On Literary Success

Ever since high school I have dreamed of literary success but I’ve done very little to work towards it. I got discouraged submitting poems to literary magazines only to get rejected every time. I don’t really deal with rejection very well. In spite of that I have continued to read literature and never relinquished a devotion to literature. I still expect myself to excel at it some day and make a name for myself.

I suppose I could write the typical play about the failed writer. Some idle dreamer who is driving his wife crazy with his hair-brained schemes to become a great writer some day. But the world has too many plays like that and I question the assumptions.

For the creative writer, being highly successful is not necessarily a good thing. First, there is the question of what you will be successful at. A playwright might dream of writing a great tragedy but find more success with comedy. This was the case with Moss Hart who aspired to write tragedies but only lifted himself out of poverty by writing comedies. Once he got a taste of success writing comedy in partnership with George S. Kaufman, he never went back to writing tragedy. Once you find a formula that works you don’t go back to the drawing board. But this can limit the efforts of the creative writer. Instead of experimenting with new forms the writer sticks to the traditional form he has now mastered. Instead of trying different stories the writer sticks to telling the kinds of stories he become known for writing. The successful novelist might stick to writing novels and never attempt to write a poem or a play.

The unsuccessful writer is free to experiment. This is probably the greatest benefit of not making your mark as a writer. If nothing you have tried has worked then you are free to try anything. This can be very liberating. If you have always loved television shows then you can try your hand at writing a few episodes of a situation comedy. A successful literary figure might not want to damage his reputation with such trash, but an unknown writer is free to give it a whack. It can be highly entertaining to dream up your own show and give some vague ideas a definite form. For a serious minded writer, I think I can write some scarily good comedy. It is scary because I would rather write a great tragedy for maximum prestige. But I have not enjoyed a great success with any of my comedic plays so I’m still free to try my hand at tragedy.

I love movies. Who doesn’t? So it would be thrilling to write a decent screenplay. I admire anyone who has written a screenplay because that person has attempted to create movie magic. The screenwriter is an audacious dreamer because writing a movie seems like the greatest thing you could do.  But I am a bit of a snob and I admire the playwright more than the screenwriter because a playwright is still a respectable literary figure. Still, I am considering writing a screenplay because there is nothing stopping me. Not being a successful playwright means I shouldn’t be too much of a snob about it. As long as writing a screenplay strikes me as a thrilling prospect then I should probably do that. There is little danger it will derail my ambitions to become a great playwright. Technically they are both forms of dramatic writing.

I love science fiction too. So I think it would be thrilling to write a science fiction novel some day. Again, I’m too much of a snob to attempt it but if I’m not getting anywhere doing any other kind of writing then what the heck, I might as well try. So my current plan is to write a screenplay if none of my plays are produced. If my screenplay is never made into a movie then I will write a science fiction novel. Whether my screenplay or science fiction novel ever come into existence depends on how much encouragement I get from the theater community. So if my plays continue to get rejected I can look forward to my screenplay being written. If my screenplay is not made into a movie I can look forward to my science fiction novel being written. In this way my future effort is conditional upon my failures. Failure simply becomes the necessary condition for something else to happen and for something else to come into being.

Another consideration is how success brings an end to your striving. If you strive to do great things, you will only strive mightily until you achieve success. Once you have reached your goal you will no longer strive to improve. As soon as the writing becomes good enough to make your mark it stops getting any better. While it may not need to get any better, this does set a limit to your efforts. Once the world has decided your writing is good enough you have reached your potential. Maybe that will not be the limit of your potential. Maybe you could take things further. But you won’t strive to take things further if you are doing well. Only failure calls for greater effort. Highly idealistic artists tend to continue to strive after achieving some success but that is only because they have vision. I have always admired visionary artists who have striven to achieve something greater than conventional success. These artists may appear to be failures in their lifetimes but in the end we admire their efforts more than the serviceable writing of the wildly successful writer.

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