Success isn’t easily definable. In American society, success is typically defined by money and power. Pop culture references abound: Beyonce says: “Getting money, /divas gettin’ money, /If you ain’t gettin’ money, then you ain’t got nothing fo’ me.” Lana Del Rey says, “Money is the anthem of success.”
It continues into a downward spiral of bad lines and superficiality. I do like to dance to it though. I even have a pair of money pants.
To a certain extent, however, what they say about money is true. My friend, a poet, said to me, “If you can pay your rent, no one can fuck with you.” I think that’s the bare minimum; you need to pay your rent as an adult. And when you can’t, you need to fix the situation. But money isn’t the ultimate quantifier as an artist or as an adult. Let’s move beyond $$$$ as a marker to more nuanced quantifiers.
Here I will use writing as an anecdote: I am part of the writing community. For the most part, I’ve been writing for a few years (professionally) and I’ve taught in schools and my writing has been taught at major NYC universities. I’ve been featured in or published in print and online magazines and newspapers. I’ve been the focus of interviews. I’ve had my life documented in a video. I’ve performed in many cities, across the globe and throughout NYC literary venues. I run a small press. Strangers read my writing and then write about it. I’ve had two chapbooks released and I have a full-length coming out next year, along with another chapbook. I’ve been nominated for awards. I have won awards. I completed an MFA program. I’ve worked with numerous artists. I’ve met amazing people.
All of that is great, but like anything, there’s still a watermark that has yet to be reached. There’s still that voice that says, you’re not doing enough. You’re not enough. You’re not cool. Your ‘voice’ isn’t in style. You don’t look a certain way. You should win an award this year. If you’re not published here, you aren’t really making it. You should probably wear this. Teenage drama.
In the writing world, for example, you become a professor at a reputable university, or you win a major grant or fellowship. You are published at a well-known press. You publish in well-known literary journals. You are measured by things that writing is, for me, antithetical to: your ability to pull out the big names, or the popular names; your ability to blend in and rise to the top of certain groups. Lastly, and perhaps most frequently (though people will deny this), your success is measured by popularity.
Not every writer is a social butterfly (duh) but I see plenty of that shit going on in New York’s lit scenes. You being pretty and you being fashionable and you knowing the “in” people, as it were, elevates you to some sort of status.
Some are writing really good poems.
Some are mediocre, self-aware, definitely inauthentic drivel that sounds like your peers, or your MFA program, or whatever is popular.
This can get you somewhere. Someone says, “read at my literary event.” There are slow-motion, Instagram-colored projections of art on the wall. You dress in a cape and some sort of vintage shoe. You scream words like “pussy.”
You talk in a baby voice.
You are a product. And you like that product. That product becomes your art. You swear you are subverting something.
Your peers think you are a genius.
You are a genius.
You are a genius.
You are, like, a total genius.
You can use that cliche because you are a genius.
Your poem is like, subterranean. I think.
You are trying to make people question X.
But in reality, it’s what you know how to do because it seems fun and glamorous and cool, and everyone else is doing it, and the room is full, and someone says, “I saw you at that reading,” and because they want to connect, and be beautiful like you, they invite you to submit a book.
It wins an award because that is what is good right now.
And you, you are now successful. So you continue to do what you do, and everyone nods their heads.
And because you don’t keep your shit in check and you have succumbed to Success By Popularity/Success By Status Quo (the thing you thought you were railing against this whole time!), you have become predictable and a joke. But people won’t tell you that because they are your friends and anyone else is a hater. There is literally nothing more uncomfortable than watching a whole room applaud their friend for there basically shitty work that is just so transparent that one wonders if they are lacking some basic understanding. One is not missing something. One is not going crazy. It really is that stupid.
Is this bitter? Who isn’t? I’m describing one type of person that I frequently see. And that’s OK.
Am I biased? Of course I am. Am I open-minded? Sure. I can see this person’s value-albeit the regurgitation of theory and sound-nonetheless. Because we all struggling to be heard, seen and loved. We’re human and we’re lonely. We need validation. We are poets because we always want more.
Poets are always seen as the contemplative, removed, almost godlike artist; however, we’re as narcissistic as the rest. It’s OK to admit it. Tomorrow I will go to Brooklyn to do a photo-shoot for a NYC culture and fashion glossy print magazine. Why? Because they like my poetry. Will I look sexy and flirt with the camera? Yes. And at the end of the day we are all marketing a brand of the Self. A little branding is okay.
However, all the glamour and trend aside, success isn’t about who you are spotted with in whatever scene you might be a part of–whether you’re a writer, a reporter, a fashionista, or some other person who requires even a minimal amount of public persona. It isn’t only about “big names” and “brands.” Your book being published in that press isn’t going to change anything. I mean, life, in actuality, is pretty meaningless.
At the end of the day, you need to be happy with yourself. Do you feel authentic? Have you created an authentic way of expression? Are you trying to write better everyday? Are you grateful, and a little humble, and are you open-minded?
Life changes quickly; this impacts your writing. Are you willing to let it change? Are you willing to learn? Do you have a heart that you truly believe in? Do you feel like you’ve produced something good?
Success is found there. This is not an excuse to sit in your room writing your opus but being too cowardly, lazy or shitty to edit, re-edit, research outreach and submit your work. You have to first believe in your writing and write for yourself. Not for anyone or anything else. The rest is secondary.
Get over yourself.