Why I Write, Part One


I stumbled onto the website of a novelist I had never heard of. (He’s probably never heard of me either.) What I saw there got me thinking.

What if we worked our whole life and never sold a single painting?

What if we worked our whole life and never sold a single painting?

The site was excellent. It displayed all fourteen of the novelist’s books in “cover flow” format. They looked great. A couple had been published by HarperCollins, several others by Random House. The author was the real deal, a thoroughgoing pro with a body of work produced over decades.

Somehow I found myself thinking, What if this excellent writer had never been published?

Would we still think of him as a success?

(In other words, I started pondering the definition of “success” for a writer.)

Suppose, I said to myself … suppose this writer had written all these novels, had had their covers designed impeccably, had their interiors laid out to the highest professional standards.

Suppose he could never find a publisher.

Suppose he self-published all fourteen of his novels.

Suppose his books had found a readership of several hundred, maybe a thousand or two. But never more.

Suppose he had died with that as the final tally.

Would we say he had “failed?”

Would we declare his writing life a waste?

[I’m assuming, for the sake of this exercise, that our writer had been able somehow to support himself and his family throughout his life or that, if he had been supported by someone else (as van Gogh was looked after by his brother Theo), that that was okay with him and with the person supporting him.]

Then I asked myself, What if that was me?

How would I feel about those fourteen books? Would I consider them an exercise in folly? Vanity? Demented self-indulgence?

Would I say to myself, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you continue this exercise in futility? Wake up! Get a job!”

Could I justify all that effort and somehow convince myself that it was worthy, that it had been an honorable use of my time on Earth?

It won’t surprise you, if you’re at all familiar with my thinking in this area, to hear that I would immediately answer yes.

Yes, I would consider that hypothetical writer a success.

I might even declare him a spectacular success.

No, his writing life was not wasted.

No, he had not squandered his time on the planet.

And yes, I would say the same if that writer were me.

My own real-life career is not that far off from this hypothetical. I wrote for seventeen years before I got my first dollar (a check for $3500 for an option on a screenplay that never came near getting made.) I wrote for twenty-eight years before my first novel was published.

What, then, constitutes success for a writer? Is it money? Sales? Recognition? Is it “expressing herself?” Is it “getting her ideas out there?”

Or is it something else?

I’m going to take the next few weeks’ posts and do a little self-examination on this subject, which I think is especially critical in this era of the web and Amazon and print-on-demand and instant and easy self-publishing, these days when literally a million new books appear each year. How do we, how do you and I navigate these waters, not just financially or professionally but psychologically, emotionally, spiritually?

[Thanks to our friend David Y.B. Kaufmann for suggesting this topic.]





Read this one first.
It identifies the enemy—what I call Resistance with a capital “R,” i.e. fear, self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, all the forms of self-sabotage—that stop us from doing our work and realizing our dreams.
Start here.
Everything else proceeds from this.



  1. Madeleine D'Este on September 21, 2016 at 2:49 am

    Interesting topic.
    I did a little straw poll on Twitter earlier in the year and asked some favourite writers when they felt like a “real” writer.
    The answers varied. Many still felt the imposter syndrome (despite millions of sales and TV franchises), while others felt like a real writer from the first time they wrote a satisfying piece of prose or when they made their first sale.
    I feel like a successful writer because I write and I’m proud of my work. Often it’s a steaming pile of poo but every day I get a little better and when the words are singing, there’s no feeling like it. There’s nothing I’d rather do.

  2. Scott Whisler on September 21, 2016 at 5:35 am

    This series is going to be AWESOME!

  3. Mary Doyle on September 21, 2016 at 5:35 am

    Thanks for this inspiring post – it is exactly what I needed to read today (and thanks for suggesting this one David)!

  4. Graham Glover on September 21, 2016 at 6:39 am

    I’m a photographer, and I’ve made a little money from it, but certainly not enough to quit my day job. In fact it can never replace my day job, at least financially. In the end, the choices are mine, complicated, but freely made.

    I do fashion photography that is unlikely to ever grace the pages of Vogue. I do city photography, walking the streets and roaming the area to get the best skyline views for an audience of few. I approach complete strangers to get their photographs, and am grateful for their kindness and time, and publish their photos on Facebook. I do photography and video of our high school band for the limited audience of the band director and staff, as well as band members, their friends, and their familes. I’ve spent lots of money on photography gear and untold hours learning my craft and art, creating photos.


    Sometimes it’s for those very small but appreciative audiences. Sometimes it’s for me. Sometimes I just don’t know why.

