Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!
Far more astute people than I have said a hundred million things about this poem, as it’s one of Dickinson’s best-known pieces, one of the infinitely anthologized. I chose this one today because of a conversation I had yesterday with my brother. (Hi, Will!) I’m not going to try to get academic with it, but instead tease out some thoughts and connections it’s raising for me.
I often feel like a member of some eclectic diaspora, constantly searching for my people. I have been fortunate to find a few of them over the past decades. I’m especially fortunate to have some of them in my actual biological family. My siblings are both makers, creators, one an artist/writer/crafter, the other a writer/artist/actor. We all dabble in various creative endeavors while committing the bulk of our time to one. My sister is an artist, my brother and I are writers. As another one of my people, my writer-friend and colleague Kelsey has said, “We are made of making.”
There is, of course, infinite joy inherent in the creative process. We all love what we do. We seek to carve out time for creative pursuits amidst the busyness of life as partners, parents, employees, activists, friends, family members, students, volunteers, and generally productive members of society. But I wonder how many of us there are who dream of making our creative pursuits our careers, our true life’s work.
It’s hard, and this was the gist of my conversation yesterday with Will. It often kind of sucks. Recently I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, and while I loved what she says, I have a LOT of questions about the position from which she says it. Gilbert argues that we should create for the sheer joy of creating, that we shouldn’t care about success or acclaim or income or any of that. Which is all good stuff. BUT.
It seems to me that it is very, very easy to say these things from a position of privilege–the privilege that comes with economic security, with acclaim, with a TED talk, with a following of millions of adoring fans ready to validate your every word. Yes, there are haters (always, always, and it seems to me that these are definitely not my diaspora people–these are the people who consume and criticize without making), but overall, to be a bestselling author seems like a pretty okay gig. I mean, I’m guessing that Gilbert isn’t stressing about how she’s going to budget for daycare when the transmission just died. She’s not wondering if she’s ever going to have the rare and beautiful privilege of making a living doing what she loves. She’s definitely not wondering if anyone other than her mom is ever going to read her stuff.
In recent months I’ve read a number of Twitter threads by published writers warning the rest of us in great detail that being published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that it’s hard, that it’s harder than not being published, and that the rest of us should all beware. Implicit in many of these cautionary tales is the notion that unpublished writers are completely naive and think that life will suddenly become perfect with publication, and that we should stop complaining already and realize that our lives are so much better than those of the published.
This, it seems to me, is bunk. Doubtless many people are laboring under the impression that publication is a magic pill. However, I maintain that there are many of us who have been around long enough to realize that life is not perfect, that nothing is, but that achieving our major professional goal would actually not be a totally horrible thing.
It’s so easy, from the privileged position of the successful, to tell others what they should do, want, even think. I am reminded of Tolkien’s elves, how they occasionally seem just a tiny bit wistful when they look at humans and ponder the beauty of our brave fragility in the face of certain death. There are things the immortal will never understand. The rest of us labor on, looking up toward that rarefied atmosphere and dreaming.
So I believe that Dickinson is right. Those of us who have not achieved a certain measure of worldly success have a completely different perspective from those who have. And I think that once you achieve that success, you may be able to look back and recall what it was like before, but you cannot truly feel what it is like to have never succeeded. Once you cross that bridge, there is no crossing back. You can’t un-succeed. Sure, you can stop trying and fade into obscurity, but you can’t undo the fact of having achieved what you have. You can remember how you felt, but you cannot know what it is like to have never succeeded.
So here’s my ask. (If you’ve read this far, I am hopeful that you are one of my diaspora peeps.) Should I “make it,” should I publish books and make a career as a writer, and then wax rhapsodic about how much harder my life is than that of the unsuccessful, and tell you that you have no idea, and inform you how much better off you are than I, please kick me in the shins. Thanks.