Once upon a time there was a girl who had an idea of becoming a successful author. She had lots of ideas for stories. Sometimes she wrote them down, and sometimes she just let them circle around inside her head until they gained enough steam to become, well, anything. She read a lot, she studied, she wrote when she could, and she worked and worked and worked (and then she worked some more). She told herself if she pushed herself hard enough, and for long enough, things would eventually pay off.
This girl was also dumb and totally naïve.
The problem with this girl’s theory was in how she measured success. Sure, there’s the obvious idea of success, like when you’re rolling around in cash or throwing it out the window while driving along Hollywood Boulevard in your Porsche Carerra GT and your poodle, Pepe, is poking his head out of your $10,000 purse because you just made a bajillion dollars off the movie deal from your totally unique and awesome story. It’s a nice thought—but completely unrealistic.
In truth, there’s the other side of success, and it doesn’t come with a dollar sign attached. It’s the simple pleasure of looking back and feeling good that you created something. That success doesn’t come with a porsche or a poodle (unless you already had one before you started writing). Despite the myth that writers and artists are all unmotivated hippies who just ramble around smoking weed and preaching about how deep and dark they are—we’re actually just everyday people in normal clothes, with normal jobs and normal lives (though sometimes we do smoke weed, maybe, but we usually don’t drive a porsche). What sets us apart from the crowd, however, is a teensy-weensy burning sensation in the pit of our stomachs that never really goes away. It keeps us awake at night and, if we don’t give in to it, it turns into a raging inferno that makes us as anxious as a drug addict who can’t find his next fix. (Yes, I just compared creating something to drug addiction. Sue me. But, if you do, you won’t get much, because I’m a writer, and we don’t make much money. See how this works?)
So, speaking as the quintessential starving artist, what does make me feel successful, you ask? For one, there’s the fact that I wake up every day still wanting to create. After 45 years of living (and having my work rejected) that’s a pretty big feat in and of itself. Second, there’s the fact that after all this time I still do create, and though I’m not always happy with what I put down, I still manage to do it on a fairly regular basis—because I can.
Now, I know what you’re thinking—can you really call something successful if you don’t make much (or any) money from it? Well, I guess that really depends on how you look at it. There are some ridiculously famous writers and artists out there who received very little compensation for their work. It’s true. And some of those names might just surprise you …
Edgar Allen Poe – Poe is a writer that needs no introduction. His works are widely known and required reading in most literature classes. The Raven, one of Poe’s most famous works, was extremely popular upon its publication, and it garnered him a whopping $9. Throughout his life Poe attempted to support himself by writing alone, which often failed and required him to hold other jobs. He was found delirious (and penniless) in a gutter in Baltimore and died of causes that are still unknown.
Emily Dickinson – Dickinson is one of the most renowned American female poets. She wrote nearly 1,800 poems, of which less than a dozen were published during her lifetime. Despite her minimal success, she kept writing—even through the Civil War. But, because she was never in it for the money, Dickinson asked that all of her poems and papers be burned after her death. Luckily, this promise was never kept. Four years after she died, her younger sister printed her unpublished poetry—and the rest is history. Nice job, Little Sis.
Vincent Van Gogh – Van Gogh produced more than 900 paintings in his lifetime, but he sold only one. His work received little to no recognition while he was alive because people thought his work was too dark and lacked the liveliness seen in the Impressionist work of his time. After he committed suicide, Van Gogh’s sister-in-law collected his artwork and letters in order to ensure that he would be recognized. Smart girl.
Claude Monet – Monet’s unique style and philosophy wasn’t always well-liked or understood. His Impressionist paintings were often rejected by society and art exhibitions because it went against the traditional style and method of painting. But, Monet broke the mold when he began painting nature and landscapes, using short brushstrokes and light colors—unfortunately his work wasn’t fully appreciated until after his death. Dammit.
Okay, yes, these artists and writers died before their success was actually fully realized, but that’s the thing about creativity—there’s absolutely, positively ZERO guarantee that anything will come of it. All those hours we spend writing, or painting, or photographing, or singing, (or whatever) might not lead us to the land of Porsches and Poodles, but for those of us who keep feeling the burn of creativity—no matter what it might be—the reason we do it isn’t really about success at all. We do it because it’s as necessary to us as breathing.
So, the next time you pick up a book, or a painting, or anything pretty really, just remember this—creating stuff is hard, and it’s even harder when the artist puts it out there for others to consume and inevitably judge. It might sound selfish, but nine times out of ten we don’t do what we do because we’re thinking about you—despite what we might say. We create things for ourselves, we create things to find a little peace of mind, and we keep creating simply for the reason that we don’t know how to not keep creating. However, that also doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate those who read, view or buy our work—because we do, and we’re always extremely grateful that you did, so thank you for allowing us to keep doing what we love—even if we never get rich.