Writers learn early on that there are actually many people out there, incomprehensible as it may seem, who simply do not enjoy reading our work. (We probably wouldn't be very close friends with these Neanderthals, if we met them.) We try not to take it personally, but most of us do. Some random, sub-human casually mentions in passing that, in their grossly distorted and useless opinion, our written expressions fall short of Tolstoy's, and instantly both our writings and our entire lives seem completely worthless to us. Obviously, that gives way too much power to readers. But often true, nonetheless.
A friend of mine actually has been hailed as "The Tolstoy of our generation" by a New York Times book critic, and his work has received a National Book Award, just one among many such prestigious acknowledgments from the literary community. Nevertheless, I once observed him agonize for several days because a young woman acquaintance casually said to him, "Your writing is so intense." Too intense? he wondered. What do you think she meant? he asked me. Several times. Daily. Did the folks who awarded him the MacArthur Genius grant get it all wrong?
What is always surprising and revelatory to me is to discover that some fellow writers consider me to be successful, in that I have published several books and blog for Psychology Today and Huffington Post. Using those criteria, I suppose I am a more successful writer than someone who hasn't published any books and does not appear on any popular blogs.
On the other hand, that point of view is vastly overshadowed within me by the obvious and glaring fact that I am much less successful than any writer in the entire world, living or dead, who has managed to actually earn a living through their writing, and that includes the folks over at Hallmark who came up with:
Because you're special,
because you're you,
I send this greeting,
from you know who.
Not to mention all those authors whose books fill the shelves of Barnes and Noble, or worse, the tables in front of the store -- those are clearly the real writers, the successful ones, since you can only find my books on Amazon.
Somehow the other art forms seem more lenient. If you can create stunning, beautiful paintings, people will call you an artist, whether or not you sell your work in galleries. And if you can play a dazzling rendition of a Chopin Polonaise, you are clearly a musician. Yet somehow the act of filling dozens of journals with the most striking and original prose or poetry does not officially qualify you as a writer. Only if you earn enough income from your writing to quit your day job does it seem permissible to tell people, including yourself, that you are a "real" writer.
So despite my publishing successes, I am neither a real nor successful writer, even though one of my earlier books, Wild Heart Dancing, miraculously sold to Simon & Schuster in a bidding war for $26,000; but that was in 1994, and meanwhile my most recent royalty check for my last book, The 99th Monkey, was four dollars and change. Between the two was my novel, Minyan, which brought in exactly a thousand bucks. Psychology Today pays its bloggers based on the number of hits their page gets, but the payments max out at a thousand dollars per fiscal quarter, and so far I've only made it to the eight-hundred dollar range. The Huffington Post pays nothing at all, and doesn't even tell you how many people are reading your piece, so it feels a bit like sending out a message in a bottle. Like this one. (If you're out there, please let me know.)
Enter the Voice of Encouragement: "If you touch but one other person's heart, and life, then your work has succeeded, and you have succeeded." Given that I have received many letters from complete strangers, expressing gratitude for how my writings have touched their lives, why can I not simply be proud of that and count myself a success, book sales and fame aside?
Because I can't. I don't know why. Maybe it's me.
Perhaps you are a writer with better self-esteem, who knows you are good, both "real" and successful, and intuitively recognize that any comments to the contrary can only have been made by a complete imbecile, or at the very least, by someone who speaks a different language, both literally and figuratively. That is, someone from such a different world that your point of view is either completely irrelevant or simply uninteresting to them, but certainly not an assessment of your worth as a human being, or writer.
I'm reminded of the time I played an audiotape in the car for my oldest friend, Perry Goldstein, now a noted composer. (A composer who writes notes.) It was a speech by the late Adi Da, a spiritual teacher, and after listening for a while, Perry simply stated, "He's answering questions I'm not asking." I thought that was brilliant, and said it all. We read the writers who address the questions we're asking, the ones that cause our souls to ache. And as writers, rather than provide pat answers, Rilke suggests that we instead "live inside the questions" and perhaps one day "live our way into the answers."
Or write our way there. That we're making the effort at all makes us real writers. And sometimes we succeed. (In the meantime, I still need a day job, except I have no skills.)