Should Writing Success Always Be Counted in Money?
I’m delighted to hand over my blog today to American writer Cara Lopez Lee who should win the prize for the best ever title of a memoir: They Only Eat Their Husbands. This is the blurb:
After a lover threatens to kill her, twenty-six-year-old Cara Lopez Lee runs away to Alaska. There, she finds herself in a complicated love triangle with two alcoholics: Sean, the martial artist, and Chance, the paramedic. Nine years later, sick of love, she runs away again, this time to backpack alone around the world. They Only Eat Their Husbands is a memoir about this year-long trek through Thailand, China, Nepal, Spain, and Ireland, recounting with dazzling honesty and humor one woman’s journey to self-discovery.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? I like Cara’s writing and the way she looks at the world and you get a taste of both in this post which she used to explore what writing success means to her and asks if we should all define our terms. It’s the right time to ask that question – self publishing means it has never easier been easier to be published, but with the floodgates open it has probably never been harder to win readers in a crazy, overcrowded market, or earn a decent return for the effort we’ve put in. Over to Cara:
“How much do you make?” That’s what a high school student asked me during a recent writing workshop. It’s a sensible question. College is expensive, so it’s reasonable for aspiring writers to ask what they might be investing in if they study literature, creative writing, or journalism. After all, those of us who don’t inherit wealth must work for a living: food and shelter, a car and a computer, maybe an occasional evening out or travel. Modern life costs money.
But does money equal success?
The 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey reveals that 54% of traditionally published authors and 80% of go-it-alone writers make less than $1000 a year on writing. My friend who has written multiple bestsellers has a day job. I’m one of the few authors I know who writes for a living. I use the term “living” generously. If I weren’t married, I’d need a roommate. I don’t live off my memoir, They Only Eat Their Husbands (Conundrum Press, 2014). However, it serves as a calling card for my bread-and-butter: editing books, ghostwriting, and coaching writers.
An interviewer recently asked me to offer advice to aspiring writers. My answer started with this: Always seek so much joy in the writing process that success is irrelevant. In response, someone tweeted: “What’s wrong with wanting success for something you’ve worked hard on?” My answer: “I don’t believe it’s wrong to want success. I’m only saying we spend more time on the journey than the destination, so let’s love it.”
What I’m talking about is revising the meaning of success.
The day someone says, “We want to publish your book” is amazing, as is the day someone says, “Your book meant something to me.” But such moments are fleeting. I work six days a week to make less money than I did twenty years ago. I’ve suffered a back injury from endless hours at a computer. I spend a lot of time alone. I currently work a couple of days a week on a project that pays nothing—yet.
That project is a historical novel, set from 1910 to 1935, about Mexican and Chinese immigrants and their mixed-race children. It’s a story about the struggle to find a home and a voice, in the world and within our families. Although my research has sent me to China, Mexico, Texas, and California, mostly I sit at my laptop. It’s not glamorous. Sometimes I write in my PJ’s.
Sure, I aspire to be read by millions, but fewer than 100 authors have sold a million copies of any book since 1998. In any case, it’s not a good reason to write. I write because I feel compelled to share the stories inside me.
As difficult as it is to complete a book, that’s the easy part. Being a published author today requires engaging in public relations, marketing, sales, accounting, and event planning. As I say in my memoir’s afterword, “I used to find inspiration in the Confucius quote, ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’ I no longer see it that way. Great love requires sacrifice.” A story doesn’t fulfill its purpose until it finds an audience. In modern publishing, that requires authors to wear many hats. Any job can be a grind now and then, but I’m happy to be ground to dust if that’s what it takes, because sharing stories is my passion.
I’ve dreamt of writing books ever since I read Little Women in third grade. I wanted to be Jo, the alter ego of author Louisa May Alcott. At first I didn’t believe I could do such an extraordinary thing. Nonetheless, I told stories. I studied journalism, worked in broadcast news, did travel writing, and wrote for HGTV, Food Network, and Discovery Health. In my thirties I went on a solo trek around the world, seeking inspiration to attempt the extraordinary: writing a book. As I also say in my memoir, “I had thought it would take a big ego to strive to be extraordinary. Instead, it requires humility, a willingness to say, ‘I’m not sure how, but I have something to share and I’m going to share it.’”
A book represents an opportunity for minds to meet. Every time readers say they got something out of my writing—inspiration, meaning, laughter—I feel successful. One woman read my memoir while leaving her abusive husband. She loved traveling and had always wanted to see Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but he had kept her on a short leash. Here’s part of the note she sent me:
“We used to go to Home Depot together and he would point to the chipper shredder and say, ‘That’s it. That’s how I’m going to get rid of your body. They’ll never find you.’ Anyway, when I left in March, I travelled to Alaska for two weeks. One, to get as far away from him as possible in case he went postal and two, I finally got to see the Iditarod. And I took your book with me and re-read it on the plane. ‘You’ were great company.”
That note makes me feel like a success.
I believe we must each define success on our own terms. My memoir is the story of my nine years in Alaska, where I landed in destructive relationships with alcoholics, and my solo trek around the world, where I discovered the value of loving myself. On that journey, I found my key to success: “The purpose of my life is not to get what I want. The purpose of my life is to become who I am.” I am a storyteller. When I share my stories, I fulfill my purpose. That’s success.
So how much do I make? Not much. If you want to know the figure, go ahead and ask me. I’ll answer. But I believe the more important question is: how much do I love my life?
Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands: Love, Travel, and the Power of Running Away (Conundrum Press, October 2014). Overseas buyers can order copies from the author here. She’s also the co-author of the novel Back in the Real World. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Santa Fe New Mexican, Rivet Journal, and Connotation Press. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She’s a faculty member of the youth program at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and a board member of the Denver Woman’s Press Club. She was a journalist in Alaska, New Mexico, and North Carolina, and a writer for shows on HGTV, Food Network, and Discovery Health. She has traveled throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the United States. She married her husband at an active volcano in Costa Rica. They live in Denver, Colorado.