    I know I have to do it. I know I love my creativity. I love my photography. My photography loves me. I have a most encouraging and supportive Guardian Angel who helps dust me off when I just don’t know why I’m doing this, but I’ll not insult her by telling her I don’t like my photography. Moreso, she’s my Muse and speaks quietly to me, sometimes shining that little bit of light to help me see a good path. I love my photography.

    Maybe I’ll have a large audience someday, but I have an audience now that I touch with my photography. Is it enough? Something says that it’s what I’m supposed to do.

  5. Justin Fike on September 21, 2016 at 6:44 am

    I love it. Can’t wait to read more in this series.

  6. Dorothy Ross on September 21, 2016 at 7:14 am

    Success isn’t about being rich, or famous, or popular, or “best selling”. Many writers who were popular in the Victorian era are totally forgotten now. But the number of copies you sell in your lifetime or after you die is irrelevant. If you are doing the work that you were put on earth to do, you are a success.

  7. Rob Britt on September 21, 2016 at 7:48 am

    I can totally relate to this. My writing runs hot and cold. Either my typing is falling woefully behind my thought process or I’m not writing at all and have a love/hate relationship with my keyboard. I do definitely feel a “what’s the point” despondency upon occasion… I do need to focus on writing for me, rather than writing for others.

  8. Stephen T. Harper on September 21, 2016 at 7:50 am

    Good topic. I agree that this will be an interesting series of posts. If a flower blooms alone in the desert, is it still beautiful?

    Personally, I think that “success” will always be a relative term. For any kind of artist, the goal is to find something, a hidden apple of thought or perception, and create a way to tell others about it. Of course, if they successfully communicate a difficult notion to 10 or to 10,000,000, ultimately, the act of creating is where the success really exists. The creative act enriches the artist, and hopefully anyone he reaches, on a more subtle level than wealth or fame. Even when the world was filled with fewer books from fewer authors, only a handful of the most read works are remembered beyond the author’s lifetime. And even then, it is seldom for long. Writing is a living thing. Storytelling is an ongoing process. In the time before printed words, it was the stories we remembered, not the teller. Even Homer, I think, was transcribing stories already known, right?

  9. Dave Newton on September 21, 2016 at 7:58 am

    And thank you for being insightful and taking up this crucial topic.

  10. Jon Carl Lewis on September 21, 2016 at 8:00 am

    My partner and I just returned from Amsterdam where we visited the Van Gogh museum. It was filled with wonderful art, none of which sold in Van Gogh’s lifetime. It made me realize that my job as an artist is not to sel, necessarily, but create work of great value which might also sell at some point (perhaps after I am dead). The focus is on generating great art, not necessarily generating great sales (although great sales are also good). It makes me wonder… how do we preserve our legacies/get our writing out there for people to enjoy whether we are a commercial success or not? In other words, how do we work like Van Gogh and have our work known well enough that others will champion it even after the time when we can work and advocate for ourselves no more?

  11. susanna plotnick on September 21, 2016 at 8:02 am

    Steve, this is the question I have always wanted to ask you, what if you had never been published. I am looking forward to this series!

  12. Gerald D. Swick on September 21, 2016 at 8:15 am

    Steven, I’m really looking forward to this series. It’s a question I’ve often struggled with and am struggling with now. I’ve had some published success — a newspaper column for 17 years, a coffee-table book, magazine and web articles, some short fiction, etc. – but I am among those writers who feel like an imposter at times, and I still look at what I’m writing while it is in progress and wonder if it is tripe. So thank you for addressing this issue. I think your insights will be very valuable.

  13. Scrivener on September 21, 2016 at 8:42 am

    If you are a writer you have no choice in the matter – success and failure are irrelevant.
    The need to write is intrinsic while success and failure are extrinsic and measured by many criteria, one of which is money.
    I would write if I had to pay someone to do it.
    Can I live off my writing? Well, yes, but that is not my reason for writing. I can also live off cleaning out the cigarette butts from the ash trays in a seedy bar.
    Come to think of it, the well of experience I mostly dip into for my characters is one at least half filled with rotten experiences just like that.
    Maybe I should have taken my son’s advice to get a haircut and a proper job – Mmm! That sounds like a plot – think I’ll write about that.

  14. Mary Scriver on September 21, 2016 at 8:54 am

    I strongly believe in the satisfaction of writing for its own sake.

    I have discovered that publishers will take what I write and twist it, using it for their own ends, usually money. They have gotten friend-writers into deep trouble this way. Once a publisher buys your work, it’s not yours anymore and they will tell you so.

    Then I discovered blogging which I’ve been doing for a decade. Blogging IS publishing. I write a 1,000 word piece daily, any form, genre, subject, or format. (Techies believe that formatting is the same as writing and that writing will not be read without their version of a proper format.) I don’t get trapped by the “Anne of Green Gables” syndrome in which one must write a variation on what one wrote last time. I’m old enough to be supported by SSI.

