• Tayari Jones
  • Your Life, Your Rules, Your Values, Your Success
This blog was featured on 10/06/2017
Your Life, Your Rules, Your Values, Your Success
Contributor
Written by
Tayari Jones
15 days ago
Contributor
Written by
Tayari Jones
15 days ago

My publicist, Lauren Cerand, recently shared with me an email I sent her back in 2005 when we were first working together on PR.  She asked me to put together a wish-list that would serve as our working goals. With Silver Sparrow, we’ve been able to mark almost everything off the list.  Yesterday, I received an email from an “aspiring” writer who had one simple question, “How did you do it?”

It’s a question I have asked myself. My philosophy goes against of almost everything that I have ever read about having a successful writing career.  I don't want to have a one-sentence elevator pitch.  I don't want to go anywhere just for the sake a making connections.  I don't even subscribe to Publisher's Lunch.  I am not saying that all those how-to books are wrong, but I do believe that there are other ways to go about having the literary life you want.

I use the term “literary life” instead of “career.”  About four years ago, I was feeling very frustrated because my books were not selling enough. I don’t know what “enough” was, but I knew that I was nowhere near it.  This worry was taking the joy out of my writing life.  When I gave readings, I was looking at the bookseller when I should have been looking at the audience.  This is not to say that I don’t want to sell books, but I didn’t become a writer just to move units.

A writer friend of mine told me, “This is an ugly business, but a beautiful life.” 

I didn’t feel like I was living a beautiful life.  I had a long list of grudges and grievances that I lugged around with me everywhere I went.  My friend’s comment helped me see that all my anxiety was just the business side of writing. I am a big believer in lists—I literally count my blessings—so I wrote down all the ways that writing had enhanced my life.  On this list were not the accomplishments that I put on my bio.  Instead I was recording meaningful interactions with readers, great places I had visited in order to give readings, and terrific artists that I have met along the way.  After studying the list, I decided to organize my life in such a way to have more of these meaningful experiences.

I immediately set about implementing my new attitude.  At a cocktail party when everyone else was trying to get the attention of the most famous person in the room, I looked to make a connection with the most interesting person in the room.  I accepted invitations to give writing workshops in Ghana and Uganda although this wasn’t considered as prestigious as some other summer teaching opportunities.  When my royalty statement came in the mail, I didn’t even open it.  I started writing the Surviving The Draft column for SheWrites, because I wanted to talk about writing, my most favorite thing to do in the world.

My purpose in sharing this is not to say that you can find success by not striving for it.  My point is that success is yours to define.  Although I am grateful and excited by the momentum around the publication of Silver Sparrow, but for me, the real moment of success came when I finished the manuscript.  I was able to enjoy that moment without having one eye to publication because I had finally figured out what was important.  I recommend that you ask yourself why you started writing in the first place.  I bet it wasn’t to win awards, or to get rich.  Figure out what you really want based on what makes you feel good, based on what makes you feel like you are making a contribution.  That’s what success is for you.  Once you figure out what that is, chase it as hard as you can.

This is my last SheWrites column for now.  Thank you for reading these and thank you for all your comments, “likes”, and tweets.  Please check out my tour schedule.  I’d love to meet you when I’m on the road.

--- 

Of course, I want to hear from you—

  • How do you define success?
  • Have you ever had to make an attitude adjustment?

 

* This post was originally published in May 2011.

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Comments
  • Love Babz

    Wise words that can be layered upon every aspect of our lives.  It is so easy to lose track of the joy of any thing.  We wall ourselves in with all the "should" and "musts" We lose track of being in the moment of our destiny.  Yes of course there are things we have to do in order to meet our bench marks.  But those things don't have to happen in isolation of what is really important...the driving spirit of our craft.  To be a writer in the loveliest sense.

  • Like lists, writing success has to be defined in steps--conceiving the idea, finishing and revising countless drafts and eventually getting published (not to mention all the tough steps in between). It's hard not to think of writing in terms of dollars or books sold.But we have to accept the joys and "mini-successes" when they come along. The first time a reader told me she loved my book topped my success list. It's great to know that one has found what she was meant to do, and a bit (no, a lot) discouraging to find that all that hard work isn't acknowledged with greenbacks or titles or bestseller lists--so your friend it right, "...an ugly business, but a beautiful life." Thanks for reminding us to stick to the reasons we started writing in the first place.

  • Debbie Dillon

    Beautiful post!  I've just joined this site, and I'm already blessed by these words.  Great job!

  • Sarah Pinneo

    I love this post!

  • C.M. Villani

    This was amazingly uplifting. Thank you, Tayari.

    I've been beating myself over the head with my own manuscript lately, and even though it isn't ready for submission yet, I've taken what you said and applied the same concept to the writing process as well.

