Great Expectations: How Re-Evaluating Your Writing Goals Can Help You Achieve Success

Here, William Kenower relates the story of a unique writer who began her journey with no expectations. The experience demonstrated how rethinking your writing goals and asking yourself what you really want to write can help you achieve success and happiness.
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Here, William Kenower relates the story of a unique writer who began her journey with no expectations. The experience demonstrated how rethinking your writing goals and asking yourself what you really want to write can help you achieve success.

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I had a wonderful conversation recently with the children’s book author and illustrator Elizabeth Rose-Stanton.

Elizabeth’s story is unusual. Not only did she publish her first book when she was 60, she was able to find an agent and publisher as easily as some people make friends at a new job. In fact, her agent and publisher really found her after she had wandered Forest Gump-like to a couple writers’ conferences.

It all happened so quickly for Elizabeth that her only real fear was that she wasn’t ready for the success that had just landed in her lap. Turns out she was plenty ready. Three books later (and another in the pipeline) she told me she wakes up every day excited to get to work.

While it helped that Elizabeth’s illustrations are distinctive and charming and that she has a natural interest in the poetry of children’s stories, I felt there was something else at work in her rapid ascension from curious novice to published author.

“You know what your real genius is?” I told her. “You had very low expectations.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “Actually, I had no expectations.”

She’s not the first author I’ve met who approached writing without expectations. In almost every case the lower the writer’s expectations the more effortless the path was to publication.

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I love these stories, I’m inspired by these stories, but I admit that I’ve often found them a little maddening. My path was anything but effortless: It led me through valleys of disappointment and confusion, strewn with the carnage of rejection letters and unpublished novels. Writing, it is safe to say, has been both my greatest creative joy and also the source of my greatest suffering.

Then again, in those dark years I had heaped writing with expectations. My life, my future, my very value were seemed entwined with whether or not those books I wrote got published. It was an uncomfortable way to live, but it seemed like my only option. I had no other plan, no other ambition if this writing thing didn’t work out.

In retrospect, it was very dramatic. I was like the hero on an increasingly urgent quest. I believed in the focusing power of desperation, that by piling my entire happiness onto this singular dream I could will it into existence.

I could not.

What I could do, however, was shift my expectations. This occurred when I found what you might call my genre—which, it turned out, was not fiction but creative non-fiction, or personal essays. I soon became more interested in the work itself than in whether or not it got published. I still wanted to it to published, but no matter how hard I tried I could not drum up that same desperation I had once felt around the novels. The experience of writing the essays was so satisfying, so inspiring, and so calming that I finished every day’s work already feeling like a success.

This happened so often—nearly every day, in fact—that I began to expect it. It was out of this expectation that I began to experience the kind of publishing success I had once yearned for and whose absence I despaired over.

Like Elizabeth, it often felt like success came to me, as if I had suddenly, in the very middle of my life, become lucky. I don’t really believe in luck. I believe in paying attention to what I can actually control. In the narrowest sense, that meant paying attention to the work itself, because in the game of writing and publishing this is always what we’ll have the most control over—those words on the page.

But more than that, it meant paying to attention to myself. I liked writing fiction, but I didn’t love it. There is always an effortlessness to writing what you love, or doing what you love, or being with someone you love. Writing fiction for me required an effort that I had come to expect, that I assumed was the normal consequence of the struggle and challenge of life itself.

Except I had always disliked struggling. My dreams of success always included an end to that struggle, of the feeling of moving forever against the current. All that was really necessary for me was to turn my boat a little, and now life and I seemed to be moving in the same direction. I still get up every day having to remember that my job is to tack my boat left or right to keep up with the current, and that if I do so I can expect to be carried by success rather than waiting for it to arrive.

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