The Writing Life: Gauging Success (2)

Photo Credit: Tom Sandler

Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that my pattern of work is every writer’s, just hoping that taking a little look at how I write (and how much I write), while I write and try, finally, to put out something bigger again, might be of help to other writers wanting to make their way. After all, writers don’t talk to each other a whole lot about how they work, they’re a naturally evasive bunch, but I suspect that the working patterns of many writers do have a lot in common. Besides, just as a decent company constantly examines how it functions so, I’d say, should the writer.

Last week I argued that a writer has two principal barometers of success: praise, effectively, and income. I talked a bit about my own P&L, something we’ll return to, and how setting and achieving set targets can serve as an indication of ‘success’.

The problem with the second gauge, however, is that achieving set income targets requires, for most writers in the majority to which I belong, not doing the actual writing that is supposed to be the point of it all. I myself do not teach; meeting my own targets depends by and large on the journalism I do. Last year, I completed upwards of 75 assignments and made about fifteen significant trips (i.e., significant enough to be disruptive) to meet my target. These assignments ranged from making a radio documentary or writing a 5 000 word piece requiring multiple revisions, to some fairly easy newspaper assignments that nevertheless take a few days and a lot of back and forth and engagements that are even easier, once the writing has been done, but that still manage to be anxious-making and time-consuming.

Seventy-five assignments and a dozen trips works out to about one and a half sold pieces a week and a trip once a month. In last year’s case, that was also seventy-five assignments and a dozen trips that were not in any way related to one overdue book project and another as close to the heart that I have not sold—no publisher wants it yet–and that I am impatient to get to because I want to do it. That’s a lot of distraction with a whole lot of opportunity cost. If you’re trying to be serious as a writer—that is, wanting to build a corpus and actually write while you’re still able in body and mind (I came to the game relatively late)—that’s a whole lot of work that is stopping the writer from doing the work that is his real intent.

So, already, the second barometer fails: sure, in 2009 I met my (income) target, but it could as easily be said that I failed vis-à-vis the greater task by hiding behind this second barometer and accomplishing nothing that was going to add to the books on the shelf and that could be deemed in an authorial sense to be truly worthy of note. Not in my own mind, anyway.

In truth, the judgment’s a bit harsh. Work doubles up. Not all of it is wasted and even ‘downtime’ is often not. The point is that not being obsessed with targets—not making these enabling or substitute tasks the principal one—is the second barometer’s important caveat. It may be too soon to decide that the year was fallow; certainly, learning one’s rhythms as a writer is a big part of understanding how to be that decently operating company—the one that is described, to Canada Revenue and at corporate security desks, as ‘Self.’

More anon.

Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for Wordfest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on


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