In a 1972 talk to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., American meteorologist Edward Lorenz asked, “ Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” He used the butterfly question to illustrate how one small and seemingly insignificant event sets off a chain of cascading consequences. Although our world may seem chaotic, beneath this chaos lay ordered patterns that we don’t see.
What does this have to do with being a writer? Plenty, I think.
Our culture has taught writers that the bigger our audience is, the more successful we are at what we do. When we’ve written a breakout book that appears on the New York Times bestseller list, then we’ll know that we’ve accomplished something major.
In the meantime, when we feel moved to start projects that don’t have a large commercial market, often we talk ourselves out of them, shoving the notes for what we really want to write in a drawer and trying to forget them. Sometimes we do forget. If we’re not careful, we start to measure the success or failure of our work solely by acceptance letters, sales figures and reviews. Writing what’s in our hearts and not worrying about advances and reviews are for amateurs, we tell ourselves.
Amateurs are the people who read poetry at the library’s community poetry reading. They write essays for their small town newspapers. When a friend’s wife dies, they take the time to write a touching personal letter instead of simply signing their name to the bottom of a sympathy card. Amateurs buy memory books for their grandchildren and actually fill their pages with advice and family history. They volunteer to write for the church newsletter. Too often they tell themselves that what they do has little consequence.
There’s nothing wrong with writing a best seller. Commercial success and writing from the heart aren’t mutually exclusive. Sometimes the two converge. Sometimes they do not. When they don’t, we’re forced to a choice. Frequently we torment ourselves by questioning the wisdom of our choice.
Last weekend at a trade show I ran into Pat Monaghan, a Quaker and leader in the earth spirituality movement whose poetry has been published in at least 70 journals and anthologies, including one I edited on women, addiction and ecstasy. She was there to promote her latest book, Seasons of The Witch, a beautifully presented work filled with fiercely moving poems and an accompanying CD.
We sat on the steps outside the convention hall and talked shop while she waited for her hotel shuttle. Did she make a foolish choice placing the book with a medium sized metaphysical publisher who lovingly produced it instead of a major publisher? Should she have written less about women’s spirituality and more about ecological sciences to please the tenure committee at the university where she teaches? Was I wasting my time and energy when I spent a year editing the anthology that went out of print after two years?
I think not. Having been on both sides of the fence, I know not. Being paid two dollars a word to write assigned articles for Cosmopolitan on how readers could tell if they were having enough sex gave me less satisfaction than the letters I received from women whose lives were deeply touched by the addiction anthology that was a labor of love. Cosmo had a huge readership; the anthology had a small one. Nearly everyone I met was impressed by my regular publication in Cosmo. Few people had heard of the anthology. Even so, you tell me which writing produced the most impact.
It’s true that we can’t live on love alone. That’s why day jobs were invented. The writers who take them in order to pay rent and still be able to write what they are called to write are no less real than those who single-mindedly play the numbers game. Writing and editing a church newsletter is important, and so are creating stories for a grandchild, teaching poetry writing to a group of troubled teenagers, and reading work at a journal writing workshop.
Butterflies are the bell weather of ecological changes on our planet. The fluctuation in their numbers and migration patterns reveal to scientists the impact of environmental changes on other species. In many cultures they are considered sacred. The ancient Greeks used the same word, psyche, for butterflies and the human soul.
Just because we can’t always measure the impact of our writing, doesn’t mean its consequences aren’t profound or far-reaching. Instead wasting precious energy discounting what gives us joy and envying those who made the bestseller lists, maybe we need to focus more of our attention on moving our wings. Who knows what could happen?
Whether or not we judge ourselves as successes or failures as writers rests on how we define success. These individual definitions are as unique as our fingerprints — or butterfly wings. They spring, not only from our deepest desires, but from what we are taught we should desire, as well. Sometimes we confuse the two.
Make a list of the messages about what constitutes writing success that you learned in school and from writing workshops, critique groups, writers’ magazines and other writers. Mindfully decide which of these learned definitions has validity for you.
Now make a list of the personal satisfactions and joys that writing brings to your life. What about being a writer gives you the most fulfillment? Is it the feeling of being in flow or the clarity you come to as you write? Is it seeing your name in print? Is it inspiring people or informing them? Jot down everything that comes to you.
Combine the best of both lists and compose your own personal definition of writing success.
Orion: People and Nature is published by the Orion Society, a non-profit organization that “promotes place-based thinking, and works to nurture the shift toward sustainable living taking place throughout so many segments of our culture.” Writers they publish include Wendell Berry, Rick Bass and Terry Tempest Williams.
Although they have a backlog of material for the print publications and will not consider submissions until October 1, the editors are currently reading electronic submissions for the online version. Their website is www.orionsociety.org.