meaning throughout my whole life, regardless of whether it brings outward success or not. And I certainly get the satisfaction of “a difficult job done well” when I manage to do it (and the satisfaction of at least trying when a difficult job is not done well). On most days, writing is the hardest thing I do, which is why I try to do it before 10 am — after that, the rest of the day feels easy.

I don’t think I need paid work to have a sense of satisfaction with my life, although the external validation of being recognized for it is a perk. Still, I think my own interests and compulsion to work on them without pay would be enough to keep me feeling productive and satisfied while a windfall took care of the details like food and housing. As it stands, my marriage has given me the chance to relax a bit about finances — my husband and I live simply, but I’m able to do things now that were very difficult for me to swing financially when I was single, such as home improvement, more upgraded technology, and travel. I’m grateful for that. But at the bottom of it all, we live below our means because what we both want most of all is time. We want time to devote to our personal “difficult tasks” done well — writing and learning for me, and coding for him. All money is to us is the means to take care of the necessities of life so that we can put as much time and energy as possible into the things we’re truly passionate about.

Although I’m more financially secure now than I have been in the past, I’m also more passionate about finding ways to “do more with less,” with the hope that someday that will allow us to be less beholden to our paid work. We’ve discussed that if we somehow came into a large sum of money, we’d put it away and give ourselves a yearly allowance and use the opportunity to work full-time toward our creative goals. We think we could live on 1 million dollars for twenty years — and perhaps after all that time devoted to our passions, they would have finally started reaping some financial rewards! Until then, we keep our day jobs, dependent on them for the cost of living, while we reap the majority of our satisfaction from our jobs that offer that very satisfaction as their only reward.

My Last Day of One Job, Embarking on Another

May 3, 2013

Yesterday was my last official day as Teen Services Librarian for the Marshall-Lyon County Library. My heart is sort of breaking over it–I loved that job so much, but it was a two-hour commute, one way, once a week. I’m still processing all of that, and might blog about it more extensively, but for now, I’m working on a new writing “job” to help take my mind off it. I’ve started doing the weekly exercises in Sheila Bender’s A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self Discovery. Before embarking on them, she encourages you to “hire” yourself as a journal keeper. I found this exercise very empowering, because it allowed me to reflect upon how freakin’ qualified I am for the job. I definitely encourage other writers to try it. Below are some of my entries from the exercise, consisting of the Job Posting, My Application Letter, and the Interview.

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Why I Work for Scribendi

November 28, 2012

Why I Work for Scribendi

Scribendi recently released this infographic that sums up perfectly why working with them is a good deal for freelancers. (Click on the graphic to see it full-size).