What If You Don’t “Succeed” as a Creator?

What If You Don’t “Succeed” as a Creator?

This weekend my husband sent me this post from his favorite cartoonist, Nathan Pyle, and it unexpectedly made me tear up.

I was spending the weekend going over the final copyedits for my upcoming Berkley/Penguin release (The Way We Weren’t, under my pen name, Phoebe Fox), and having one of Pyle’s moments of creative despair myself. These generally fall into one of a few recurring categories for me:

  • Inadequacy: “This is terrible.”
  • Perfectionism: “I could have done so much better.”
  • Comparison: “[Fill-in-the-blank] is a much better writer than I am.”
  • Futility: “What’s the point?”

I’m betting some of these may be familiar to you too, and you may have a few additional greatest-hits creative demons of your own.

This time I was suffering from #4, my So What? demon. I’ve spent many years working on this story, in countless iterations. It was a thrill to sell it and know it would finally find its way to readers, but now that it’s about to, I found myself feeling daunted. In such an overwhelmingly crowded publishing environment, how many people would actually read it? And what would it matter if they did?

That same night I was with some of my girlfriends and talk turned to books we’ve read. I mentioned I’d read one a friend touted, and another asked, “It was good?”

“I enjoyed it,” I said. “I mean, it didn’t change my life, but it was really good.”

My friend laughed. “Has any book actually ever ‘changed your life’?” she asked.


Has any book actually ever “changed your life”?

There ensued a conversation about the books that have touched us deeply, but my friend’s question got me examining my feelings about my upcoming release. Am I defining this story as a success only if it’s a major critical hit, or a huge seller, or “changes someone’s life”?

What is the standard of worth for our art?

#

I’ve written about knowing why you write here, to stay grounded and in touch with what’s important to you in your creative pursuits. And I solidly know my “why” for fiction–I write to explore ideas I want to examine, usually around themes of forgiveness and family, and I want to write the kind of stories I love to read. Both of which I feel good about with this book.

But I got all tangled up in what comes after the creation of the art—which I have no control over. And I reverse-engineered the “results” the book achieves as a justification for its existence: If it isn’t a huge “success,” what’s the point?

This morning I walked through my house looking at some of the artwork in it that regularly gives me the greatest pleasure.

Amulya Malladi original acrylic

This painting was created by an author I worked with, Amulya Malladi, who took up acrylic painting as a hobby and “sells” her work in exchange for donations to various nonprofits.

I fell in love with this one–inspired by one of her books I especially loved, The Copenhagen Affair, and it hangs in front of my desk, where my eye lands on it daily and it nourishes my soul.

This isn’t a mass-produced piece. It’s an original, and I don’t think there are prints of it. Only I and people in my home get to enjoy this work of art. Does that make it less “worthy”? It’s worth a great deal to me—it brings me joy every day. Is that not art’s highest calling?

My unknown great-aunt’s vase

This is a vase made by my great-aunt I never knew. I think its workmanship is amazing–the perfection of its shape, its smooth texture, the colors of the glaze. It’s a simple piece, and the creator gifted it to a family member with no expectation it might enjoy wider “acclaim” than that. Does that detract from its merit as art? Yet here I am two generations later admiring it every day.

Painting painstakingly copied by my mom

Here’s another piece I love and look at daily. My mom painted this watercolor for me from a picture of another piece she copied. It took her nearly a year and she did it in secret, wanting to surprise me with it. These are not her colors–she loves muted pastels–and this is not her kind of subject matter. But she thought it might mean something to me, and she worked hard on the meticulous details, like the crosshatching, and she even changed the name on the boat to the name of her boat that our family had many happy outings on.

All that effort and time…just so it could be enjoyed by a single person. Yet my mom was lit up when she finally got to give me the finished painting, and even more so when she saw my joyful reaction. And she loves seeing it featured prominently in my office every time she visits. It makes me think of her every day, and her love for me. Would I judge this art as pointless?

Why am I so quick to do that with my own?

Why do any of us creative souls impose a barometer of worth on our work that has nothing to do with the work itself and is beyond our control or creation–like reviews or sales or acclaim?

Our concern is the creation of the work—for ourselves, for its own sake. To have a vision in your head, to develop that vision, to set it down in words and bring it to life on a page…what an accomplishment that is! How rare and special to bring something wholly original and your own into existence.

Why must the work achieve more than that to be considered worthwhile? Who is the judge of whether it has worth if not us, its creator?

Why isn’t the making of art—the astonishing process of creating something from nothing—considered success in and of itself?


