Success 1 — Courage

I used to picture of myself sitting on a Mexican beach beside a Land Rover banging out stories on a portable typewriter (yes, I’m old), only pausing now and then to sip cerveza, while in New York my daydream agent, Swifty Lazar, was cutting lucrative deals, and in Stockholm I was being considered for the Nobel prize.

Alas, years have passed during which reality has altered my daydreams. Now, at their grandest, they feature my earning enough to support my twelve-year-old Zoe through a good education free from odious student loans.

Along the way, I have learned not only that a mind full of wild stories and some competence with language aren’t all it takes to succeed as a writer, but also that success doesn’t necessarily mean lucrative contracts or critical renown.

In fact, success as a writer is the kind of abstract concept writers are better off avoiding. Success may mean writing one story that will be valued for a hundred years, or writing a poem that inspires someone to some kind of greatness, or simply the satisfaction that comes from finishing a project beyond what I believed myself capable of.

That said, in this and future posts, I mean to tackle the question “What does it takes to be a successful writer?”

Long ago a co-worker heard I was an aspiring writer and praised me for being brave.

I said, “Huh?”

She told me that her husband had written about a dozen short stories before submitting any of them for publication. Then, he sent a story to The New Yorker, got a rejection, and not only quit writing but threw away all his work.

The lesson here is: to succeed at writing we need some courage. And no matter if we have published a dozen novels and a hundred stories, the need for courage still arises.

A common requirement that calls for courage is marketing. Those of us who aren’t household names yet wish to sell books need to market our work. Most writers I know cringe at the very idea and assert that they just aren’t adept at such things.

During some years as university academic advisor, I noticed that when students take the classes and programs they enjoy, they usually excel. But no matter the affinity for a subject, those who are motivated and willing to work hard can succeed in any class, though the effort might require twice the hours it would for some other students. Which teaches me, no matter how lame I am at the skills required for marketing, I can learn to succeed at the game.

Ever since the publication of my first novel, I have told myself that if as many people knew about my books as knew about Steven King’s, I would make a good living with them. Not as good as King, but plenty enough to keep me in beans and out of a day job. So, whenever my books didn’t sell as many copies as I hoped they would, I used to lament that they hadn’t been well marketed.

These days, however, most of us writers are our primary publicists. Which should make me feel enthused by the challenge, as I’m in control. But whenever I try to learn how to best manipulate, say, Facebook to my purposes, my mind clouds with resistance.

Psychologists hold that we often resist change even for the better because with the status quo we are at least comfortable, and it takes courage to risk leaving our “comfort zone”. So let’s suppose that I apply myself and become an efficient marketer, yet the sales of my books don’t rise. Then the rationale I’ve been using all these years is proved phooey, the very idea of which spooks me..

I believe it was Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote: “Courage is the will to overcome fear.”

Thanks for the good words, Sir. I’m trying.



  1. OK, old friend, so how do we kick our courage into overdrive and make that leap of faith required for the next step?

    I’ve had song lyrics written since I was 15. Never had the nerve to do anything with them. I have a children’s book written that just needs a little polish, but I am terrified to put it out there beyond reading it to the kids at school! I can fight cancer, survive divorce, and raise 3 relatively well adjusted boys, but the idea of submitting my work leaves me frozen like a dear in the headlights.

    Courage is relative, I think, but it is required if you are to place a piece of yourself under a microscope for others to critique.