My decision to become a writer came during a crossroads in my life. I realize this story will probably make some of you gnash your teeth and want to shoot spitballs at me, but believe me, I understand just how lucky I was. Back in 2007 I was teaching music at an elementary school in Georgia when my extremely handsome and intelligent boyfriend asked me to move to North Carolina to be with him. I loved many things about my job, but I also knew that teaching was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Still, moving to North Carolina and leaving a good school and my closest family behind was a risk.
How did he convince me? Number one, he told me there was a Sanrio store less than fifteen minutes from his house. And two, he said he would make me a deal. He would support us financially 100% for five years while I pursued my dream career. If I didn’t make a full time income after five years, I’d have to get a “real job”. Then he asked the question that would forever change the course of my life. “If you could do anything you wanted in the world, what would it be?”
I didn’t hesitate. My heart immediately knew the answer to that question. I would be a writer.
At the time my only experience writing was about a hundred journals full of angsty entries about relationships and a handful of poetry notebooks. I had only written one short story for a writing competition back in high school. Other than that, I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew I loved to read. And I knew I had always wanted to write. In fact, when I was in grad school for opera singing, one of my professors asked me why in the world I wasn’t a writer. (Hopefully he meant that I was talented at writing, not that I wasn’t talented at singing, haha.)
When the school year ended in spring 2007, I packed up what little belongings I had after two house fires had destroyed almost everything, and headed to North Carolina to become a writer. It was one of the most exciting times of my life. I bought every book on writing I could get my hands on. I studied craft. I read the blogs of agents and editors and fellow writers. I joined the RWA and my local chapter, Heart of Carolina Romance Writers. I met some amazing friends who then became my critique partners. I practiced writing every day, and I was having the time of my life.
Back then, it was a struggle to get 1,000 words on paper a day. Heck, who am I kidding? It was a struggle to get 250 words a day. I wasn’t confident in my ability, and the more I learned about how hard it was to actually get an agent or a publishing deal, the more terrified I became. But through it all, I kept one thing at the forefront of my mind: I AM DOING WHAT I LOVE. That was the coolest freaking thing in the universe.
Yes, okay, so it was going to be a challenge to get published. Yes, writing a novel was hard work. Yes, learning the craft and growing as an author was tough creative work. But oh my god was it worth it. The more I grew as a writer, the more I began to realize that writing was the closest thing we humans have to magic. Writing was a daily gift that constantly surprised and delighted and moved me.
Fast forward 8 years and I hardly recognize myself. I never could have imagined I would have started my own publishing company, self-published more than 10 novels, and sold over 350,000 books. That five years my hubby gave me? I blew it out of the water. By the third full year of writing, I had embraced indie publishing and made more in that first year than I did in a full year of teaching. In 2013 my husband was able to quit his job to pursue his own dreams. I should be jumping for joy every second of every day, right?
Somehow that’s not the way it is at all. Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful for all that I have. I love my life, and I know how very blessed I am. But selling a lot of books is not an instant happy-maker. In fact, sometimes it seems like the more successful I become, the more stressed I get. Over the past year, I have sunk into this strange type of depression. Sometimes when I go to write, I feel so incredibly tired and heavy, like the words are an enormous weight on my shoulders.
This has nothing to do with me not loving to write. I still have moments where I feel like writing is magic and the story must surely come from some heavenly place that has nothing to with me. But all too often, I let the stress of the business side of things and the ambition of wanting more derail my happiness.
I’ve done a lot of soul-searching over the past few weeks, and I think I’ve finally realized the problem. I have been way too focused on the outward signs of success. I have said to myself, “If I could just sell 10,000 books in a month.” or “If I could just hit the Top 100 even once.” I place my hopes on a number or a milestone, blindly believing that achieving this will somehow make me feel content and happy and fulfilled.
As each milestone is reached, and as each number becomes a reality, I discover that fulfillment is not achieved by a fleeting milestone. How could it be? Yes, there’s joy and celebration when you sell a certain number of books in a month, but that doesn’t last forever. Part of it is that once you’ve hit a milestone, it’s never as exciting to hit it again. You want more. If you used to think, “wow, if I could just sell 1,000 books a month I’d be so happy”, believe me when I say that after a year of selling 1,000 books a month, you’re going to be saying “If I could just sell 2,000 books a month, I’d be happy”. It’s the nature of the beast.
There will always be a new goal to strive for. There will always be someone doing better than you or getting more attention than you are. There will always be some reason you could be dissatisfied with the way things are or with what you’ve accomplished. (“Sure, I hit the Top 100, but it was only because I had a Bookbub ad. It wasn’t organic. I’m not good enough to hit it on a launch.”)
If you’re like me and you’re caught up in this cycle of looking to numbers or milestones for fulfillment, I hope you’ll take this post to heart. I hope you’ll step back and really think about all the things you have accomplished as a writer (or in whatever career you have). Think about the things that can’t be quantified. Have you created something you’re proud of? Have you touched someone’s life? Have you found the courage to get up every single day and work toward your dreams? Have you written the very best books you can?
Those are the things that matter. And think of this one. Do you love to write? If your joy for writing has been diminished in any way by the process of publishing, you’re not alone. But I’m telling you–and myself–that it doesn’t have to be that way. If we choose to focus on the business and the numbers alone, we are never going to be satisfied. It will never be enough. Trust me, I know people making multiple six figures in this business who still feel like they are a failure. It’s not about the numbers. It’s not about achieving some milestone, because what goes up eventually comes down. This business is not a ride through the flat countryside on a sunny day. It’s a freaking roller-coaster in a tornado.
We have to find a way to anchor ourselves to the place where it all began–our passion for story. It’s time to rediscover the magic and joy of writing. Yes, we’ll still have to think about the business and the numbers, because that’s an important part of it. But we don’t have to measure ourselves and our happiness by those numbers. It’s a losing game. Measure yourself by the words you write. Measure your joy by the hours spent daydreaming about your characters. Don’t let your strict publishing schedule and the rat race of trying to pump out a book every couple months steal the joy from the process of creating.
Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned through all this, it’s that milestones and accolades and money are awesome, but there’s nothing like the thrill that comes from writing a scene you know in your heart is something special. Think of it this way. Twenty, thirty, even a hundred years from now, no one will remember what rank your book hit on release day or how many times you hit the Top 100 list in your genre. But if you wrote a book that moved people, there will still be readers reading it. There will still be people who know your name.
Rankings and sales numbers may come and go, but if we write with joy and passion, the words we write will live forever.