Why isn’t the making of art—the astonishing process of creating something from nothing—considered success in and of itself?

#

I always think of the pinnacle of my former career as an actor—which included a number of higher-profile film and TV jobs—as the curtain call of a show I did years ago at a regional theater. I don’t even remember for sure which theater or play it was, but I do remember looking out to see a man on his feet, clapping with everything in him, tears running down his face.

I remember feeling that this was why I acted. That night that man had an experience as a result of what he saw on that stage. I don’t know what it was, or whether it “changed his life.”

But for that moment, something I was part of creating connected profoundly and intimately with another human being. It brings tears to my eyes still to remember it.

To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, If that isn’t creative success, I don’t know what is.

Over to you, authors—do you ever struggle with wondering whether your writing matters? How do you work through those moments? Do you know your “why,” and if so what is it?

20 Comments. Leave new

  • Nancy Hayden
    June 17, 2021 1:23 pm

    If this isn’t inspirational, I don’t know what is.

    Reply
  • As ever your post is superbly timed. You share your woes to lift us all, I hope you feel raised up in return x

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 17, 2021 2:33 pm

      Thanks, Syl–and I do! Knowing a lot of creatives feel this way now and then always helps.

      Reply
  • Maggie Smith
    June 17, 2021 3:26 pm

    I loved the fact you referenced art from other creative fields (painting, pottery) to illustrate your point about your novel. I sold artwork to health care facilities throughout the US for many years and sometimes stopped to wonder whether it was worth the hassle and the hard work and the financial risk. But then I’d remember that it was being viewed by people at a very bad time in their life and if for a moment, it gave them peace or took them away from the situation they were in, it was worth it. Thank you for your thoughts.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 17, 2021 4:37 pm

      That’s lovely, Maggie. I think we overlook the everyday, nearly constant impact art has on our lives–from the decor in our homes, the music we listen to, the shows and movies we watch, what we read, the podcasts we may listen to, the clothes we wear. I know I’m profoundly affected by my surroundings, and having meaningful things of beauty around me really impacts my mood every day. Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply
  • Thank you for this post!

    After what turned out to be years of grieving and making peace with lost success, I think I’ve *finally* reinvented what the word is for myself– or rather what it now looks like to me, because I don’t think I have constructed an actual definition yet. Liz Gilbert’s “Magic Lessons” podcast, which I recently discovered even though it’s five years old, really helped me. (The timing was perfect, actually, as these things always are.)

    I recently submitted my first novel since 2017 (and that one was a collaboration), and I was overjoyed because I realized what a TREMENDOUS success it is, regardless of when and/or where the book lands.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 18, 2021 1:28 am

      Congrats on the submission! I love that you’re seeing just the creation of it as a win. It should be, for all of us, shouldn’t it? I haven’t listened to “Magic Lessons,” but thanks to you I’m adding it to my podcast list. I love her writing, especially on creativity. Have you ever read Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write? One of my favorite books on creativity. Thanks for stopping by, Elisa.

      Reply
  • Vaughn Roycroft
    June 17, 2021 5:09 pm

    Wonderful message, Tiffany. For me, letting go of the outcome is “the good fight.” But it’s an ongoing war, not a single battle. Likely will be for the rest of my days, so I appreciate the allies and I’m cheering for your victory in this latest battle.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 17, 2021 8:24 pm

      Thanks, friend–and I’m doing the same for you. I think this is sort of part and parcel of creative pursuits, maybe especially if you are trying to market them. It does help me to remind myself that the creating of it is the main thing, the most important thing from my viewpoint–the work connecting with others is wonderful, but I try to remember not to let that be its measure of validity.

      Reply
  • Great post!
    I share your theater experience; I designed and directed for years. I did as little acting as possible once I discovered I didn’t like it. (I always felt like a fraud.) Directing and Design were another story; realizing a vision-bringing it to life, seeing it affirmed by applause is one of the most powerful emotional experiences I’ve ever had, and for years I considered the long hours, hard work, and frustration it required a small price to pay for it. It was a great privilege.

    I wrote my first novel because a Greek tragedy that I had taught had the potential to become a hero’s journey, and I just had to tell that story. ‘ Took me longer than I’ll admit to, and no agent has shown any interest in it yet, but I’ve told the story I needed to tell, and if it is never published, it’s still the story I needed to tell and I’m proud of it.

