Before we get to today’s post, I wanted to make you aware of an offer by a group called Writer Mamas. These women are trying to raise funds so that several WU community members can attend the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in November. To that end, they’re selling $200 worth of writing books and guides for half cost. Click here to learn more about the offerings.
“That’s putting the cart before the horse, isn’t it?”
This is probably the metaphor I like the least, yet hear most often. In what context do I hear it? Things such as:
- Developing an audience before you write a book is like putting the cart before the horse.
- Starting a newsletter list before you have a dedicated audience is like putting the cart before the horse.
- Thinking about long-term goals before you know who you are as a writer is like putting the cart before the horse.
- Spending a single minute on social media before you write 1,000 words each day is like putting the cart before the horse.
Why do I dislike this phrase? Because it simplifies to a romantic narrative of how to succeed as a writer. It nearly always whittles it down to:
Romantic thing about writing vs creepy horrible spammy businessy thing.
It’s easy to feel wise and pure by saying things like that. I mean, I would love to say:
“Filing a joint tax return before hugging my wife is like putting the cart before the horse.”
“Waking up early to change the cat’s litter box before writing a poem about my son is like putting the cart before the horse.”
For the context of a writer, when we talk about success as a PROFESSIONAL – things are often more complicated than simple romantic contrasts. You have to do a wide range of tasks concurrently; you are unsure of what works; the world you WANT to live in (where cupcakes have no calories and where a book naturally finds its way into readers hands), differs from the world we DO live in (where it may actually take effort to help get a book into the hands of the right reader. Don’t even get me started on cupcakes…)
Now, before I go further, I want to be clear about two things:
- Yes, developing your craft as a writer is indeed THE primary thing you have to work on. I wrote about this just last week.
- If you have ever used the term “cart before the horse,” I am NOT making fun of you, I am not saying you are wrong, I am not trying to pick a “side,” I am not judging you. I totally get (and appreciate) that people often use this phrase when they see others veering off track and losing perspective. The phrase is meant to get people to focus on what matters.
But I worry that these simplistic phrases and encouragements: “don’t put the cart before the horse” mask the reality of how complex success really is:
- Success is rarely a linear plan with clear steps that are taken in order.
- Success is often more nuanced.
- Success is often confusing, even after the fact.
- Success is usually overwhelming.
- Success is filled with WAY more luck than we would like to believe or admit.
- Success usually requires a wide range of partnerships, some formal, some informal.
- You can do everything right, but if the timing is off by 1/2 a degree, success can be elusive.
There is clearly one phrase that authors hear more often than others:
“Write the best book possible.”
There are lots of variations on this – often having to do with focusing on the craft of writing before anything else. That if you have to default to a single task: improving your writing is it.
Of course, 100% agree. Go do that.
But… is that enough? Is it enough to “merely” write the best book you can? Will that lead to “success”? Well, that depends on how you define success, right? Lot’s of possible measures on that one, including my least favorite: “to be a published author.” That one relies on the creation of a physical object as the goal, instead of the affect their writing has on someone’s life. Lots of folks have become “published authors” only to have their books sit in boxes, never read.
For some, success as a writer could include: validation, mastering a craft, inspiring others, notoriety, giving someone hope, money, solving someone’s problems, receiving awards, recognition by the cool kids, crafting an identity unique from one’s family and day job, their own ability to explore who they are and what the world is, and so so so much more.
Julie Fierro just shared an article on her “comeback” as a writer:
“My novel had been rejected by what seemed like every editor in the city… I plummeted. I avoided writers and literary events. I avoided bookstores. I stopped writing. I cut ties with my former Iowa classmates, many of whom were being published right out of the gate. I steered clear of anyone who had known me as Julia, the “writer.” The rejection, plus the stress of moving to New York, plus the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder I’d struggled with since childhood, pushed me into a cycle of episodes, both depressed and obsessive, that would make it difficult for me to leave the house, socialize, write, and even read for years.”
Her “comeback” was realized by founding Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, helping 2,400 writers, and now more than ten years later, publishing her first novel. She describes it this way:
“All those years of teaching and running Sackett Street were motivated in part by my own needs—for community, inspiration, and a kind of literary companionship that sheltered me until I was ready to return to the vulnerable hard work that is the writing life.”
I am a huge music fan, and want to use three examples of musicians who have touched upon this topic of success and how it is rarely a linear process with clear milestones.
One of my all-time favorite bands is Blur. Awhile back I heard an interview with their bassist Alex James, as he reflected on their success, surprised at how much work it took to get known, and then once they were famous, how much work it took just to stay on top. He spoke of the constant interviews, radio spots, gigs, and appearances. They had to struggle in the beginning, and to his surprise, he felt that it never got much easier. It was always WAY more effort than he would have expected for the simplest step forward.
Lady Gaga shares this perspective as the voice of the professional who is pushing themselves not just creatively: “We’re supposed to be tired. I don’t know who told everyone otherwise, but you make a record and you tour. That’s how you build a career.”
So much of the horse and cart analogy doesn’t work for me because you can’t predict serendipity and luck. That you can prepare, but you can’t plan. This is why Henry Rollins couldn’t have predicted the turn his life would take, he had to be prepared to recognize and opportunity and jump on it in the split second it became available:
“I said yes to everything. I worked like a crazy man because I realizing guys like me fail most of the time. I was around a lot of great bands, and rarely did they get over the wall. People much more talented than I’ll every be. I don’t have talent, I have tenacity, I have discipline, I have focus, and I know without any illusion, where I come from, and what I can go back to… It is a story of a lot of luck, but taking advantage of opportunity, working really damn hard, knowing there was no choice for me, but to work really hard.”
I worry that the cart & horse analogy is exactly the type of social contract that has long since broken, if it ever existed at all. That you do well in grade school and high school to get into a good college to get a good internship to get a good job which leads to a good promotion which leads to a good salary which leads to a nice house which leads to retirement savings which leads to…
…this concept that there is a basic, safe, linear order to things that leads to “success.”
Instead, what I have found from my friends and colleagues: life is complex; trusting relationships are the core of everything; great work is highly respected, but not always rewarded; persistence is key; luck is necessary, but unpredictable; ‘best practices’ are often illusions sold to you so that others can feel like gurus.
Scott Berkun puts this nicely when we consider actions based on the odds of them working:
“They say most businesses fail in the two years. That most books don’t sell many copies. Why is this surprising? The interesting things in life are hard. Do you want an interesting life? Then you have to accept different odds.”
(thanks to Ami Greko for finding this post!)
Analogies such as ‘the horse and the cart’ are often just ways to justify simple narratives of how we WISH the world would be, and to sometimes justify our own inaction.
Tell me: what has your experience been in trying to balance the road to success, while developing your craft as a writer?
Dan Blank is the founder of WeGrowMedia, where he helps writers share their stories and connect with readers. He has helped hundreds of authors via online courses, events, consulting, and workshops, and worked with amazing publishing houses and organizations who support writers such as Random House, Workman Publishing, Abrams Books, Writers House, The Kenyon Review, Writer’s Digest, Library Journal, and many others.