Is it Wrong to Imagine Success?

Do you dream of seeing your novel or nonfiction book climb the bestseller charts? Could that dream be hindering your ability to focus on your writing RIGHT NOW?

That question was triggered by blogger Nina Badzin in her most recent post. A number of us bloggers have spent the last couple of weeks writing about the temptation of social media vs. the need to write, and Nina’s new conclusion was this: “I believe the cause of our new-found apathy is our premature worry about our finished products.” (Boldface in original)

Like any artist, Nina has set high goals for herself, and tells herself she’ll meet them. Like any professional, she studies her field, and has learned the odds she faces. She’s read the stories of other’s paths. She’s experienced setbacks. And she wonders if the reason she produces fewer pages now than she once did is because she has a greater sense of how difficult it will be to become a published author.

Is your blogger hard at work on his creative writing? Is he reading his tweets? Is he imagining a midnight queue of pajama-clad bibliophiles camping out to buy his first book on its release date? Has he taken his meds?

Like Nina, I have “finished” manuscripts that are unpublished and I’m sure will remain that way. Like Nina, I’ve studied the industry and know the odds. But for me at least I still think there’s a place for embracing the fantasy.

When I traveled the country talking with artists about creativity, the left brain-right brain dichotomy came up a lot. Some of the artists were highly successful, others still earning most of their income from non-arts jobs. But a core lesson emerged on how driven artists think.

It’s our practical left brains that read Writer’s Digest and Publisher’s Weekly, that follow literary agents on Twitter, that calculate the possible return on investment of every hour spent on our art. But it’s our right brains that make us feel alive, that put aside distraction to enter another world, that worry not about RoI. A true artist embraces both brains.

Listen to the left brain and pay the power bill so you can plug in your computer. But indulge your right brain and allow that part of you to engage in flights of fancy, whether it’s imagining a book signing in your favorite bookstore or sitting in the guest chair on The Colbert Report. Your left brain will tell you not to have those fantasies, that they’re impractical, that they’re setting you up for failure. But your right brain needs those fantasies. It operates by working in a place of imagination, not reality. It’s fuel is make-believe, so let it pretend, let it imagine the best possible outcome that could come from the labor it is providing you in producing your art.

In short, allow yourself to daydream. Give yourself permission to say you’ll be that one writer who gets a big, early break. There will be time to be practical, but an art-committed life requires indulging both reality and fantasy.

When you find yourself discouraged with your art, do you feel guilty for imagining great success for yourself? Do you find you were more productive with your art before you knew the odds you faced professionally? Do you see separate roles in your artistic life for your left brain and right brain? What is your dream? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

16 Responses to “Is it Wrong to Imagine Success?”

  1. I agree that giving oneself permission to dream big, envision success, and believe in your dreams is essential to the creative process. When we limit ourselves and our imagination, we close ourselves off from discovering more opportunities and potential.

    Thank you for the reminder and encouragement!

  2. I just wanted to jump in here and say that if we cannot imagine success, then where do we get the inspiration to succeed?

    So, to answer the question of the blog, yes! Not only is it right, but I also say it is necessary to imagine being successful.

  3. I’ve always been big on fantasizing about success. Years before it was called visualization (like when I was a kid) I would imagine getting the goal, making a grade, etc. It’s just the way my mind works. I have no doubt that my daydreaming habit has been a big contributor to all of my successes in life.

  4. @Marianne You’re absolutely right to warn against limiting ourselves.

    @S Wesley Steam I agree it’s essential to success. I know Nina understands that as well, but relate to how it can be frustrating when you find yourself falling short at times.

    @Joy Daniels So what are some of the fantasies (or visualization) you have now as a writer?

  5. Hey there Patrick! I think you presented my dilemma well. And yes, I agree that imaging success is part of how we stay motivated. My issue was putting the cart before the horse TOO OFTEN. I’d say I’ve been suffering from analysis paralysis . . . looking at every idea, page, and even sentence through the eyes of an agent or “the industry” rather than letting the writing happen and revising later. I let myself get very stuck, which made stifled the creative/artistic side of why I loved writing in the first place. I’m seeing if I can get myself back to that “fun” place. I’m sure I’ll write about the topic again . . . sort of a “checking in” after I’ve tried some new things.

