The Illusion of Happiness in the Writing Community

chasing happiness
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Overall, the definition of happiness in the indie writing community is this:

High Income + Hitting a Big List (like USA or New York Times Bestseller) = Happiness

The USA and NYT Bestselling lists aren’t mandatory, but I see enough authors claiming some sort of bestselling list to know it’s important to them. A bestselling list of some kind lends itself to a form of success in their eyes. If this wasn’t a badge of success, authors wouldn’t mention it on their covers, in their book descriptions, or on their websites. The income thing is harder for others to see unless the authors are sharing their sales graphs, but the lists are easy to display, which is why we see so many claims to these lists.

Is it wrong to share information about income and a bestseller list? Of course not. But in doing so, we set up an unspoken rule that these are the things that make you “somebody worth listening to” in the writing community.  It makes you stand out from the crowd.

Let me illustrate what I mean by this. Say you have two authors: Author A and Author B. Author A has sold about 50 ebooks in the past year, which made him $100. He’s not on any lists. Author B, on the other hand, has sold 500,000 ebooks in the past year (which equaled about $1,000,000) and made the New York Times Bestseller list.  Now, both of these authors give out the same advice on their blogs and in reader forums. Will people cite Author A or Author B when they pass on that advice? Which author has more credibility in the writing community?  Also, taking this a step further, which author will get featured in interviews? Which author will be given the bigger microphone to pass on their advice? In other words: which author is successful?

In the business of writing, numbers do matter. Numbers are seen as a gauge of success. And success is seen as measure of happiness. This is the illusion of happiness in the writing community. We have this perception that in order to be happy as writers, we must fit the writing community’s standard of success.

I say this is an illusion because no matter how much people acquire, most people want more. And that desire for more doesn’t lead to happiness. It just leads to setting the bar higher. When a writer reaches one level of success (say being able to pay the mortgage), the writer thinks, “Wow. I was able to do that. But what if I was able to make a living wage with my income?” So then the writer sets the bar of success to making the living wage. And when they reach that goal, they look around at other authors who are making $20,000 a month. The writer then thinks, “Hmm… That looks like a totally awesome goal. I want to do that, too.” And on and on this goes.

The problem is that the writer isn’t satisfied with what they’ve accomplished. There’s more to obtain. There will always be more to obtain. When you measure yourself against those who are doing better, you will find yourself lacking, and that sense of lack will create a sense of unhappiness. You think, “If only I could get X, then I’ll be happy.” But the reality is, it doesn’t create happiness. Not lasting happiness. Sure, the writer may be happy for a few days. Maybe a few weeks. Maybe even a few months. But sooner or later, they will feel like they need to accomplish more.

The cycle is unending, and the only way to end it is by getting out of it.

So how do we do that?

We start by being happy first. Learn to be content with how things currently are for you. We often hear “don’t compare yourself to others”, and I think this falls in line with that idea. It’s hard to be content with how things are for you if you are comparing yourself to someone else.

I’m also going to say something that is probably going to upset quite a few people. It’s time to stop listening to others tell you WHAT makes an author successful. I understand that writers are looking to make money, but the pursuit of money does end up trapping us into the cycle I mentioned above. This post is talking about happiness, not money. You can have both if you learn to be content with the money you’re making. But what I find most of the time is that writers want to make more. It’s more and more. Even if they’re making a living, it’s not enough. And the marketing experts know this. This is why they sell courses teaching authors how to make more money. The illusion of money (aka success) = lasting happiness is a powerful one in the writer community, and there are some people out there who are taking advantage of that.

If your aim is to be happy for the long-term, you have to shift your mindset. I’m currently working on shifting mine. For the past couple of months, I’ve felt incredible despair about writing. I was thinking, “What’s the point in writing if I can’t sell books unless I write to market?” and “What’s the point in writing when my income keeps dropping?”

And don’t think I was happy when I was selling very well. I don’t want to give away my numbers, but there was a time when I was making well over a comfortable living wage with my writing. And I always wanted more. I was stuck in that cycle. I was not happy. I was running myself ragged in trying to sell more and more books because there was an author who was making way more than I was in my genre. I sacrificed time with friends and family to be at my computer chasing the newer goal I had placed before me. I wrote to market. I followed marketers’ advice. I ran myself ragged in this cycle like I see so many authors doing today. All I can say is that the constant pursuit for more money, awards, acclaim, etc is a trap.

