What is Writing Success?

By Noelle Sterne



All of us writers know what writing success is: A call from the big agent, a sale to the big publisher, a big big advance, big-promoted publication, big sales figures, big royalties, movie rights, sitcom rights, audio book rights, serialization rights, spinoffs, foreign translations, talk show appearances, multiple awards, weeks and weeks on the Times bestseller list, and even getting asked for an autograph at the supermarket. Such rewards fuel our dreams. We also assume that when we get even one or two of these plums, our life will surely be complete.

But then what? The acceptance needs follow-ups, the advance needs to pay the bills, the subsidiary contracts need to be deciphered, the baby we just delivered needs to be fed, mainly with social media playdates and daily changes of blogs.

The Addictive Dream

Many writers (and others) who attain fame react less than positively when they become successful in these terms. After the first thrilling flush, as Internet headlines and tabloids attest, the newly famous often turn to alcohol, drugs, food, uncontrollable spending, mansion collecting, or relentless sexual conquests. A few even commit suicide. Poet Jack Gilbert, who reached early fame with prestigious awards and accolades, by his own choosing “disappeared” from the literary scene for decades at a time. He found fame “boring” and “was looking for something richer, more textured, more varied“(quoted by Elizabeth Gilbert [no relation], Big Magic, 2015, “Hidden Treasure”).

Poet Gilbert surely knew and experienced the truth of creativity guru Julia Cameron’s observation: “Fame is addictive, and it always leaves us hungry” (The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, p. 171). The drug Fame is insidious because it taps into the part of us that demands incessant recognition: external validation. Like money to a miser, fame is never enough.

My Surprising Reaction to Success

To my shock, I learned this truth when the first edition of my children’s book Tyrannosaurus Wrecks: A Book of Dinosaur Riddles (Crowell/Harper/Collins) came out. The publisher sent announcements to everyone on my lengthy list. I spent hours with the publicity department planning more publicity. Advance sales broke records. An avalanche of congratulatory calls and letters arrived, messengers delivered flowers to my door, and three newspapers begged for interviews.

Added to all this, my editor told me the book would be featured at two prestigious New York City book fairs. She sent me three packets of “Tyrannosaurus-”inscribed balloons, and in her note added that the fanciful, multicolored, gravity-defying dinosaurs would be “flying high” at both fairs, an apt description of my own state.

I felt special and important, reveling in all the busyness and attention. But after a while, an inexplicable itchiness seeped in, like a creeping rash. I ate too much, slept too long, and snapped at everyone within mouthshot.

My mind kept replaying the summer I’d written the book, having discovered the dubious talent of creating original riddles. I sat under a tree in the park, clipboard balanced on my knees, comforting takeout coffee beside me. I breathed in the air, stared at the surrounding trees, watched the squirrels, and giggled quietly to myself as the riddles popped into my head and I raced to scribble them down. Now, in the midst of all the fanfare, I yearned only to go back to the park, the trees, and my clipboard.

When Other Writers Reach Success

This response, I’ve since learned, is common to many writers who reach a longed-for goal. In a letter to a beginning writer, the novelist and short story writer B. J. Chute speaks of the “so-called rewards of success”:

Curiously enough, when they do come, you may find that they are not as rewarding as you thought they would be. You may find yourself eager only to get on with the next ivory-tower job (“Outside the Ivory Tower: A Letter to a Young Writer,” The Writer, January 1983, p. 12).

A dramatic example is the experience of mystery writer Jack Kerley. With a 20-year career in advertising, he went from copywriter to millionaire in less than two weeks.

After years of rejections, he finally found an agent to represent his thriller The Hundredth Man. Eleven days later it sold, with film, audio, and foreign rights, for over a million dollars.

Kerley could have retired, basked in his glory, and devoted himself to another love, fishing. But what did he do? If you’re a writer, you’ve probably guessed it: Started his second book. At the time of an early interview he was already “cooking along” (Kristen D. Godsey, “Making the Cut,” Writer’s Digest, February 2004, pp. 32-36). Since then, he keeps cooking, with double-digit successful mystery novels.

Writers’ Definitions of Success

Like emphasis on ever-heaping material possessions, the chase after fame leaves one empty. Other writers recognize that the usual sought-after symbols of success don’t nourish us for long. Tennessee Williams, whose worldly successes are indisputable, says, “The only honor that can be conferred on a writer is a good morning’s work” (quoted by Chute, p. 12).

Anne Lamott, no stranger to fame, observes similarly in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life: “[P]ublication is not all it that it is cracked up to be. But

. . . the actual act of writing . . . turns out to be the best part” (p. xxvi).

Prolific women’s fiction author Jean Reynolds Page echoes these thoughts (“Author Minute,” Author Magazine, September 2013): “When you get into the zone . . .  where you’re basically just channeling [the words] . . . there’s nothing, nothing, that tops that.”

Success That Nurtures

As both writers and humans, we are more than our chafing for fame and its evidence. What nourishes us is our love for writing, our drive to write, and writing, writing, writing. As we honor these forces, paradoxically we will gain the external rewards we think we crave.

