I remind myself of this question during tough times. I want to be a successful writer, of course, but I can't control exactly how that will happen - assuming it does. Framing the hard times in the context of what I hope will be my life story can be comforting and motivating. Put simply, my narrative would read "despite struggling with mental illness, Hayley persevered and her first novel was published in year X." If this does happen, I hope it will inspire other people who face mental illness or similar obstacles.
But what if I never find success?
Leaving aside the question of how to define success (for now), the unsuccessful life story has two main narratives:
a). I let myself get discouraged and abandon my dreams. I may, against the odds, be content. I may do other important things with my life. However, my unpursued ambitions will hang over my head and I doubt I would be truly happy.
b). I continue to find pleasure in writing, despite never getting published. I do other work in order to earn a living, but writing is still my main passion. No amount of rejection can dissuade me and as long as I continue to write, there's always the possibility of success.
The second option sounds much better, right? Doing something you love is never a waste of time.
A narrative of meaning is available to everybody.
I read Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl this week. It's a rich, inspiring book about Frankl's experience of the holocaust and his survival. Through this narrative, he explains the school of psychology he developed, logotherapy. Logotherapy explores the ways people can find meaning in their lives and pinpoints three major areas:
1/. Finding meaning through work
2/. Finding meaning through love
3/. Finding meaning through suffering
We can't control what happens to us, but we can control our reactions. We can accept a difficult situation with grace, rather than riling against it or living in denial. We can focus our attention on what provides us with meaning and pleasure, rather than obsessing about the bad stuff. We can wallow in our misfortunes, or we can strive to understand ourselves better through the challenges we face.
We can see that option b). mentioned above contains the opportunity to find meaning in all the areas outlined by Frankl. Writing is work, so continuing to write allows me to find meaning regardless of its outcome. Writing is also one of the great loves of my life. And in the suffering of rejection, there is an opportunity to keep trying and learn from this resilience. Yes, I want to be successful, but I choose this narrative for myself, for my life, regardless.
I have ignored the precise definition of success so far, since it differs so much from person to person - and is liable to change over time. However, I think it's vital to address the fact that success comes in many forms. Making a living from writing is one type of success, but simply making time to write is another. There are a range of inbetween stages too, such as making enough money through writing to allow you to work part time at the day job or earning enough through writing non-fiction to subsidise your fiction writing. A Booker Prize winner may influence a huge number of people, but telling your stories in a local school or nursing home also provides people with pleasure. I want my narrative to embrace all forms of success.