    I love reading detective stories and mysteries. Arthur Conan Doyle, John Dixon Carr, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Dorothy Sayers, Lee Child, Michael Connolly, Robert Preston entertained and inspired me for years. My opinion is that either they wrote too slowly or died too young, because they didn’t write nearly enough books.
    I’ve always felt that, as with theater, that creating that experience, writing my own mystery/detective story would be like the experience of designing and directing,—the reader/audience experience on steroids.

    I’ve got a first draft. Unfortunately, it supports Ernest Hemingway’s pronouncement that all first drafts are ****. It’s tepid at its best, but it’s got potential. My job now is to realize that potential, make it an experience worth having, and no fear or self-judgement is going to stop me. It’s mine until I put it out in the world, and I won’t put it out there ’til I’m satisfied I’ve told my story. I hope it doesn’t take as long as the last one.

    As actors and writers-artists-we choose to expose ourselves in hopes of affirmation, and in fear of criticism, rejection, or whatever that is when they don’t applaud, or an agent says ‘not interested.’ My attitude is: wrong agent, sorry to bother you, next case.

    “Good” isn’t a quality of work, it’s a judgement, yours, an agent’s, an audience’s. If your judgement is that you’re ready for the world to see it, put it out there. If IT’s not ready yet, fix it.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 18, 2021 1:33 am

      Hi, Bob. Thanks for dropping by. I can totally relate to your comments about directing/design in theater. Looking back now I see that I was probably never cut out to be an actor either–I would have been much happier behind the scenes. And yes, there’s something about a live audience that’s irreplaceable to me, even now. For instance I find I feel more connected and engaged in live webinars than recorded online courses–and more even than that with in-person workshops (which hopefully we’ll get back to). I think that’s the soul of any creative pursuit–that direct connection with people in real time.

      Love your pride in your story–we should all take that pride in our creations, no matter what happens to them. Even the novels in a drawer. 🙂 I also think every creative experience lets us grow as artists. Love your thoughts on that.

      Hope you enjoy the editing process on your current WIP. As you probably can guess, that’s my favorite part–the real magic of the writing/creative process, in my view. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Reply
  • Lainey Cameron
    June 17, 2021 9:31 pm

    Oh my goodness, I so related to this one. I have a piece of art by a friend in my office in Mexico. When I look at it I am in awe of her talent and it inspires me as I imagine what’s happening in the piece.

    Does that make it less valuable that she “sold” it to me instead of a gallery ? I know she’s thrilled that I fell in love with one of her pieces and it inspires my own work as a creative. Art inspiring art.

    I think I’m still finding my own way with creative doubt, and learning to be gentler with myself and more enjoy the process of getting there. Posts like yours help me a lot. Thank you 🙂

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 18, 2021 1:35 am

      I love that, Lainey! I think I remember that piece–did you show it at your launch party for EXIT STRATEGY? There’s something wonderful to me about original art like that, especially when created by someone you care about. That brings an energy to my house that I love–I love walking around looking at all these pieces hand-created by someone I know, bringing me pleasure every day. I love the idea of letting that remind us daily what our art is worth–regardless of its life after we’ve created it. Thanks for writing.

      Reply
    • Morgyn Star (aka Cordia Pearson)
      June 18, 2021 1:39 am

      IMO, it all comes down to “why” you’re in the “fight.” Can’t help yourself? Gotta win? Hope to win? So many answers and each one correct within its context.

      Again, IMO, ‘Can’t help yourself?” That’s were the juice is at. That’s when the creative shackles fall away and you let it rip.

      Vaughn, guess what? That’s me looking at you, waiting for the other shoe to freaking drop. (TYM, don’t know how to respond to him and you.)

      Reply
      • Tiffany Yates Martin
        June 18, 2021 2:21 am

        Yup. I think knowing your “why” is essential. I always think of the sheer joy of creation kids take in making any kind of art or creative endeavor. That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? The process is the point. Thanks, Morgyn.

        Reply
  • Thank you for these lovely words. I’ve just finished the first full draft of my novel and I’m so worried about what the perfect next step is and how it will be received. I want to return to this piece of art I’ve put so much into with a full heart, knowing that if anything there is a new creation in existence that bloomed from me.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 19, 2021 5:22 pm

      That’s an astonishing thing I think we forget to just stop and appreciate and marvel at. What happens to it after that is so often out of our hands, but the crafting of it…that’s a bit of a human miracle and deserves to be enjoyed. Congrats on completing the draft, Angela! Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply
  • Rebecca Warner
    June 26, 2021 2:42 pm

    “Why isn’t the making of art—the astonishing process of creating something from nothing—considered success in and of itself?”

    Wonderfully said. Thank you.

    Reply

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