For people who are caught in this cycle because this is how they are making ends meet for their family, I sympathize. I know this isn’t something you can just stop. In your case, I would find ways to cut expenses so you can live on less. Then save everything you can. Look for free stuff to do with the family. Look for bargains while shopping. Live in a cheaper place if you have to. I’ve had to do all of this, and believe me, a savings account that is built up helps to lessen the stress you’re going through. (I know this is stressful since I used to be the sole provider of my own family off the writing income.)

I’m currently reading a book called The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything by Neil Pasricha.

The Happiness Equation
Click here for more information about this book.

His proposal is this:

BE HAPPY —–>  GREAT WORK —–>  BIG SUCCESS

This isn’t a book geared directly to writers, but I think the principles in it can apply to writers. These days, I’m more interested in being happy as a writer than I am in trying to make a lot of money. I do think there’s merit in starting with happiness. He says that if we are happy first, we’ll naturally do our best, and this will lead to success. But I should clarify that success is a broad range. We shouldn’t box ourselves in with what others tell us success is. Success is going to look different to everyone. If you start off being happy, it stands to follow you’ll be happy with the results that follow from writing your books.

I know some of you who read this blog have found a place of happiness, and I’m hoping to join you soon.

I’d love to hear if anyone has tips on how to start at happiness. How do you approach your stories with great enthusiasm? How do you avoid the horrible cycle of always striving for more?

17 thoughts on “The Illusion of Happiness in the Writing Community

  1. K.c. Knouse November 2, 2018 / 1:05 pm

    Great post, Ruth Ann.

    First, seek the Kingdom of Heaven and all else will be given unto you. Sounds like the same thing as start with happiness. This is profound wisdom. As you pointed out, enduring happiness is not to be found in the material world. Yet, we keep trying to find it there. True happiness is found within ourselves. When we find it, the joy it brings us spills out into the world and returns to us all sorts of blessings.

    When we seek happiness in the material world, we are self-centered and running on our own power. When we find our happiness within ourselves, we access the power of love, the universal, infinite creative force. It works through us and allows us to do great things.

    You are on your way, Ruth Ann. I do not know where it will take you, but I do know you will find what you are looking for if you trust your heart and keep searching.

    • Ruth Ann Nordin November 9, 2018 / 6:06 pm

      I agree with you completely. The material world will never satisfy. It might for a short time, but it’s not lasting. The Kingdom of Heaven, however, is a different story. 🙂

  2. Catherine Lynn November 2, 2018 / 2:23 pm

    Wow…how to respond to this. I have so much to say, but I don’t know how to say it all. Weird for a writer. It’s just that my heart is full because you’ve hit the nail on the head. Happiness is NOT money. Happiness is NOT fame. Happiness is NOT things. It’s being content with who you are and taking joy from the things in life that are important. God, family, friends. Those three things are at the very top of my list. Of course, we have to make money to have food, shelter, clothing, etc. But we don’t have to have that bigger TV, that better computer, that newest cell phone. We don’t have to make more and more money to be happy. I would LOVE to have so much money that I never had to worry about anything. I’ve lived from paycheck to paycheck my whole life. Sometimes I wondered how we would get by. But God took care of us because I put Him first. With great wealth comes great responsibility. (Kind of like Spiderman and power.) When you have loads of money, you have to decide how to use it wisely. That means helping others. In the case of my religious beliefs, that means giving back to God. We just finished a series at church about wealth management, including topics about greed, prejudice, and responsibility. If we get greedy and want more and more, then our priorities aren’t in the right place. How many parents fail to spend time with their kids in pursuit of more wealth only to find them suddenly grown? How many couples fight over money? It’s just STUFF. I do sometimes worry a little over my bills and such, but I try to put my trust in God and know I’ll have what I need, even if I don’t have everything I want.

    So, would I like to be a best seller author who makes loads of money? You betcha! But I won’t sacrifice true happiness in that pursuit.

    • Ruth Ann Nordin November 9, 2018 / 6:17 pm

      Your comment reminded me of a sermon I heard about a year ago. The man was talking about money management, and he said that most of the people who are rich worry more than people who don’t have much money. He said that when you have more, you worry about losing it, so you keep looking for ways to get more and more wealth. So they get more, and then their stress level gets even hire. At the time, I thought, “Heck, I wouldn’t mind that kind of stress.” But really, the man was right. It’s not worth having all that money if you’re worrying all the time about losing it. I have a brother-in-law who is on his way to becoming a millionaire. I saw him last year, and he looked old. He had graying hair, his face looked like he was under a lot of stress, and he has sleep apnea. He was 40, but he looked a lot older. My husband is three years older than him, and my husband looked like he was the younger brother. I think stress catches up to you if you’re not careful.