    I don't think one needs to hit a 5000 word mark everyday to feel sucessful, just being able to say that you made some progress and what you have written is good should be accomplishment enough.  Thanks again!

  • Tayari,

     

    I didn't realize you were about to stop this blog. I have only just joined and was gaining wisdom and a moment of good, deep breaths from it. I will miss it. I wish you luck on your tour.

     

    Sara Selznick

  • I've always loved being a storyteller.  When I was a kid, I liked writing and telling stories, as a teen and young woman I liked telling stories as an actor.  I finally got tired of telling other writer's stories and got back to doing what I loved most: telling my own stories, making up my own characters and worlds.  Now, when I finish a manuscript, reread it and think, "That's it, that's the whole story," I feel satisfied.  You're totally right--we define success, and we are in control of feeling successful.

  • Your words are helping me launch from bed and go to my writing place. I got into this to connect with people. I go in that direction now, chasing it as hard as I can.
    Will see you in Lanaing, Michigan, at Schuler's where yr book is displayed by the front door. Beautiful cover.

  • Karen Burns

    Thank you, Tayari, for writing about this.  The sales part of publishing was difficult for me, too.  It almost (almost!) ruined the experience for me.  I had no idea it would be such a drain.  You're right, focus on what success really means to us as writers.  I hazard to guess it's not "units moved."  

  • Nancy E. Devine

    It has been inspiring and motivating to read your words while I am stalled on a novel-in-progress as I pack to move again, my life twirling around me, daughter about to graduate.  Your honesty and your desire to make fine distinctions for us is so very valuable, and frankly, unusual. Merci beaucoup!

  • Ivy Pittman

    Enjoyed meeting you this evening @ Watchung Books. Your advice was dead on inspirational - thank you.

    Please check out www.visiblewomanonline.com

    Peace & Blessings!

     

  • Lisa Ahn

    Thank you. Perfect timing -- I needed this post.

  • Scars R. Stories

    Thank-you ever so much!!!  God, I would feel like I was walking on air for months if I ever got a book deal.  Honey, don't worry about the voices in your head - they're just different parts of you!!  They're to be celebrated, not silenced - this is in part what my blog is all about.

    I'm so happy we've connected and had the wonderful experience that I talk about - being able to relate on a deep level with a complete stranger.  The Internet is so awesome in its ability to bring people together in this way much, much more often.

    All My Best!

    J xo

  • Linda Wilson

    OMG. After reading your article I simply exhaled and thought, "Yes, it's exactly how I feel." Everything you've written is so spot on. I write because I enjoy creating lives and the trouble that invades those lives. And oh yeah, I also can't stop these voices inside my head. (I'm joking, but then again, not really.)

    Anyway, hopefully I'll see you at Printer's Row in Chicago so I can get my book signed.  

  • Scars R. Stories

    Cheers!

    This post reminded me of the attitude shift I underwent at about age 23 (four years ago).  I realized, quite suddenly, that instead of being upset that I rarely met people who shared my rather radical ideals - still living in my rather small and politically apathetic hometown of Winnipeg then; I now live in Vancouver where I finally feel at home, as many share my values, are interested in what I do, and encourage me - that I could forge meaningful connections with others through the very simplest of interactions.  I'm talking about anything from smiling at someone as you walk past them on the street, striking up a conversation with someone waiting at the bus stop with you or in line at the market, or being extra cheerful and talkative with a retail or restaurant worker. 

    When I, myself, had worked retail at Chapter's bookstore from ages 15 through 20, I realized how true the statement is that other people are mirrors of our selves.  If I was in a bad mood, and emitted negative energy along with each of my interactions with customers, and I received the same nastiness back.  My own bad mood seemed to spread like wildfire, as every single time I interacted with someone, they would have a negative reaction to my attitude.  However, when I was in a good mood, and put out positive energy, the opposite happened - I seemed able to cheer up even the most rude customers if I gave off enough of a sunny demeanor myself.

    I did not carry this into other areas of my life right away, though.  I had low self esteem in my late teens and very early twenties, which prevented me from interacting with others much.  I decided that I was just an extreme introvert.  But once I gained that self confidence it took to strike up a conversation with a stranger, it all came rushing back to me.  In others, we can see ourselves, and we can influence others in a positive manner more than we can even fathom, simply by being kind.  At 26, I now make sure to practice this every single day, even if I'm in a rush.  Smiles don't take any extra time, and I truly enjoy conversing with strangers - they have so much to teach me!  The bonus is that it often takes people by surprise in a very good way - fancy that, an absolute stranger that is interested in what they have to say, and wants to participate in a conversation!  The feeling is mutual, and I derive great pleasure from these interactions, which required an attitude shift on my part.  I used to think that when people asked, "how is your day going?", they would not want to hear the truth if it was going very poorly.  I found that in truth, there are a lot of people - definitely a majority - who are actually interested in hearing the truth, and talking about it, relating. 

