I want to talk about pizza for a moment, but bear with me. I promise this is going to tie into writing.
One of our favorite local restaurants is called Pieous (@PieousATX on Instagram), and they specialize in—oddly—pizza, pastrami, and pastries. It’s a frequent darling of area foodies and “best of” lists, and we probably eat there several times a month. There’s always a fairly healthy crowd, many of them regulars.
The owners, Josh and Paige, left established careers and a life in LA and started this business when they moved to Austin to raise their family, having always dreamed of running their own restaurant. They use a family sourdough starter for their crusts and pastries that’s decades old, and they make everything from scratch every day, from the sauce to the mozzarella, as well as all their dessert and pastry offerings.
From the day they opened, they’ve put in astonishing hours, and are constantly innovating new menu items that they bring samples of out to customers to get their input. They have a passion for their food, and for this work–just look at all the art from their restaurant that illustrates this post (banner included).
How This Relates to Your Writing
Pieous has earned enduring local popularity and loyalty with a single location on the western outskirts of Austin. Josh and Paige do all of this work for a tiny fraction of the food-eating world—but that doesn’t seem to detract from their enjoyment of it, their dedication, and their constantly evolving craftsmanship.
Think about your favorite local restaurant, or artist, or musician, or podcast. Think about the satisfaction and joy you get from them and what they bring to your life.
Think of some of your favorite creative products, and the joy they give you. Your favorite book or film or TV show may or may not be a megahit. Mine are often niche-y little stories that barely made a blip marketing-wise.
Do you dismiss their value because they may not reach millions of people or have widespread name recognition?
And yet I think many authors do this with their writing. You create your stories and they may not get published, but your critique partners and writing group and family and friends have read and loved them. Yet that doesn’t feel like enough.
Or you self or small-press or traditionally publish and your book never gains widespread traction with readers. But you’ve got a handful or dozens or even a few hundred reviews from people who loved what you’re doing, to whom it meant something. Yet perhaps you feel the work isn’t really a success if you’re not topping bestseller charts or making bank.
If we ourselves can love and appreciate art that never finds a ubiquitously wide audience, why do we often feel that’s not good enough for our own creative work? Why is a small audience any less valid or satisfying than a larger one?
Read more: “Why Do You Write?”
Working Hard and Staying Small
Admittedly most of us get into this field not just because of our love of story, but because we dream of sharing it with others, as widely as we can. If we’re honest, a lot of us probably hope to be J. K. Rowling, world renowned, our books beloved by millions.
But if you’ve been in this business for any period of time you probably know the somewhat grim statistics. Not only is it astronomically unlikely that most authors will achieve those heights, but even moderate commercial, critical, and financial “success” as an author is achieved by only a small fraction of those attempting to make a career out of writing.
Read more: “The Happy Harsh Truths of a Writing Career”
It’s the same in a lot of creative fields—including cooking. The stats on opening a single successful restaurant are pretty daunting, let alone achieving the brass ring of multiple locations, franchising, and brand ubiquity—the “bestseller” status of the food world.
Yet here are Josh and Paige, showing up every day and giving their all to their restaurant, striving to create new recipes and perfecting existing ones. They worked diligently to attain an official VPN certification (Vera Pizza Napoletana) according to standards of traditional pizza makers required in Naples, one of only a finite number of restaurants in this country to achieve that honor. Their pastrami and pastries were featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.
For a while they talked about opening other branches, new concepts, and I’ve even asked them about franchising. But for now this seems to be enough. They are happy doing what they love for a finite circle of superfans who are equally passionate about their creative product. They have found their personal definition of success, even at this relatively modest level. They’re not waiting for their ship to come in or to garner the attention of millions around the country and the world. They’re already happy doing what they love, day after day after day.
What Makes Your Art Matter?
I think about Josh and Paige a lot when I find myself getting caught up in a rat-race mentality, when I feel frustrated or disappointed with how my business is growing, or worry that I don’t have the reach or platform that I’d like to have. When I fall into that mindset I can start to feel dissatisfied with what I do, unhappy and self-doubting about my own abilities. This is when my old familiar demons start to rear their heads: impostor syndrome. Perfectionism. Comparison.
I think about how hard Paige and Josh have worked from the day their restaurant opened. I think about the palpable joy that is always evident in both of them whenever we come in, no matter how busy they are, even during the pandemic when they had to pivot their entire business to takeout only (and incidentally, retained every single employee on salary). They are following their dream every day, even when it’s hard.
When I think about this in my moments of dissatisfaction and inadequacy, it reminds me why I do what I do, and that I already love doing it, day after day after day. Like Josh and Paige, I’m pretty much always baseline content and fulfilled by the work that I do. A bigger platform would be nice, and it can be a long-term plan, but defining my success by that prevents me from enjoying the work that made me want to do that in the first place. It prevents me from relishing what I’m already doing, what I’ve already accomplished. It undermines that enjoyment and my confidence and faith in myself, and turns my passion into a flog to beat myself with.
Read more: “Are You Paying Attention to Your Progress?”
Yes, in a perfect world of course we want everyone to read our stories and naturally to love them, and to support ourselves and our families with our work.
But that’s not the barometer of its worth, and it has less than nothing to do with the creation of that work and what that brings to you and your life as an artist.
What if your career always stays more modest than you might have hoped? Will it still be worth doing? Would you feel satisfied with simply the privilege of doing what you love? Could that satisfaction and joy it brings to your life be its own end, whether three people appreciate your work or three million do?
Knowing that answer can be the difference between a fulfilling, satisfying writing career that you can sustain, and one that leaves you feeling disheartened and dissatisfied, never measuring up to some uncontrollable external standard.
Josh and Paige give their answer every single day they show up at work, with every customer they greet by name and with a smile, and by the way their faces light up when they watch someone dig into their food and swoon over it.
I find mine every time I sit down to work on an author’s story or a presentation or an article; every time I see an author bring her manuscript to the fullest expression of her vision for it.
Your turn, authors. Do you define success by a specific metric? What is that? Would your writing feel worthwhile to you even if you knew you would never achieve those things?