    How great that we’re having this discussion across both of our blogs–true social networking.😉

    • Hi Nina, agreed on the cross-blog discussion!

      I like the phrase “analysis paralysis.” I think a plus for you is that you’re clearly capable of introspection and “self-analysis,” which can counter that paralysis. Not everyone among us has that ability.

  6. Hi Patrick, these are such great points. I’d never thought of it like that (right brain vs left brain) but I can see how it applies to ways I’ve managed to keep pushing myself. For example, on mornings when I’d wake up really early to work on my manuscript and needed a push, I’d remind myself of “the dream” and then remind myself that no one could make it happen but me. It wasn’t so much a pep talk as it was simple logic. If I didn’t finish the book, I’d reduce my chances of being published by 100%!

    • “If I didn’t finish the book, I’d reduce my chances of being published by 100%!” Fantastic!

      You reminded me of a novelist I interviewed in Haverhill, Massachusetts, Brenna Lyons. She had the same approach to submitting prose, namely if I don’t send it to a publisher the chances of it being published are zero. I need to remind myself of that sometimes as well.

  7. Another zinger of a post, Patrick. I LOVE it. I think we do need to use both sides of our brains as creative-types, and your observations are astute about finding the right harmony between the two.

    I think it is IMPERATIVE to dream the big dream, and nothing has reminded more of that than the inspirational story of Kathryn Stockett (of THE HELP fame). I read her novel (loved it) and read about her story to publication: 60 rejections, five years of re-writing because she BELIEVED so much in her story, and a “never give up” attitude. Let me tell you: the things some agents said to her were downright NASTY.

    And look at her now: the movie is thriving, the book is in a second generation of printing due to the movie, and she achieved her dream. She gives me hope, and allows me to set my sights high. It’s that dangling carrot sometimes that brings us through the rough times and keeps the dream alive. Whether it’s a lofty dream or not, it is imperative in many cases to us moving forward. When I left THE HELP movie yesterday, the audience was CLAPPING. I was already tear-soaked from the movie, but that clapping set a new stream of tears down my cheek (as pathetic as that sounds). In that moment, I thought of Stockett. I wanted to write her a letter and say, “Look! Look what you did, Kathryn. You DID it. People are CLAPPING for you. Crying for your characters.” Yep – I’m going to keep dreaming. For if we don’t have dreams, what DO we have?

    • Your use of the word “zinger” reminds me of one of my true sins, below bacon and poutine but high up there — Raspberry Zingers. Mmm.

      What a fantastic story. I’ve come across blog posts at times that have compiled info like how many times famous writers were rejected, the nasty things said about her. Kathryn Stockett would be a good addition to that roll call.

  8. Patrick,
    I have a love/hate relationship with the challenges you provide for my artistic life. This just happens to be one of the things I’m working with myself right now in a variety of ways. As an improv performer, I continue to use the imperfections in my talent and practiced skills as jumping-off points for my creative outpouring. Sometimes this works and sometimes not.
    As a composer/recording musician, I often find myself in the dilemma you mention here. Right now, I’m working on a recording where I’ve just finished my 3rd take on the same vocal line and I’m still judging it as inadequate for the kind of “success” I imagine even though my art is not my day-job.
    Thanks for the challenge to look at this more deeply.
    Playful blessings,
    Stan (aka @muz4now)

    • Hello, Stan, good to have you visit! Thank you for sharing your current experience with your current composition. It’s a challenge.

      For what it’s worth, earlier today I put to bed a work I’ve been fiddling with for weeks now. I had no deadline on it, and could conceivably tinkered with it forever, but I reached the point where I was able to tell myself, “Self, that is not bad, more than good enough for where you are right now as a writer. Don’t hold yourself to future standards.”

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