Saturday, January 1, 2011

Cultivating Success

When I did my Masters degree, part-time, course by course, I began to notice something. Every single course, I got the exact same grade: A-. After a few courses, I began to wonder what it would take to achieve an A or even a B+. It took until the final course to break through the barrier and to get that elusive A.

I'm feeling about like that right now with my writing.

No, that's not quite true. I'm feeling about like that right now with my writing career.

Having had one book published, I have learned that the very best part of the process is the writing. I love a good story and it is so much more fun and challenging and creative when I get to participate in the creative process. That truly was and is my favourite part. That is not in question at all.

But my second favourite part was people getting what I wrote. I love doing readings and sensing people holding their breath, seeing eyes well up with tears, hearing laughter at the right moments. Having what I sent out into the world be received.

The problem is that apparently I may be an A- writer. And, in a competitive market, A - may not be enough.

Further, the A- minus may not even be a reflection of my ability or effort. I had a rejection yesterday from someone high up in publishing who read my book over Christmas and loved it but felt that the Canadian setting would work against it, and also said that the demand these days is for bigger stories told on bigger canvases.

When I get disheartened (like now), I think it doesn't matter whether I'm an A- or a D- writer. My agent says the fact that the book was read in its entirety at this time of year is an encouraging sign. He says that I am getting thoughtful, intelligent rejections from those who know literature and its market - that many writers get form letters or silence. He is actually right, but I'm still not exactly feeling the warmth.

For the last couple of years, I've chosen a word as a sort of theme or talisman for the upcoming year. Last year, the word was sculpt, and I did sculpt in many ways. This year, the word I know to be mine is cultivate.

The word cultivate comes from the medieval Latin cultivare, from cultiva (terra) ‘arable (land)’, from colere ‘cultivate, inhabit’.

Its definitions include:

1. prepare land for crops
2. grow plant: to grow a plant or crop
3. loosen soil: to break up soil with a tool or machine, especially before sowing or planting
4. nurture something: to improve or develop something, usually by study or education
5. develop acquaintance with somebody
6. make somebody cultured

I like the work implied in this word. To cultivate anything takes time and labour. It recognizes that anything worthwhile must grow, and even growth must be preceded by preparation.

A big challenge for me, though, is to think about what it means to cultivate success in writing when what I want does not depend solely on my effort. I would be embarrassed to admit the depth of my ambition and drive to see my books find an audience, but every crop depends on more than the effort of the person cultivating it.

Maybe I will be able to enjoy success if my goals become ones that are within my control.

I'm also haunted by the possibility that writing fiction may very well be for my own pleasure, and that my purpose in life may be something I discount or devalue. And maybe the books will find a home within that purpose.


This year, I will write and I will learn to write better and will fall in love with my stories. And I will try not to let my longing for readers sour into thwarted ambition.

Those will be good crops to cultivate.


  1. As you noted, "sculpt" and "cultivate" are things that are ongoing and do not represent a finished product ... i.e. a sculpture or something to eat! Perhaps it's the idea that you seem to be representing yourself as a WIP - a work in progress. That's entirely cool - but every artist has to come to a finished product! Your A- and all your word choices seem to be WIP's!

    Idea: Write an ongoing fiction piece in a blog format- where readers tune in for the next chapter. You will have to commit to finish on deadline - weekly or bi-weekly - regardless of whether you are finished or not!

  2. Hi John - I like your idea and have actually been toying with releasing chapters of my book on the blog. I'm not sure I understand your first points though - are you suggesting that a person should be a finished product? Because, if so, I'm not sure I agree. As for the products being finished, that's not particularly a problem for me. But, as I say, I may send them out here.

    What do others think?

  3. Susan,

    "Cultivate" is what the Spirit does, too. Your stories could be seeds that settle into the soil, take root, and inspire others, just not in the traditional way.

    I assume you have a professional website. That would be a good place to publish a chapter every couple of months--and perhaps the dialogue in the commentary might lead to another story somewhere else.

    You're following a path, a narrative that you have a hand in shaping. Your writing is part of that path, and the sorrows and struggles are part of the scenery. But the Storyteller knows the plot twists and the final resolution, and it will be entirely unexpected, wonderful, and consistent with all that has gone before.

    Wishing you grace, courage, and peace with yourself.

  4. I'm writing just now from "Next Year Country" -- we call it that because the crop fails, oh, two years in three, and not because of anything farmers do. I wonder if publishing is one big next year country. It feels like that.

    And then the corn comes in ...

  5. Also, you might want to know (or perhaps already do know) that "cultivate: comes from "colere," to till, but much more directly from its past participle "cultus," which even in late Latin days had a lovely sweep: to care, to work, to labor (overtones of childbirth in that particular labor); to cultivate the land -- and as a closely related noun: worship, and reverence. And culture, of course. A good word. The Romans packed one of their big ideas into it.

  6. As publishing changes, following the music industry, we are left as consumers of art, to become miners. We have to go and find art that speaks to us.
    The music industry is producing music for mass market. But our individual tastes are more often then not, found on the fringes. Book publishing is following the same path. Will it sell vs is it good. New ideas, thoughts, art are hard to sell.

    Your rejection has maybe more to do with "Market" then with your story. Writers for business/marketing etc. now have to establish a following and take that following to a publisher before their books will be published. These same people have found that they no longer need the publisher, as they can now publish e-books and send to their following.
    I have wondered for some time how this trend will work out with the writers of fiction.

    You seem to be living through the shift.

    Continue to cultivate your love of words and you will cultivate a following as well.

    Just my thought.