    Some metric measurers show 1,000 hits a day — others show more like 400, but they are from everywhere on the planet. No bound book can equal that except maybe the Bible.

    The oldest posts are sometimes read more than this week’s. I illustrate with my own pics or from archives. Sometimes I speak the writing on an MP3. (Tumblr). I wrote with another person for almost ten years and the conversation was monitored and sometimes joined by others. Plenty of room. The conversation included videos.

    In 1999 I set out to write a biography of my late husband, Bob Scriver, a Western sculptor — a research document, really. This subject matter is dominated by a few people who wanted to convert it into a sales brochure. It was finally published in Canada by people who weren’t part of the scene. Every book I’ve published, including this one (“Bronze Inside and Out”) has been pirated on the Internet as a PDF.

    Writing is not a problem — just keep doing it! Publishing is a major problem and will be for a long time yet. The answer is blogging. Until the platform owners start closing them down, which is beginning. I’m improving my CD and paper archive.

    In the meantime, NO ONE has to go unpublished. What the publisher does (aside from making a sales OBJECT) is publicity. You can hire someone to do that, or do it yourself. But you might have to stop writing to do it, and I won’t.

    Mary Scriver aka Prairie Mary

  15. Cali Bird on September 21, 2016 at 8:59 am

    I feel like a writer because I write. However, occasionally I catch myself referring to others who are published with a mainstream publisher as “proper writers”. And then I remind myself not to think this

  16. Naomi Schlinke on September 21, 2016 at 9:13 am

    My bottom line definition of success is “not giving up”. Never give up your practice.

  17. Rory Graham on September 21, 2016 at 9:33 am

    I am a published co-writer with Routledge and my work was translated into four languages.

    That was a long time ago in the 1990s.

    Since then I’ve written one book which I would pay anyone not to publish.

    And I’ve finished a new book this year on Madagascar which I intend to self-publish. I would like people to read it as I want people to know about Madagascar.

  18. Dick Yaeger on September 21, 2016 at 10:04 am

    Super idea, Steve.
    I’ve often asked people in my writing club what their measure of success is. Almost without exception, the answer is, “How many books/pieces are sold/published.” When I dig deeper, however, I believe what they really lust for is someone (other than family and friends) to say they like their work, and counting published items is the logical metric. The scourge of social media these days allows us to be judged by how many “hits” or “likes” are accumulated. How many artists do we know who tried to turn their wonderfully creative hobby into a business only to fail for reasons unrelated to their work, and subsequently lose interest in their passion?

  19. Aaron C on September 21, 2016 at 10:19 am

    I worked for ten years at an industry music magazine focused on the college radio market. As a result, I have grown to love a lot of bands and artists over the years that never “made it” in the traditional sense. Some had limited success in the indie world, but so many others only released an album or two and then disappeared. Some only released one cassette or CD that found its way into my pile of things to review and that I cherished. From time to time I look up the folks who were in these bands to see if they’re still in music, and in a majority of cases, they’ve gone on to new careers. Some went on to other bands, some do session work, some moved to engineering and production. Others went on to be moms, some teachers, and one went on to become an entertainment lawyer. Even though they might be totally happy and doing what they love, I always feel a bit of sorrow for the ones who are no longer creating the amazing music that touched me so deeply. It’s a shame that music in particular these days seems to be regarded as something that should be available for free, or almost free. But that’s another discussion. I’d love to tell these artists how much what they did meant to me, because I think maybe they don’t hear it so often so many years later, especially if they have left music altogether. A few of them I have actually written to, and have received some nice emails in response. I’m grateful they put their work out there, even if it didn’t amount to fame and fortune. It touched me, and I think that’s probably what they were trying to do in the first place – reach out and be heard and felt.

  20. C. Longoria Gonzalez on September 21, 2016 at 10:38 am

    I love this, Madeleine: “… and when the words are singing, there’s no feeling like it. There’s nothing I’d rather do.”

    And great article, Mr. Pressfield. I look forward to the series.

  21. David Kaufmann on September 21, 2016 at 11:30 am


    “Suppose he could never find a publisher.

    “Suppose he self-published all…his novels.

    “Suppose his books had found a readership of several hundred, maybe a thousand or two. But never more.”

    This, as you note, is becoming increasingly the case, at least the first tow sentences, and for most writers the third – although with proper marketing (distribution no long being a problem), that is, finding one’s nice, that number can reasonable increase up to ten-fold. The long tail need not always be attenuated.

