Merit vs Success

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success = papers not blowing away

My friend Natalie Wilson recently did a remarkable job of setting an enormous goal and meeting it almost to the date. At the beginning of the year she challenged herself to write an entire play (her first) in nine months. Using the extended metaphor of birth (which time and again works uncannily well) she started a blog ‘Birth of a Play(wright)‘ to track her gestation. It’s a testament to her tenacity and determination that she not only finished the play in time, but secured enough funding (and interest) to put up a reading with top notch broadway talent early in November.

And now she’s facing the question that haunts so many early career writers after a big premiere. “What next?” It’s a difficult question, and she dedicated an entire post to this post-partum depression (see what I mean?). This is a wonderfully candid, heartfelt, and accurate portrayal of the challenges faced by an emerging artist. Go read it.

Writing looks different from the outside. You only see the results, the marketing pushes, the press features, the awards and accolades. You only see the successes, because if you’ve heard of it, the piece has made it through a myriad of barriers, met the approval of dozens of gatekeepers, overcome the cold hard indifference of the world at large and found its way into your consciousness. There are thousands of pieces which haven’t gotten this far and are therefore, by definition, failures. For what’s the point of creating a work that no one sees? As Natalie writes:

…the only way to know in the arts that something you have done has merit is if other people give it a stamp of approval.  Without the mark of commercial success on something, what you have created (or what talent you may possess) is all so much drivel. At least that is how I feel. I can say my play is good until I’m blue in the face, but without an external stamp of approval no one else has any reason to believe that.

But success and merit are different things. Merit is an inherent quality of the work in question. It’s fixed in time. Once the piece is set down it has merits to be discovered, explored, and evaluated. Merit is a function of the piece, the viewer, and nothing else (assuming you can factor away things like production values, performances, interpretations, i.e. the work is formless). Success, as usually defined, is not a quality of the work at all, but an evaluation of how the work interacts with the world. One would like to believe that success is a function of merit, but there are obviously many other variables in that particular equation. And if success is rare, instant success is almost nonexistent. Instant and enduring success? Good luck with that.

I think the trick for the emerging creative is to keep a rock solid wall between the concepts of merit and success. You need to be able to look at your output and see its merit without the coloration of success (or lack thereof). It’s the internal voice that defines your creative output, not the external. That’s the voice that will make decisions, this note or that note? Transition to a new section or keep repeating this idea? Who speaks next? What do they say?

That’s the voice that needs to look at your work and say, “Yeah. This is good. I need to make more of this.”

2 Responses to Merit vs Success

  1. mary beth woodruff says:

    a very important point is made here. it is my humble opinion that the arts is riddled with far too many success whores and it can tend to drive quality into the ground. imagine beethoven’s output if he cared what people thought? we would have no late quartets, as they weren’t even commissioned. we probably wouldn’t have a ninth symphony. then imagine a musical world without these a part of the landscape. scary. there are so many examples of this being the case in centuries past. i wonder if this body of work really exists in the 20th/21st century – works that have received no earmarks of ‘success’ but that will so clearly be recognized as such, via the fortitude of merit alone, at a future date.

  2. Thanks for this, Brian. Both for the buzz but more importantly for your thoughts. I’ve written another post in response (because I love the term “meta” and a blog post about a blog post about a blog post is just so very meta).

    http://birthofaplaywright.blogspot.com/2010/11/dia-blog-on-success-vs-merit.html

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