When they come, yes, we should savor them and fully feel the satisfactions. But we’ll understand them for what they are. Writer and editor Bill Kenower in his wonderful book Fearless Writing talks about his writing success:

I believed that money and acclaim would free me from the things I had to do . . . because of the mortgage and groceries . . . . But even once I left [my] job . . . I did not feel free—at least not all the time. So I began looking at those moments I did feel free. I felt free while I was writing; I got to do exactly want I wanted. (p. 206)

The more we keep writing, the more we’ll become free in our writing and “addicted” to life-affirming feelings of such freedom rather than the destructive drugs of fame and other outward symbols of success.

Let us see each of our writing achievements as another turn upward on our evolving spiral of creative discovery and mastery. This is how we’ll become better and happier writers. We won’t yield to the temptations of externals alone and will probably be surprised when they appear. But mostly, we’ll know with calm certainty, even joy, that true writing success is our writing itself.    © 2017 Noelle Sterne

Monthly Contributor: Dr. Noelle Sterne


Author, editor, writing coach, writing workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. As part of pursuing her writing Dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach their own and create the lives they truly desire.

A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume(!): https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/

Website: http://www.trustyourlifenow.com/

Noelle’s books:

Author, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles. Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015.

Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your DreamsUnity Books, 2011.

Published posts on Two Drops of Ink:

1) Do You Want to Prevent Predictable Plots?





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  1. There are some wonderful insights in this piece. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us. I think the act of writing itself, when it is flowing like a river, is one of the most fulfilling feelings an author can have. The other days, when the dam is holding back the words, can be the most frustrating things. To put the writing second to the fame seems like shooting yourself in the foot. Great article!

    • You are right, Michelle. Live your simile of “flowing like a river.” Let’s all break the dam, or go under, over, around it. Better still, recognize it doesn’t have to be part of our experience. Thank you for your appreciation.

    • Hello, Alexander–

      So honored that you chose to feature this post on your own blog. I see some of the other posts you have featured–a great service to writers. All success in your own writing.

  2. Dr. Sterne – I enjoyed your thought provoking post. I havent yet achieved any fame – so I can’t speak to whether or not there is a letdown afterwards. I do agree
    wholeheartedly with your statement that “writing is its own reward.”
    Which leads me to conclude that if we achieve fame because we are passionate about our craft and our message, rather than seeking out fame for fame’s sake, I should think it would feel more like an honor than a momentary and fleeting ecstasy. I’ll be sure and let you know if my (yet to ne finished) book I’m writing makes it to the Best Seller’s List. 😳
    Thank you for your insights shared
    here – I always walk away having learned valuable lessons to apply to my writing.

    • Hi, Terry–

      Yes, do let me know about your Best Seller! Good point about recognition being an honor. I often feel a sense of humility at an acceptance or publication. A wise person (maybe not a writer) once said that if we follow our heart and passion first, the rewards will come. Let us all keep that in mind.

  3. Noelle, I always appreciate your insight as a writer. I love how you describe the different stages of success one goes through if one should be fortunate enough to make it where you have. Your honesty sharing your real life events makes it more personal for me. The rewards of writing is just that, rewarding. Thank you, John

  4. Excellent! I have written about this on my blog many times, but never nearly as elegantly. I can’t say I have the deepest of knowledge like you do in terms as the accolades (especially not in the writing department!), but I had enough taste of fame as a musician, and most of all…I have lived this progression (reaching, reaching, reaching) throughout my painting career. Until I had a nervous breakdown.

    You are right on the money when you talk about how one can be given all the things they think they wanted only to then be driven to a desperate point once they’ve received it all: awards, attention, money, status adornment, or a higher plateau. Whatever. You find it’s meaningless. The hole will always stay empty and you will have to look for what REALLY matters.

    Wrestling the Demon of External Validation will kill you if you don’t extinguish it first! You can warn beginning artists about it, but I actually don’t know if you can really change their starving animal instincts. I think a good mentor can nurture it into someone though.

    In any case, I absolutely love your piece here. Thank you for writing it and Two Drops for publishing it. 🙂

    No, wait. This came on a day I really needed to read it. Quadruple thank you.

    • Carol–

      Yes, reaching reaching reaching–beautifully put. A paradox, though: for many of us, if we didn’t crave “fame,” we might not write/paint/play/sing/compose/sculpt/dance/act/invent. The craving should get some credit for acting as an engine. We mistakenly believe achievement will give us all we want/need for the “perfect” life, like losing XX pounds, getting married, getting a Maserati . . .

      And quadruple you’re welcome.

  5. Hi, Dr. Sterne. Once again, you have put into perspective what is important. I appreciate that you are so personal in your examples – that unfulfilled feeling shortly after publishing, promoting, and being the writer of the moment. The letdown is so often as pronounced as the excitement of notoriety.

    I also like another Anne Lamott quote: “I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

    However, saying that the writing is the ultimate reward, doesn’t negate the fact, that most of us, in our more honest moments, would like to experience some of the “fifteen minutes of fame” as envisioned by Andy Warhol.

    Again, thank you for making Two Drops of Ink great.

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