It was a lesson I learned over twenty years ago. Or I thought I had, although I’m not sure I ever will. It was shortly after Steven Soderbergh’s directorial debut, “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” which was a small, indie film that met with huge critical and box office success. Soderbergh published his diary shortly thereafter, recounting the steps he took to get the project – which he wrote, directed, photographed and edited – off the ground.
At that time I had just completed the screenplay for a small, indie film that I hoped to direct. Called “A Little Sexual Contract,” it told the story of two couples, long-time friends, who wrote a contract allowing them to switch partners for a night. The screenplay dramatized the growing excitement and tension leading up to the “event” then examined how the night changed their lives. In the end, one couple’s relationship was strengthened while the other’s dissolved.
I had an indie producer attached and we were looking for financing to make the film. I remember telling the producer – a man with much more experience in the business than me – that I wanted to follow the path taken by Steven Soderbergh. The film subjects were similar, the budget was basically the same, the path to distribution identical.
The producer gave me the following advice: “Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t follow someone else’s path. What worked for them cannot be duplicated. You’re on a different trajectory.”
Wow. I wondered if I really had the life-experience to take this to heart. How could I not “compare myself to others?” Isn’t this human nature?
It’s like a survival instinct our limbic brains tap into to protect us. I’m sure it goes back to the cave. “Cold outside…Og has bear skin…Og is warm…I not feel fingers…should I get bear skin?”
Og will survive. If Og was an author, what would he do?
As a new author I tend to look around at what everyone else is doing. I judge my success or failure based on what I perceive to be the success or failure of others.
What are the guide-posts that signal success?
Edgars, Anthonys, Macavitys, Agathas, Daggers, Neros, Shamuses, Hammetts, Dilys, Barrys, Thrillers, Gumshoes. Best-seller lists, high-profile panels, book fairs. Audio book deals, foreign language deals, film and television deals. Sales figures.
Deep inside, I think we all know…none of it matters.
It’s all great. It’s validation. And it adds up, keeps our careers in play, enables us to pay the bills and keep on writing. But I think we – new authors and veterans alike – spend a lot of time judging ourselves, our talents, and our careers based on the nomination we didn’t receive for the latest award. Or the fact that we didn’t get a French publication deal. Or that we’re writing the next book without a contract.
Sometimes we take all the great things we do have, add them up, then try to compare them to the bundled accomplishments of other authors. In this way we can either pat ourselves on the back or beat ourselves up for falling behind.
I think it’s all rather arbitrary. I think a really good book will find its fans. A really good book might not get any awards. It might not become a best-seller. It might even complicate our career growth by appealing to too small an audience. But if you’ve succeeded in writing a good book…that’s the accomplishment. How do you define a good book? That’s an entirely different blog. But, ultimately, you have to know in your heart that the book is good, and hopefully you’ve listened to the criticisms of other writers whose opinions you respect, and you’ve done the work required to write a good book.
I’ve decided that I will not be depressed by awards or nominations not received. On the other hand, I am happy for my friends who are nominated and do receive awards, just as I would be happy if I received the same validation. And if a book is good, if I really LOVE someone’s book, I want it to receive the awards. I want to promote the recognition of great writing.
What do I want, ultimately? I want the freedom to always write full-time. I want to create a strong body of work. I want to support my family. And I want to connect with others through the examination of life in stories.
Anything else is icing. I’ll take it, but I won’t obsess over it. Anymore. Because, despite the fact that I learned this lesson twenty years ago, it seems I needed to learn it again, as an author. My path is my path. My trajectory my own. Trajectory unknown.
Maybe I’m thinking these thoughts because I’m reading Bukowski again. Whenever I feel myself drifting, I read Bukowski and I’m grounded. This was a man who wrote, every day, every night. He didn’t care about reviews or criticism or peer recognition. The path he followed was his own. He knew himself and, somehow, he succeeded. He could just as easily have failed. But his writing would have been the same, regardless. It was unaffected by the world’s reaction. That takes a kind of confidence I admire. It’s a path I hope to follow. There I go again…will this lesson ever be learned?
On a different note – I’m at Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe this week. Pari, you’ve done an outstanding job. What a perfect event. And the setting is unparalleled. Thank you for all your hard work. I know I will remember this conference forever.