    “My own real-life career is not that far off from this hypothetical.”

    So true of many great authors, many popular and “successful” authors. Stephen King, though he had early sales, he put in his years before hitting it big. J.K. Rowling toiled for 7 years before H.P. was published, and it took a while for the tsunami to get going. Gone With the Wind – rejected 30+ times. Etc. Etc.

    And then we have the case of writers writing for long periods of time and only being discovered and gaining recognition only late in life, or after – Keats, Melville, Dickinson, etc. Emily Dickinson, by the way, wrote thousands of poems, is considered a major poet, and published almost nothing in her lifetime.

    So you’re right about the measuring stick. But still, we have to consider Aristotle’s triangle, even in this: ethos – the person – we are writing for us, are compelled to write; logos – the text – what we produce (and it doesn’t have to be prose or screenplays); pathos – the audience – how we reach, effect and communicate to others. For doesn’t that give meaning, or at least value, to the other two?

    But then, isn’t an audience of one still an audience?

    Very much looking forward to the rest of this series, as you know and obviously.
    And thanks for the mention.

  22. Erika Viktor on September 21, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    My favorite author in childhood, Mildred Ames, is known by almost no one.

    This will be a cool series because there’s not one of us who doesn’t want to make it big. Which gives me a gross feeling. Probably because deep down inside our most successfully written story is the false tale of how we will finally love ourselves and claim our right to exist once the world validates us by writing Amazon reviews and giving us a few nickels.

    My husband and I call this “The need for Chimpanzees to bang coconuts together in our honor.”

  23. A N Stuart on September 21, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    Great subject, Steven, which has struck a chord, as we all have friends and family who look at us as if we are weird, for doing what we do. How we can while away the hours oblivious, at times, to the world around us.This is why I have Agnes Martin’s writing’s around me, some on the wall. To remind me.

    I am going to work in order to see myself
    While working and in the work, I must be alert to see myself.
    When I see myself in the work, I will know that, that is the work I am supposed to do.
    I will not have time for other peoples problems.
    I will have to be by myself almost all the time,
    and it will be a quiet life.
    A contentment with oneself, that is success!
    Do not stop short of real contentment…..
    you may as well never have been born…..
    if you remain discontent.
    Agnes Martin.

  24. Robert Stock on September 21, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    I know this may be too “airy-fairy” for some of you but I believe that our souls are eternal and that the writing (or any artistic endeavor) that we engage in during this lifetime carries over to future lives and enriches our writing skills and courage to write in later incarnations. The late psychiatrist Dr. David Viscott once said that the human race is a race of artists and that the story of creation in the Biblical book of Genesis is a metaphor for our own creativity. Yes, money and publishing matter in this lifetime, but whatever we write – even if it is never seen outside the writer’s studio – has much value for our souls and the consciousness of our community of souls to which we are always and forever attached.

  25. Joe on September 21, 2016 at 2:23 pm

    Pulling a log up to the fire…

  26. Nigel on September 21, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    looking forward to more……and learning a little along the way….

  27. David Kaufmann on September 21, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    Another thought: The distinction between amateur and professional was not always such an impermeable membrane. Many so-called amateurs produced excellent work (or in competitive areas, competed at high levels). The difference was whether one made a living at it. Yet some of the greatest writers had day jobs that paid the bills, as you note.

    Complete devotion to an endeavor was called a hobby or an avocation. And many people have invested more of themselves-of their energy, emotion and spirit-into their hobbies or avocations than to their jobs and careers-where they (also) achieved great success.

    Just another point in support.

  28. Scrivener on September 21, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    Make a living to write, don’t write to make a living.

  29. Bruce on September 21, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    Thank you Steven for this topic. I look forward to, and trust, your thoughts on it.

    All I know: when I’m not writing, I feel irritable and cr@ppy. As ‘writers’ our thoughts are like fleas – we never feel quite satisfied unless we scratch that itch.

  30. Sean Crawford on September 21, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    Nice comment.
    I immediately think of Emily Dickinson’s poem, (I paraphrase) “If I can ease one broken heart, or help one fainting robin into his nest again, I shall not live in vain.

  31. Adam Abramowitz on September 21, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    Great stuff dude. A real pleasure to read this comment.

  32. Brian Nelson on September 21, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    Your post hit me right in the nose. I winced. Well said.

  33. marie on September 22, 2016 at 6:03 am

    I do documentaries/feature stories for a living and feel exactly like that when not creating….

