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What’s Your Benchmark for Success as an Artist?

Let’s face it ~ none of us want to be Van Gogh, who only sold one painting before his death and now enjoys a stratospheric following. We want to make it now, while we’re alive and we can appreciate it. We want people to realize what great writers and artists we are. We want our audience to see and read our work and respond enthusiastically.

We want our art to sell.

Some of this is ego stuff. We want to impress the people who said we’d never amount to anything. We want to prove that we can create better pieces than the crap we see flooding the marketplace. Winning an award or making the best-seller list or booking a sold-out speaking tour feeds our craving for praise and recognition.

Some of this is soul stuff. We want our efforts to matter, and we want our lives to make a difference. We want to make money doing what we love so we can do more of what we love.

Whatever our motives, the fact remains: we want to succeed.

We’re not just doing this art thing for our health. (Or are we?)

This week Colleen Mondor published her first book, a memoir of the Alaskan flying scene called The Map of My Dead Pilots. I’ve been following her story for years ~ through her early efforts to find an agent, through long rewrites as she transformed a book of fiction into memoir, through the agonizing process of landing a publisher, and now into the perils of launching and promoting her debut work.

And all of this took place amid Colleen’s full life, running an airplane leasing business with her husband, raising her son, and writing prolifically on her blog and book review columns.

The other day Colleen posted a soul-searching piece about putting all these years into her book and then getting so little notice for it:

The question I’m weighing – seriously weighing – is if it is worth it. Is this life, where you feel overlooked and underappreciated and sometimes just flat out angry, the life I want to have? Did I expect a NYTimes best seller? No – please. But I expected just one – just one – response from all those emails and mailings. So I have to think long and hard about where I go from here and how far on this road I’m interested in traveling now that I know how lonely it gets.

Do I really want to start writing something new? While most writers will tell you they write because they must, well, we must also clean our closets and put our photo albums together and there is always blogging and reviewing. I can just do those things. Is it a worthwhile endeavor to write a book when you must then spend so much time and energy to sell it – or be rebuffed on a daily basis while trying to sell it? I don’t know the answer to that question. I am glad that MAP was written and is out there – if only for the guys I flew with if nothing else. But is this something I want to do again?

I don’t know. I truly just do not know.

Colleen’s question has been echoing in my head. I’ve had so many of those moments ~ when I was overwhelmed with the effort and not getting the payoff.

And after I have a good cry and consider throwing in the towel, I come around to asking myself, What payoff am I really looking for? What could I call success? Because the traditional trappings of success are not here yet, and I need another reason to keep going.

If you’ve read my post on depression, you’ll know the answer.

I write because otherwise I would go crazy.

I write because the flow state makes my life worth living.

Flow is my happy place. When I’m consumed by my writing, the world fades and I don’t care about dollar bills and website hits and Amazon rankings. Instead, I am caught up in the satisfying friction that comes from making shit up. Wandering cheerfully in the wastes of productive stupidity.

The flow state is, by definition, intrinsically satisfying. No outside rewards required. Which is great, because there are so many aspects of worldly validation that I can’t control. But flow is my jurisdiction.

Sometimes I feel like a fraud, preaching about an art-committed life when I haven’t published a piece of fiction in years. How can I hold myself up as an example when I’ve got so little to show for my efforts?

All I can say is that trying to reach publication without flow is wicked hard. I did it with my first book but it nearly killed me. The only reason it worked, I think, was because I was in grad school and writing was my job. Once I hit the real world, I couldn’t just grind away at a manuscript. I needed something more sustainable. Hence, flow.

When I think of sharing this with someone like Colleen, I wonder if it comes across as placating or patronizing. Is it like saying, Who cares whether you sell any books, you get to play with words! Can flow really be enough?

I don’t know. But flow is what I’ve got right now, and it’s a damn sight better than what I had before.


If you’re parched for flow, why not go back to the source: your portfolio of creative work that bubbled up out of inspiration?

The Field Guide to Truth and Beauty will point the way.

I’d love to know, how do you define success for your creative life? What keeps you going when money and fame elude you?

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