The myth of overnight success: Things I wish I’d known when starting out (5)

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We’ve probably all seen the success stories in the media: the new writer who sent one email out into the world and got an agent, secured a seven figure advance for a two book deal, won the lottery, prompted a bidding war for the film options between Madonna and Spielberg, and still found time to dazzle the cosmologists by identifying a parallel universe, all at once and from that one tiny electronic missive.

Such stories are fantastic, because they are. Having been marketed as a discovered ‘debut’ writer more times than I care to count, and after seeing my apprenticeship and many proud years struggling to learn my trade obliterated by an ‘interview’ more fictional than my writing, I now take all overnight success stories with a massive pinch of salt.

In a news story, a polished ‘debut’ writer springing fully-formed from their minimalist garret is far more exciting than the actuality of the training, graft, and years of rejection and experimentation that went into buffing that admired writing to such a high gleam. It’s usually in interviews years down the line that we hear of the unfinished, rejected manuscripts under the bed, or the disastrous Edinburgh Fringe show which almost brought bankruptcy, alcohol-dependency, and general ruin. For it seems that the cultural pages (in the UK, at least) like their previously ‘undiscovered’ talent newly minted, blinking furiously like recently hatched chicks in their stiff, self-conscious portraits, or lounging with terminal insouciance, a pen, laptop, or tablet strewn carelessly across their loins.

What these fables of the fortunate do is create pen envy. They inspire seething hatred for the (inevitably) beautiful, young and gifted that grace the arts pages – or despondency. I remember the impact that a freshly haloed saint of literature (now sunk without trace, third book failing to find a publisher or market) had on a friend who had been battling away with words for many years: he gave up. He took a job in PR, threw away his proposals, manuscripts, and treatments, and now leads a very happy, successful life – apart from the occasional ‘what if…’ foray into moroseness which late nights and alcohol induce.

I always remind him he can go back to it; there may come a time in his life when he can slip back into his screenplay like a foot into a well-worn shoe – but the time is not now. He said he felt tired of feeling a failure in the light of high profile articles about writers who were always younger, more fashionable, and better connected than he was. He began to think the industry would over-look those, like him, who had been banging away for years and an ‘almost…’ on more than one occasion. He felt if it hadn’t happened for him now, it never would, so it was best to cut his losses and try and make his mark elsewhere.

I think such feelings are understandable, especially with a knowledge of the difficulties of carving out time, focus, and optimism for the unacknowledged writer in a fast, demanding world. Comparisons with success stories are more likely to leave us lacking and feeling dejected, than inspired to prevail. This is why it’s important to remember the mythical aspect of so-called overnight success.

Of course there will be the occasional wunderkind, the prodigy who does indeed deliver, the talented first-timer for whom all the numbers come up. I wish these individuals luck, with all the fullness of my heart. The stress and strain to deliver and exceed the much-vaunted expectation is something I wouldn’t want to wish on an enemy.

Better , I think, to see our careers as a long lasting serial, built on solid foundations, pragmatism, and experience, than an overly-hyped prologue, which may well be hard to live up to.

I like to take Mary Wesley as a role model: a woman who, after a long, challenging, but fascinating life became a multiple best-selling novelist in her seventies. I remember hearing a radio programme where she was hailed as an unlikely overnight success. This was a ridiculous statement, she countered, for hadn’t everything that came before,  led up to this?

An over-life success. That’s the kind of writer I want to be.

(c) Kaite O’Reilly 14/2/12.

5 responses to “The myth of overnight success: Things I wish I’d known when starting out (5)

  1. A well observed piece: evolution rather than revolution. Our experiences form who we are.

  2. Succinctly put! thank you.

  3. Fab fab fab x

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