  34. marie on September 22, 2016 at 6:06 am

    Steven I read, I liked, I got motivated.. thanks thanks thanks

  35. Josef Magsig on September 23, 2016 at 1:45 am

    Having the ability to sit and pull from the depths of space between thoughts is not only a creative success to those that become engaged, but to those who have yet to. Inspiration lives on forever, touching one or two or hundreds upon thousands. If only we could all live alongside our greatest successes. With intentions in line, a measure of our success is of no matter to us at all.

  36. Josef Magsig on September 23, 2016 at 1:47 am


  37. Josef Magsig on September 23, 2016 at 1:48 am

    That was supposed to be an emoji thumbs up!

  38. Jim McAnlis on September 23, 2016 at 2:19 am

    I have enjoyed so much reading Steven’s article and, even more, the comments. But I do wonder if ‘being published’ is the Holy Grail. I do endorse Mary Scriver’s comment – by the time the editors mess with the manuscript, is it yours any more? Maybe it just makes more money. There is such a host of other ways to have our work seen and appreciated. With the advent of Social Media and self publishing through Kindle, we can now reach a wide audience. No. We won’t make a lot of money but, is that why we are really in it?

  39. Aaron C on September 23, 2016 at 7:18 am


  40. Aaron C on September 23, 2016 at 7:22 am

    Elizabeth Gilbert was on a podcast of one of her friends, and had this to say – it’s a loose transcription –

    The contract I made with writing – One of the promises I made to the work is that I will never ask you to support me financially. I will support both of us. I will do whatever I have to do to pay the rent, and you and I will have a love affair on the side of this not contingent on monetization. I have seen people murder their creativity by insisting that they are not truly creative unless their creativity pays the bills. Those people go into depression, rage, bitterness, etc.

  41. Christine Mason Miller on September 23, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    I am looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on this, as I am pondering the same questions for a memoir I just completed. I have self-published and I have been published by other publishers, and I don’t yet have a clear idea of which route I want to go with the book I just completed. Thank you for writing about this topic!

  42. Ladey Adey on September 23, 2016 at 10:07 pm

    The satisfaction of holding that book in your hand is awesome, but what if the writing didn’t even get that far …. wow… thought provoking. Writing at the time of it, is for me, once published it’s for others. I write cos I’m being pushed by something internal to go beyond myself. Looking forward to this series. Thanks Steve.

  43. Stephen Carter on September 24, 2016 at 4:54 am

    What if a scourge had swept humanity from Earth, except for ‘you’, but the scourge passed and you had food to live out the next few decades. Would you continue writing. Lets face it, a writer writes b/c he craves connection with an audience of readers whose lives benefit from his stories. If there’s little or no probability of an audience, then writing morphs into ‘journalling’. I set my end-outcome to the emotions of connection, which may occur via my novels, or by some other means. I love story, but I don’t make it my end-all. I hope the Universe allows me success as a writer. If not, then I’ll assume it has bigger plans for me. 🙂

  44. Chris Z on September 27, 2016 at 10:56 am

    This is a very intriguing post. The goal in life is to leave your mark, but what if no one sees that mark? Because success is often in the eye of the beholder, it’s your audience’s decision. It will be impossible to be a success to your whole audience, so the best way to “succeed,” is to be successful to yourself.

  45. Max on September 27, 2016 at 11:53 am

    It’s a great topic. Thank you for addressing it. I’d love to answer a resounding YES to all your questions, as you did. Theoretically, that’s what I believe and support in others, but for myself, I admit it would still be very hard to think of myself as a big success if all my books were self-published and my readership was in the hundreds and I was relying on financial support from someone else. And yet, look at Emily Dickinson! Virtually no readership, no publication in her lifetime, total reliance on support from her father. . . Why is this so hard to apply to the self?

  46. Kristy on September 28, 2016 at 6:20 am

    Stars are aligning! I just finished the first draft of a screenplay – my first solo effort. I chatted with a friend and she asked “What would constitute you being a success or a failure as a writer?” Perfect timing! Thank you for starting the much needed conversation!

  47. Mia Sherwood Landau on October 1, 2016 at 6:08 am

    I keep coming back to this post, over and over, and also Part 2, partially for the comments. Your candor and vulnerability is drawing the same from your community, Steven, and that is high talent. OK, there’s also skill involved, but most of it is intuitive talent. We long to feel safe and welcome enough to share, because we all have so much to say to each other, and to you. If you ever publish these posts as a book someday I hope you include some of the comments because they are priceless.

  48. Bruce on October 6, 2016 at 3:27 am

    In our current world, a thief will take your 60″ TV and leave your prized books on the shelf.
    Maybe, one day, in a New Word Order, wordsmiths will become as unavoidably necessary as accountants and lawyers. Only more interesting and no ties.

    Until then, Just keep writing, just keep writing… 🙂

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