YA fantasy writer and nationally ranked triathlete Mette Ivie Harrison is known for her original fairy tales and her fairy tale retellings. She continues the Writing for the Long Haul series by asking a question many of us visit and revisit throughout our careers: what exactly is success?
When I sold my first YA fantasy, Mira, Mirror, in 2003, I remember imagining my future career. I wanted to be a New York Times Best Selling Author. I wanted to have movies made of my books. I wanted to be a “name,” an author so well-known that the people I sat down next to in the airplane recognized me and people stopped asking if they would know anything I had written. I wanted my parents and my in-laws to brag about me and my kids to tell their teachers that I was an author. I wanted to be a coveted speaker and on regular tour circuit to bookstores and schools and libraries.
Well, none of that has happened in the ten years since, and I suppose it’s possible that the person I was ten years ago would think that the career I have now is a far cry from success. But when I think back to this imagined career, I laugh a little at myself. It’s not what I want now at all. I do not mean to say that those who have had these kinds of successes should be embarrassed. Of course, they can be proud of what they have achieved. I am proud of other authors I have watched find success. But it’s just that I suspect those things are not all they are cracked up to be. And for me personally, being famous would not at all fit my personality.
In the last ten years, there have certainly been some wonderful moments on top of the world because of great reviews. I have looked forward with anticipation to great sales figures when a book was chosen by a publisher and national bookstore chain to have an in-store display. But in the end, I have come to the conclusion that Julia Roberts was right in Notting Hill when she told Hugh Grant, “nonsense it all is.” From behind the scenes, hype over a book is often exaggerated. And even if it isn’t, even if it’s the best book in the history of books, a successful book sale isn’t everything. It doesn’t change your life in the way that you might hope. It doesn’t make you happy in every way. It may not even make you happier than you were before.
I’ve seen enough authors who have had sudden, unexpected success and discovered that they did not have fewer problems than before—they just had different ones. And being jealous of other authors—something I fight on a regular basis—is really foolish. At a race recently, I passed a guy on the run who had started the race about twenty minutes before me. “Wow, you’re blazing fast,” he said, “to catch up to me. Congrats.” I know that the race mentality makes us imagine that we are competing against each other, and we sometimes think this is true for authors, as well. We think that an author who just released a debut to massive sales is “beating” authors who haven’t had the same success. But it isn’t true.
“We’re all in our own race,” I said to this guy, and I meant it. I began to have a lot more success as an athlete when I stopped measuring myself against the other people who showed up at the race I was at. I couldn’t control how many faster athletes were there, and therefore I couldn’t control my placement overall. But what I could control was my own race. I could control how well I trained, how well I ate, and how much I rested the week before a race. When my only focus was trying to do better this year than the year before, even if by only seconds, I “won” most races, since in my mind I was competing only against myself.
Of course, I don’t have absolute control even over my own body. I might get sick the night before a race, or be sick during what was supposed to be my peak week of training. That affects my results. And during the race, things happen, too. Sometimes I would end up with a flat tire on my bike, which would slow me down. On occasion, I have even crashed in a race. I can do my best to make sure I have the equipment to fix a flat with me, and I can try to keep safe on the bike, but I can’t prevent all problems. But when they happen, I get to choose how I respond to them. I also choose to be proud of myself for continuing to race even when there’s no hope of doing anything more than finishing.
In the writing world, I feel like there is something similar to this mindset. Authors don’t control book covers most of the time. We may give feedback to the publisher, which may or may not (usually not) be listened to. Authors don’t control where their editor works. Sometimes editors move. Sometimes they are let go. An orphaned book is often a terrible thing for an author, but we don’t control this. We can make the best of it, but it’s like a bike crash: grim prospects for this race/this book. Authors don’t control the marketing budget for a book. We don’t control if the book buyer for a particular large national chain likes our book. We don’t control when other authors’ books come out for the year and how those compare to ours.
But as writers, we can all set our own goals. We can measure ourselves against our own goals, our own previous books. And I think this is far more valuable (and more sane-making) than using other, arbitrary and supposedly more objective ways to find success. Sure, you can use sales numbers or movie deals or number of twitter mentions or starred reviews to decide if your book is good, if you have “won” your race. But as soon as you do that, you are giving up power over your own career to other people. You may imagine that you can control such things as the weather on race day, but this is just your imagination. It may work better for you if you accept that some races, you’re going to have rain, and that it’s possible to enjoy racing in the rain every once in a while. I have certainly faced some rain in my writing races the last ten years.
