When our youngest child was in second grade, we moved to a small Colorado town. The first day, even before we'd gotten the house unpacked, I headed for the library. Over the next three months, I spent four to eight hours a day in that threadbare space, reading every word I could find on non-fiction article writing.
Until then, all I'd known was that I loved to read magazines and buy essay. I devoured them the way some people overdose on chocolate. I'd also been told since high school, like millions of other kids, that I had some writing talent. My dream then, was to write for the 'seven sisters' magazines.
Until I'd spent days in the Gunnison library, I'd never heard of a query letter; didn't know the difference between First NA Serial Rights and human rights. I didn't personally know any magazine writers or anything about the process. I was surprised by the statistics about how many people wanted to write for magazines versus how many actually succeeded. But I assumed those figures didn't apply to me. I read, I studied, I thought, I processed and after three months, I began to write.
I sent off my first article to Guideposts magazine and began an intimate relationship with our mail box. When I wasn't rushing down the stairs to peer inside for the hundredth time each day, I surveyed the street like a hawk watches a chicken to make sure I didn't miss the mail man. One day he delivered the envelope into my sweaty hands.
Guideposts not only accepted the article, they claimed to 'love it.' A few months after publication, the piece was picked up by Reader's Digest. (It wasn't until later that I realized what I had given up. My library education didn't include reading about the repercussions of work for hire agreements. But even had I been a rights expert, that acceptance appeared magical, the first step on my way to the realization of a dream. Its power outweighed any logic.)
Also during that year, I managed to snag a weekly humor column in the local paper. My payment was a $10 gift certificate for the local bakery.
I thought I had it figured out, I'd become a national humor columnist as well as a successful writer for top-flight magazines. It all seemed too easy. And it was.
Something happened after that first flush. I discovered that if I wanted to write for the big guys, I had to act like a big guy. I had to put up with being treated poorly, if not down right patronized. I had to accept the fact that because I was being paid big bucks, I was supposed to behave like a supplicant glad for any crumb. If it took a year or more to publish a piece, how dare I complain? Editors changed four times before an article was published, and the fifth dumps the piece? Par for the course. Payment takes six times as long as they claim it will? Well, at least I'm getting paid (relatively) large sums.
Somewhere in that first year, it became clear to me that I was not happy with this scenario. I wasn't seeking fame or even fortune. I just wanted to write the kinds of stories I enjoyed, work with people I respected and I realized that I wanted to be appreciated. So I changed my definition of success. I gave up sending queries to the big guys and I became a reliable writer for the trades. I wrote for everything from the pharmaceuticals and optical markets to fashion and computers. I usually got paid on time, but best of all, the editors liked my work and valued me. We worked as partners and the stories I wrote reflected who I was. I flourished. Occasionally I submitted a tidbit to the biggies, but I no longer hungered for their favor. I didn't need them.
Today, I'm a life coach, not a freelancer, but I am finding success in the same way I did as a writer. When I started out, I wanted to be a great coach, someone others would want to emulate. I thought that if I were, I could most successfully spread the word about what a great opportunity coaching presents to people who are ready to make changes in their lives. But now that I've done it for awhile, I realize how much I love coaching individuals, how meaningful it is for me as well as my clients. In this way, success is not about reaching a goal, but about what I do every day. I still want to get the word out, but I'm not paying for the future by giving up today.
For some people, it takes a major life event, such as a sudden illness, to help them realize the importance of loving the work you choose while you're doing it. For me, it's always been about checking in with myself to see whether the goal is obscuring my life. Each time I have redefined success, I have simply become happier.
Sometimes my clients try too hard to follow the rules. They take the prescribed route, do all the work, everything that is expected and yet, the success they seek eludes them. I suggest that one reason could be that they listen too closely to the gurus and not closely enough to themselves.
What is it you want? What is your definition of success as a writer? How will you know when you get there?
Begin to wonder about your level of enjoyment as you pursue your dream. What would happen if you never reached the level of success you crave? Would the journey there be worth the failure? Too many of us assume we have to be miserable in order to be happy, that banging our heads against a brick wall will be worth it in the end because we are bound to be successful if we try hard enough. But sometimes, it is better (and a lot less painful) to re-think success, because the reality is, no matter how much head banging we do, sometimes trying hard just isn't enough. Even worse, we live so solemnly that the pursuit drains us of life.
Why not give yourself a gift this holiday season. Vow to enjoy the process. Figure out how to write the kinds of articles or books or whatever, that you crave. Your work every single day should fill you up, make you glad to be alive, filled with excitement and thanksgiving that you are here and doing it. If it feels like drudgery or you don't like the people you are dealing with, it's time to take a good hard look and find a way to make it joyful.
May the new year find you loving your journey as much as I love mine.