Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Redefining Success

What does a successful book look like?

I have thought about that question off and on for several years, but over the past few months it has become especially potent to me. Some of it, I’m sure, relates to the release of my first novel and the less-than-hoped-for results, especially after 16+ years of work to reach that point. Some of the reason has probably come from questions, puzzlement, even frustration over some unexpected barriers I’ve bumped into with my non-fiction. Throw into the mix life circumstances and the general bumpiness of the writing life—well, it doesn’t take long to start wondering if all the labor, time, effort, training, and financial investment is really worth it.

So what would make it all worth it? My first response would be to say, “If the book is successful.” But only raises another question: How do I—or should I—define success?

Is success a publishing contract? Selling x number of copies? Reaching a best-seller list? Obtaining a particular Amazon ranking? Winning an award? Receiving a glowing review from a critic? Earning a certain number of five-star ratings? Going a book tour that produces out-of-the-door lines? Appearing on television? Having my book made into a movie? Or since I’m a Christian, should I define success by how much reader mail I receive…the number of lives my book impacted…the amount of conversions or recommitments to Christ it stirred?

Yet in each case, I run into the same problem with defining success, whether the goal is “worldly” or “spiritual”: They all depend on external factors outside of my control, whether the whim of people or the plan of God. And while I know that God is sovereign and I am free to approach Him with my requests, I am also experienced enough to know that just because I ask, even with the best of motives (which I admit they often aren’t), that God isn’t obligated to say “yes.” After all, He is God. I am not. I cannot dictate to Him how things are to go…though admittedly, it isn’t for the lack of trying.

So if I define success by any of the ways listed above or any number of others, I find my success no longer depends on me. Now to some this would be a comforting, even freeing, thought. For me, it is discouraging. If what I do doesn’t influence the outcome, why do I bother to strive for excellence? Why do my very best—especially when the mediocre seems to produce more “success”? Why put in the time, effort, and money to learn the craft…polish my manuscript…grow as a writer…even market my book? It all seems like a waste when it might not make any true difference in the end. Indeed, wouldn’t my resources be better spent elsewhere?

But if I do not define success as any of these, how should I define it? This is where I became stuck this summer, for each new attempt or idea led me to the same problem.

Then two weekends ago I was attending a writing conference, and the keynote speaker, Mary Weber, made a delineation between “achievements” and “success.” As I understood, achievements are goals like the ones I listed above: contracts, awards, bestseller lists. Basically, the goals which depended on outside factors. Now there is nothing wrong with desiring these things or working toward them or achieving them. But when these achievements become our definition of success, it creates an endlessly moving target (I sold 100,000 copies so now I need to reach a million), an insatiable striving (my last book hit the best seller list; now I have to do it again), and even purposelessness in the writer (I reached my goal. What do I do now?). Mary Weber instead defined true success as loving someone every day.

Now while she may be right that is part of the definition of a successful life, it didn’t help me in defining “successful writing.” In fact, due to the nature of writing, my writing could be seen as a selfish indulgence and thus hindering a successful life, especially when you realize that the only eyes to see my work may be God and me.

But Mary Weber’s words got me thinking in a new vein. Successful writing would be that which helps me fulfill the purpose for which God created me. That purpose, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Successful writing, therefore, would be that which glorifies God directly or helps me to better glorify Him in some way.

This definition is so simple, so obvious, it has left me shaking my head, wondering how I missed it. Yet it is also radical; it changes everything. If my writing teaches me something new about God, I’ve had a successful day of writing. If my writing leads me to repentance from a sin or to greater obedience, it is successful. If my writing declares God’s mighty deeds or surpassing character—or moves me to do so—it is successful. If the excellence or beauty of my writing reflects even in part some of God’s beauty and excellence, it is successful. If my writing conforms to God's standard of good provided in Philippians 4:8, it is successful. If my writing causes me to thank Him (even if only for reaching a day’s word count!), then a measure of success has been attained.

So I don’t need to be a best-selling, award-winning writer to be successful. I don’t have to sell a million books or inspire hundreds of readers. I don’t even need to be published. And I still have every reason to strive to do my best, to grow my craft, to hone my writing toward excellence. Nor does any piece of writing need to be seen as a waste, even if that day’s work ends up on the cutting floor. If it has helped me glorified God that day, it has fulfilled its purpose.

Moreover, this definition of success allows me to separate writing success from publishing success. Because if the writing has already succeeded in fulfilling my purpose to glorify God, the success (or failure) of publication does not matter as much; it does not determine the success of the writing itself. The writing has already succeeded because it has already brought glory to God.

Rather, publishing allows me glorify God afresh through the second command: Love my neighbor as myself. And the greatest love I can show my neighbor is to help them fulfill their purpose of glorifying God. So if my writing helps a reader see God in a fresh way, its publication has been successful. If a reader is spiritually recharged to do God’s work, publication has been successful If it helps move a reader to praise God, to repent from sin, to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ—if the publication results in only one of these or similar responses in at least one reader, then publication has been successful.

And while this definition of publication success edges back toward the realm of achievements, I believe it is a reasonable one as it naturally grows out of what I can control—the success of the original writing. For if a story that makes a writer laugh or cry is more likely to have the same emotional effect on readers, how much more the spiritual impact? So a story that truly has been successful in helping me glorify God is likely to have the same effect on at least one other reader out there.

Indeed, I cannot believe that God, who is sovereign and not One to waste anything, would allow a book to be published for which He has no purpose. So if the writing glorified Him, it makes sense that any publication He provided would bring about the same. That means that I can assume any publication of my work was successful, even if I never receive a single reader letter or never hear of any impact that my writing has. (Although I pray God graciously will do otherwise!)

Now does all this mean I will never want to see my book sales grow or yearn for that special reward or crave reader mail or become discouraged due to the lack of achievements? Of course not. It will take me some time to realign my sense of success with the real measure of success, and even then I will probably forget frequently. Nor, as I stated earlier, is the desire for these things bad in of themselves. Instead, I hope that as I learn to daily examine my writing through this new lens, my work will grow more successful with each passing year, and that I can help others, through word and deed, to do the same. 

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