      Anyway, you’re right. Stuff is not worth it. The important thing is that we have what we need.

  3. rami ungar the writer November 2, 2018 / 4:57 pm

    These days, my writing related happiness comes from making good progress and not from big sales. Sure, I’m happy when I sell a short story or something, but it’s not the most important thing in my life.

    • Ruth Ann Nordin November 9, 2018 / 6:18 pm

      That’s an excellent approach. And you have fulfilled your dream of finding a publisher. I think that’s awesome!

      • rami ungar the writer November 9, 2018 / 6:23 pm

        Hopefully when the book comes out, that leads to plenty of joyful experiences. Including the publication of the book.

        • Ruth Ann Nordin November 9, 2018 / 6:48 pm

          I think that will feel fantastic when it happens! Will you be getting a paperback copy or will this just be in ebook? I was thinking of how great it would be to see you holding a paperback version of the book when it arrives in the mail. Getting a book published is reaching a milestone. 🙂

          • rami ungar the writer November 9, 2018 / 6:50 pm

            Both paperback and e-book. We just have to get it polished enough for publication. Hopefully my publisher’s workload will lighten a bit this month and they’ll be able to get to Rose.

  4. Ron Fritsch November 4, 2018 / 12:50 am

    Writing brings me joy. That’s all that matters.

    • Ruth Ann Nordin November 9, 2018 / 6:19 pm

      I love this! My goal is to get back to this. It’s what I did in the beginning, and I remember being excited to sit down and write.

  5. lccooper November 4, 2018 / 2:27 pm

    I always appreciate your insight and candor, Ruth Ann. Ann This post was refreshing. You write these essays from your heart, and they frequently awaken something inside me.

    I never tried to write-to-market, but I did begin leaning in that direction. It remains the siren song among writers. That money is the measure of success is in our blood. How many times have we all said, “If only I had enough money, I would …”

    You’re right, Ruth. There never is enough. The allusions, “keeping up with the Joneses” and “the grass is always greener” are wagged n neighborhoods, and hammered into our skulls several times each day on the boob tube.

    Our ancestral need to belong to a diverse community, where all our gifts and talents are pooled for the collective good, appears to have morphed into something much less natural — the sense of belonging to clubs and groups of shared interests and hobbies. Thus, it’s more important for many, in our case, to belong to writing clubs, associations, and the like.

    Case in point, I received an email inviting me to join what I thought was a writing association where I could rub elbows with the elite writers of the world. Dollar signs danced in my head. “If I could just …”

    Then came the sentence that clumped me into the pile of have-nots — In order to join this prestigious group of professional writers, I had to submit proof that one of my novels must have sold over 5,000 copies during its first year of release.

    Instantly, I felt pangs of jealousy. I couldn’t belong to this lofty white-tower of the writing elite. “If only I sold enough books …”

    Well, I believed I couldn’t join because I wasn’t writing-to-market. I was writing for my own satisfaction and enjoyment. It was my hobby that I hoped would produce just one single home run — just popular and powerful enough to sell thousands, maybe millions of copies. Then, I’d know I made it. I’d show those elitist snobs … “If only I could sell …”

    I chased someone else’s dream. I completely gave up on my sense of community and belonging, sacrificing the very reasons I began writing. I was killing the fun hobby that writing had been.
    This is a simplified, time-lapsed version of my story. I lost sight of what’s important to me. I don’t want to join groups of like-minded folks. I want to join reading groups, talk to folks at coffee shops, hang out with family and friends at functions and reunions, bump carts with fellow shoppers at the grocery, and talk about my novels and short stories when appropriate to do so.
    I’m fortunate to have folks like you, Ruth Ann, in my life. You’re unique in that you share with us the good and the bad, and you do so without the expectation that your followers conform to your rules of writing.

    Many of us — and our stories — will perish — forever trapped in the wall of content — never sticking out far enough to impress readers enough to become a loyal fanbase.

    Just have fun with writing, folks. From my decades of penning stories, this is my only meaningful suggestion. If you’re no longer enjoying writing, then find another hobby.

    Thank you, again, Ruth Ann, for encouraging me to open my big mouth.

    Kindly,
    LC

    • Ruth Ann Nordin November 9, 2018 / 6:32 pm

      I LOVE everything you wrote. Thank you for sharing it. I understand exactly what you were thinking. I’ve struggled to belong to the “sell so many copies” crowd, too. There’s one group on Facebook that is really bad about this. If you’re not making $20,000 or more a month, you’re not worth listening to. Your advice is only worth listening to if you can prove (by a sales chart) that you have earned the respect of the community.