After agonizing over the sales of a book that went nowhere and received the nastiest reviews I have ever seen (Tris and Izzie), having a major contract canceled, and feeling for a couple of years as if my career as a writer was over and I wasn’t ready for it, I have come to see that my career is under my control and that I have actually had a lot of the kinds of success that matter to me. I have been racing as a writer against myself, giving myself new challenges each year, and finding ways to be proud of myself even when I’ve had a crash.
While I look back at my early paint-by-numbers view of success with a rueful humor, I can’t say that I’m unhappy that my career has taken the twists and turns that it has. I’ve learned a lot along the way, about myself and about what writing means to me, and about what other people control. And what they don’t control is my writing. Despite all of the bad times, I have woken up every day and sat down to write. I have always had a new book in mind, and usually three or four books that I needed to write. I consider that an enormous success, that I’ve kept the faith in myself and that I have continued to want to be a writer.
I still sometimes fear that my career as a writer of YA fantasy may at any moment be over and that I may have to change my name or reinvent myself completely. Yeah. So what? If I can’t run anymore, I can swim and bike. If I can’t swim, I can run. There will always be a challenge ahead of me, and I have found an enormous confidence in myself that I can face those challenges, whatever they are. I guess that once you’ve dealt with what used to be your worst nightmare, the other nightmares pale in comparison. I’ve lived through bike crashes and they scare me less than they used to. I’ve lived with crippling IT band issues, with a stress fracture in my foot, with disappointment and disaster. And I survived. I’m a survivor, and maybe that’s the most important definition of my life as a writer.
I still care enough about sales in a vague, distant way that I court them in an effort to maintain my ability to keep getting contracts so that I continue to sell books. But I also like the place that I am in now, after the rain has stopped falling. Maybe this is the eye of the storm, but I like the fact that no one is telling me what I should write next, or how to follow up a certain book’s success. I love the freedom and time that I have now to write books that appeal to me for quirky reasons that may make no sense to anyone else. I like that I can experiment beyond the genre that I first had success in.
I want to break genre rules and conventions. I want people to throw down my books and complain that I didn’t give them what they wanted. And I want other people to think for hours after they put my book down about the ideas that linger. I suppose there may still be some part of me that imagines that someday in the far-off future, my books will receive their final due. But that isn’t the time I live in. I live in now, and ultimately, my satisfaction in writing comes only from myself. I am in my own race here, too. That may sound narcissistic, but it is also very simple. It means that my satisfaction can’t be taken away by reviews or bad sales or missed expectations.
The illustrator Charles Vess once told me that he had spent a lot of his career telling himself that “this” (whatever project he was currently working on) was “the next big thing.” And after a lot of “next big things,” he looked back and saw that none of them had been the next big thing. That has been mostly my experience, as well, but I have found a kind of satisfaction there. I am pretty sure that even if I had met all the goals I had set out for myself 10 years ago, I would still have had to deal with the same self-doubts that I dealt with without that success. And they might well have been more exaggerated and more difficult to sort through, on the stage of public scrutiny. I don’t regret working them out as I have, and I don’t regret the books that are mine.
I also do not regret that I have spent the last ten years largely at home with my five children and my husband as they moved from spanning ages one to nine, to spanning ages eleven to nineteen. I have had a real life that has not been particularly hectic. I have been able to drive my kids on errands, not worry about deadlines, enjoy a career as a competitive triathlete, eat good food that I make myself, and generally have a series of adventures that I suspect that a certain kind of success might have stolen from me. My oldest daughter attends MIT. My second daughter will be enrolling in Berklee School of Music in the fall and last year, I dragged three of my middle kids to do a relay in a half Ironman, for which I have a photo that they all beg me not to show. I don’t think these are “compensations” for the successful author life I have missed. I think that in reality, I chose this life, possibly unconsciously, as I made one choice here and once choice there. I have success, and it is my own.
Mette Ivie Harrison’s latest novel, The Rose Throne, is about two princesses who can’t afford to follow their hearts–They have to choose to take power or to be destroyed. Her first non-fiction book, Ironmom, will be published this summer and is part memoir, part how-to manual on her triathalon experiences from rank beginner to a national ranking. Her other books include The Princess and the Hound and its five sequels/companion books and Tris and Izzie, is a retelling of Tristan and Isolde.
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