    My definition of success kind of follows in suit.  If I write something and it makes even just one person feel like there is someone out there who they can relate to, and thus feel less alone in whatever they may be going through, I believe I have done my job - not only done it, but completed it successfully.  Ever since I was a small child I wanted to be a writer, and have the words I wrote make people think.  I have gotten much feedback on my personal website and blog lately, causing me utter elation, from individuals who have, indeed, read my writing and felt a sense of kinship immediately.

    Although I have not yet been published in print, albeit a couple of very short pieces, these voices among the crowd tell me that I am well on my way :)

    I hope all of you realize your successes, however you define them,

    Jen (a.k.a. scarsarestories) xoxo

    http://www.practiceofmadness.com

  • Thanks for this and all your other SheWrites posts.  I've learned a lot, but mostly I've been inspired by your words.  Congratulations on finding what success means for you, and for chasing it to achieve your goals.

  • Tayari,

    Your post not only inspired me, but confirmed a recent decision of mine. As a licensed psychologist I spent a career helping teens and young kids sort out who they wanted to be and what would make that so. I've since retired and began writing full time. Somehow I lost that simple truth of being the only person who could define who/what it is that I am.

     

    I have a manuscript that I absolutely believe in and have shopped around for a while. The feedback I received from editors and agents was amazing, but no bites. For whatever reasons I began to believe that maybe I was wrong about the ms and should just shelve it.

     

    One day when I was grousing about my lack of success, and of course it must follow that there is a lack of ability and talent, something amazing occurred to me. While I was complaining about no one willing to invest in my story it hit me, if I believe so much in this ms why wasn't I willing to invest in it myself. This led me to the decision to turn the ms into an eBook and publish independently.

     

    You are absolutely right about definitions of success. What I am is a story-teller, so why not tell the story? Thank you for the reminder and confirmation.

  • Stacy S. Jensen

    Thanks for sharing this. I define personal success by happiness. And, what makes me happy changes as I change.

  • Thanks for writing this and for sharing your heart! This is the first post I've read but I will make a point to start from the beginning and learn of your journey.  We are kindred spirits somewhat, in how we approach and feel about writing. One thing writing hones in on, is our individual "point of view" about things.  Like you,  I've found my own point of view and approach to writing.  Even though we need the boost along the way, I've come to believe that writing is no more "mysterious" than any other career choice we take.  I further believe wholeheartedly in my inborn GPS ~ my heart ~ to guide me safely through this wonderful world of writing.  It has turned my life upside down, and then right side up, but I'm following my own heart to reach the intended destination moreso than a lot of the advice out there.  Not that it isn't good, but I view it more like the David and Goliath battle...his weapon of choice, what worked for him in the past, was five smooth stones and a slingshot...not the heavy armor or advise of well meaning colleagues about how he should approach that battle.  He relied on his "own style" for victory and I take that same approach to writing.  Much of what you said struck a cord with me and I'm most grateful for your insights.  There are so many roads to achieving and defining success,  as unique and individual as we are.  For me, I look back to what has made me successfull in other endeavors and apply it as a template for my writing. Best of everything to you!  Looking forward to reading everything you had to say...so I'm starting at the end of your journey and rewinding the tape...I know how it ends before I know the beginning!

  • Colleen Friesen

    What a wonderful piece of writing...another 'success'  :) Thank you for sharing your insights and for following your heart. Joseph Campbell said to, 'Follow your bliss'.

    Success isn't defined by societal mores, but rather success is defined by each and every one of us - on our terms - but only if we choose that definition. External validation is ultimately a pretty lonely road.

    Thanks again for your story.

  • Brook Blander

    "I recommend that you ask yourself why you started writing in the first place.  I bet it wasn’t to win awards, or to get rich.  Figure out what you really want based on what makes you feel good, based on what makes you feel like you are making a contribution.  That’s what success is for you.  Once you figure out what that is, chase it as hard as you can." Thank you Tayari. I needed this. On this day. At this time. You are appreciated.

  • Great inspiration. The one thing I didn't like at all was tucked at the very bottom and I almost missed it: "This is my last SheWrites column for now."

    Awwwwwwww. Really?

  • Widdershins

    Attitude adjustments? - Daily. Not great ones, thankfully right now I've got a fairly good handle on the major stuff. Which is not to say that tomorrow will throw me a giant comet to juggle.

     

    Success? - If I can go to bed at night and only spend half an hour analysing the day ... but the money could be better ... 

    Seriously though. I define my success by whether I've completed my goals to my own satisfaction, be that on the micro or macro stage ... and the money could be better!

  • Kerina Pharr

    Thank you for this. I needed it.

  • Karen Simpson

    This makes so much sense and puts my mind at ease about my novel. Thank you so much.