But I digress. Let's get back to the question of whether an author's life must be one of abject wretchedness in order to be successful. I should probably say that, depending on your definition of success, I may have no right to answer the question. I've made no best-seller lists, won no contests, or even succeeded in obtaining an agent or publisher. So if your definition is a traditional one, I've been an utter failure. And maybe that's made me a better writer. But that's not how I measure success. The fact that I've written four novels and a novella that people have enjoyed makes me successful. I have people who like my characters and my voice as a writer. I have a tribe. It's a small one, but it's real nonetheless. So I feel successful. And like I said, I haven't been abused and filled with mental anguish all my life.
So why do people think that authors need to have lived like that? I guess probably a lot of it has to do with the fact that so many authors, like creative people in practically every field, have suffered from hard lives, substance abuse, and/or mental illness. But I think we only notice those folks for the same reason we notice the bad news on TV and the Internet before the good. We're drawn to the negative, the lurid, the spectacular, not really paying attention to the fact that for every wacked, out pill-popping, drunk author/actor/singer/artist, there are many quite successful ones that lead lives of quiet normality.
But what of the argument that in order to write about sad things, one must have experienced those things? Well, the short answer is that that's just silly. Based on that thinking, no man could ever write in the voice of a woman, no white person could ever write in the voice of someone of any other race, and no one who has never been to another country could ever write about that place. And yet people successfully do this every day. How? Paying attention and being sensitive.
Harry and Dee, the protagonists of my Shalan Adventures series, lost a baby. I've never experienced that, and yet people who have read my books say that I handled the emotional responses to that event accurately and with sensitivity. I've also never been sexually molested, physically or psychologically abused, been shot, or shot anyone. And yet my readers tell me that I've told stories about these events with believability. How? I know people who've gone through many of those things. I've listened to them talk of their experiences. I've hugged and cried with them as they've struggled with them. And their experiences have informed my writing.
What of the things I've not experienced directly? As I've said before (like last week), good writers are first voracious readers. For every word I've written about the ins and outs of the life of a detective, I've read thousands. I've read books, articles, pamphlets, interviews, medical reports--you name it, I've read it for the sake of being able to write about it in a way that rings true.
So successful writers don't have to write or drink themselves blind in order to get the voices in their heads to shut up for a while. They don't have to have been beaten or neglected or abandoned as children. They don't have to have been or done anything. But they do need to be aware and sensitive enough to internalize those experiences when they happen to the people around them and/or the characters they read about. So I guess the key to being a successful writer is compassion. Well, that and the ability to, you know, actually write. All the sensitivity in the world won't help if you just don't have a way with words. But the reverse is true too. Great wordsmiths who can't feel others' pain will write beautifully crafted, eloquent words that ring hollow to the reader.
So maybe being good at writing is less about any one thing and more about lots of things coming together. Which makes writing a lot like life in general. The happiest, most fulfilled people are the ones who have the ability to enter into and come alongside the lives of the people around them and also have found a career that combines their passion and best abilities.
You notice I didn't mention money in there. In my opinion, anyone who measures success based on their bank account is going to end up miserable. There's nothing wrong with making millions of dollars, but it should be a by-product of success, not the end product.