      It’s sad that the writing community has this mindset that you have to sell a certain amount of copies or hit some big list in order to be relevant. Sometimes I miss the early days of self-publishing when the main thing driving most writers was the love of writing. I never thought I’d sell anything I published, so I had nothing but the love of writing to drive me forward. Then suddenly the landscaped changed, and, like you, I lost the fun of writing.

      I’m glad you shared your story. Now I don’t feel so alone. 🙂

  6. Angela Verdenius November 4, 2018 / 10:29 pm

    Ruth, what an awesome article! You really touched a cord with me (and, by the looks of it, so many others). I remember the times I wished I could ‘just get one book published, that’s all I ask, and I’ll be happy.’ And you know what they say – the more you have, the more you want…a deadly trap! Well, thirty plus books later, the first 18 with a small publisher before going it Indie, and I’ve had to face a lot of facts.

    I was happy writing, doing well in sales in the early, heady days of self-pubbing, then, like so many other authors, saw the royalties start to fall. Yes, I still make enough money to pay some bills but not as much as before. It saddened me, I admit. Made me feel as though maybe I wasn’t writing good books anymore, that I was falling behind. Ill health the last year and a half with Mum and myself saw only 2 books released this year (well, the second is slated for Dec, I’m still writing it!) instead of my usual 3 to 4.

    It took a lot for me to step back and see things clearly. I work in Palliative Care and that brings me back to reality. I’m so lucky. I have a day job, I have my writing, I have my Mum and my furries, and some really good friends, and Mum and I are back to good health. I now take time to enjoy with my friends and family while also carving out time to write. There’s a big tide of writers now and rather than being one of the big fish in a small pond, I’m now a guppy swimming with all the other guppies in an ocean. I’ve come to accept that. The publishing industry is changing dramatically. I go with some of it, other aspects are still a puzzle to me, and some things I just can’t be bothered with.

    I don’t get upset at birthday time but instead I’m grateful for another year.

    Yes, I still wish I could write for a living, but then maybe it isn’t meant to be and I’m accepting that, too. A dream is good, reality is different. When I look at it, my reality is pretty good. I can’t complain, and I have so much more than other people I know. I actually don’t need a lot to make me happy, I’m a simple person.

    And I know I’m on the right track with my books when I get emails from readers saying how much my story touched them, how it made them smile and feel good about themselves. To me, that is awesome and makes it all so worthwhile.

    Life is to live, and I need more than a computer screen to live with. The fact I have to work a day job as well means I also have to carve out time to spend on myself and with family and friends, or even just to sit and read or watch TV. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and realise I missed out on living it.

    So yeah, I’m getting my love back for writing. I’m becoming more accepting of balancing it with life. Ruth, thank you so much for your articles. They always get to the heart of the matter and make me know I’m not the only one struggling with things. Bless you.

    • Ruth Ann Nordin November 9, 2018 / 6:45 pm

      I LOVE this, too! In the early days, I was doing really well. I never thought I could make a living at writing, and suddenly, I was. And, like you, the income dropped. I tried everything to boost it back up, and it seemed like the harder I pushed myself, the worse things got. Have you ever had those dreams where you’re running, and the faster you run, the further you get from the door? I felt like that was my life for the past two years. It’s incredibly frustrating. What makes it worse is that others often blame you for losing income. I think that’s the worst of it. Authors automatically go into blame mode. The cover needs changing. The price needs adjusting. The description needs an update. Ads need to be run on the book. You need to tweak your website or blog. You need to engage more on social media. The list never ends. Someone seems to know exactly what you’re doing wrong. I’m amazed it never occurs to these people that you could be doing everything right AND still lose money.

      I’m at the point where I’m willing to work outside the home if it comes to that. My husband is the one supporting the family, so we’re not in that position. At least not while he has the money coming in and we live below our means. I’m learning how to budget much better, and I’m learning how to say no to impulse purchases (which is especially hard for me since I tend to cave to my husband and kids).

      Maybe this whole thing is really a blessing in disguise. Maybe we’re learning what is really important. Maybe we’re going to look back on our lives and be glad we took the time to be with our loved ones instead of chasing after book sales. I really believe that will be the case. I hear that people on their deathbed never wish they could have worked more hours in a day. I hear they think of the time they didn’t spend enough time with loved ones. It sounds like you and I–and the others commenting–have their priorities in the right place. After all, when we reach the end of our lives, will it matter how many books we sold or how many lives we touched through our writing?

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