I've always believed that a writer's success should be found in the act of writing rather than external validation. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with validation, but I have tried to find success in things that I have some control over: am I writing nearly every day and am I getting better in the craft from year to year? The first one requires some kind of writing discipline and process; the second one has to do with pushing myself to try new forms, new ideas, or new themes -- constantly challenging myself to exceed my grasp.
I think for the most part this approach works for me. I practice it and I teach it to my students. But lately, I've been questioning this paradigm as the way in which I measure my success as a writer. What about those seasons in life when writing isn't possible? The time or the emotional energy just isn't there?
I have recently heard from a couple of former writing students who said they hadn't kept in touch because they hadn't been writing and didn't want to disappoint me. They had gone through big life events or faced other challenges.
In some ways it's nice that my students want to make me proud, but this left me feeling that something I should've taught them had been missed. I don't wan't my students to fear disappointing me because the reality couldn't be farther from the truth -- whether they are writing or not, I am proud of them for the people they are.
All of that to say, it has caused me to rethink my model of what it means to be a successful writer. While I think that model has merit and is probably good in some seasons of life, it doesn't allow for those times in life that simply don't allow space for writing.
I have recently begun to come out of a season of chronic illness. It's been a central theme of my life for the past few years. It's been tough. I won't go into all of it here, but suffice it to say that while I have written some during the past three years, I haven't been able to sustain a regular writing routine. It's not for a lack of effort or desire or anything else. But there have been days, weeks, and months at a time when writing was not possible.
I am finally seeing real improvement. Case in point, I went for a bike ride for the first time in two years today! It felt like a miracle.
Was I less of a writer during these years of illness? No. I think I was a writer still. The neat thing is, now that I'm getting better, the writing is coming back. More than that, I think my writing is better and I feel like I can't write fast enough. All of the life I've experienced in the last few years hasn't been wasted time. And it's finally coming to fruition in my writing.
So, I think being a writer has more to do with a way of being in the world and the way we move through life than the act of writing. It means we are self-aware, we pay attention, we are curious, we are inside and outside the moment--experiencing it and storing up images, experiences, and observations that will feed our writing when life allows.
Anna Deavere Smith, in her book Letters to a Young Artist, quotes Maxine Greene, who coined the phrase "wide-awakeness". She defines it as a philosophical approach to life that "has to do with a way of thinking -- reflecting on self and the world in which [we] live in order to make change."
Maybe success as a writer is something more akin to being wide-awake. This is harder than it sounds -- it takes guts to be awake to the world around us. In a culture that seems so often to take the path of least resistance and to favor apathy, being wide-awake takes a lot of resolve, effort, personal evaluation, and empathy.
That's not to say I don't make it a goal to write every day and to continue to push myself. I do. So, I don't want this to be a cop-out. Sometimes when we're not writing, it's because we're lazy and we need someone to hold us accountable. If you need a motivational kick in the butt, I'm here for ya, as my students will attest. But I want a definition of success that allows for the ebb and flow of life. Let's be disciplined and goal-oriented, sure. But more than that, let's nurture a life that is wide-awake. It will serve us well as artists in all of life's seasons.