The Myth of the Overnight Success (aka Why Writers Drink/Cry So Much)

Source: MS Clipart

Source: MS Clipart

We’ve all heard the stories. Legends, more like. About how J.K. Rowling wrote the entire first draft of Harry Potter on a napkin at her local Starbucks (or whatever place that sells what passes for coffee in the UK.) Or how E.L. James was just writing Twilight fan fiction one day…until bow-chick-a-bow-ow…international lust storm, followed by legitimacy, movie deals, and money falling from the skies. Jamie Dornan’s autograph on a personalized FSOG pillowcase. Red Carpet dreams and Louboutin fantasies…fulfilled at the drop of a hat. (Hat, pants, whatever.)

Some of these legends come from the author’s own lips (or online lips, anyway), like when Colleen Hoover sort of live-blogged her “overnight success” as a self-published New Adult author. Most self-published authors today would turn increasing shades of murderous as they read the depressingly plucky account of how Hoover watched with growing shock and awe as her self-published “just for my family and friends” book with a stock photo cover shot up the Bestseller lists. From tens to thousands of sales per day, without lifting a finger to market herself or spending a penny to advertise. Or, so the story goes.

Even more common, there’s those tales of authors who are magically plucked out of obscurity during their first attempt at querying. Forget the rejections, if there even were any. Suddenly, they’re blogging about how they got an agent, and less than a month later, they have a publishing deal! How dare they, first of all. They haven’t been in the query trenches nearly long enough to be scarred by the carnage. What makes them so special, so lucky, that they didn’t have to put in the time and suffer the pain of rejection after rejection? “Wait. You’re telling me you won a pitch contest, without ever having queried in your life!??” *Sharpening sword, preparing to go out the Samurai way, in a bloody blaze of glory* “Maybe after I’m dead, I’ll finally be a success,” you’ll mutter, laughing maniacally.

It’s the same in every industry. Actors who get “discovered” waiting tables, who’ve never been on an open casting. Models who get contracts off of their Instagram feed. Social media stars in general. Athletes with natural talent, who don’t seem to practice as hard as the others. Musical savants.

Over and over–almost always after the fact, I might add–we are bombarded with this idea that success just happens. That those who earn fame, fortune and glory didn’t earn it at all. That they were just lucky–or at least, luckier than us. That’s why it didn’t take them as long, why they struck gold on their very first project, why they didn’t have to work as hard or feel as utterly dejected and purposeless as we feel when we’re in the midst of #TheStruggle.

But that’s the thing about #TheStruggle, kids. When you’re in it, you’re usually too busy surviving to talk about it. So much of that pain goes undocumented, not only for P.R. reasons, but because it sucks so bad we literally can’t even. The world doesn’t want to hear about how hard it is, anyway. Especially before the success, while the suck is still happening. It seems magical, but it isn’t. You just weren’t looking hard enough, and you got caught up in the Prestige–just like Hugh Jackman in that movie. In the end, he paid the price, and so did everyone who dared to say that movie was in any way better than The Illusionist. But I digress. (As always, sorry.) Rejection is a necessary part of the journey, and everyone–I don’t care who you are, or how you earned your success–has to pay dues to get there. If it’s not time, it’s money. If it’s not money or time, it’s something else they had to give up. Personal relationships. Fun. Netflix. You might never know what it was, but everything comes at a price.

Even, and maybe especially, this so-called overnight success. In fact, if you look closely at those that most seem like they’ve had things “handed to them,” you’ll begin to notice a trend. Either a) they go silent for long periods of time, fall off the world’s collective radar, only to reemerge months (or even years) later with a seemingly effortless product of their silent suffering, b) they succeed big, but also fail big, and it’s usually about 50-50 when you average it out, or c) they only SEEM to be successful, because of very good P.R. and our collective inability to care about complexities that lurk beneath the surface. (Otherwise, why were the Kardashians allowed to happen?) 

Let’s be honest (for once, at least): we’re all really too busy #Struggling, working to make ends barely meet, angsting, drinking, crying, drowning in envy, whining, watching Netflix and/or YouTube, and occasionally (maybe) writing to really and truly do our due diligence into the price of others’ success.

And what a waste, at any rate, because even if we did fully understand that success we could not ever hope to recreate it in exactly the same way. So, why bother? Instead, let’s spend our time focusing on what makes us feel happy. Fulfilled. Amused. Proud. No one can take those things away from you, unless you let them.

Success, on the other hand, well…I’ve heard that’s a one night stand with a very fickle mistress. Or something.

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