BASSIST: No one knows this except you and me and Rumpus senior literary editor Julie Greicius, but I originally signed my letter “Elizabeth Gilbert.” It was a joke, and you said you loved the signature for a couple of reasons:
One is, of course, she’s this incredibly successful, rich, on-the-bestseller-list-for-YEARS-NOW woman writer whom so many of us would like to loathe for all the aforementioned reasons. Two is, of course, she’s this incredibly human, real, serious, worthy-of-our-sisterhood writer who, we’d all do well to remember, worked her tail off, and just because lightning struck with her fourth book, it doesn’t mean we should loathe her. In fact, actually, she, too, has to deal with all sorts of bullshit when it comes to her work as a woman, her insight, her ‘story,’ which is read as entirely specific (which is to say ‘feminine’) rather than universal (which is to say ‘male’). But don’t get me started. Well, actually, you did get me started.
Now, you are in Elizabeth Gilbert’s position: an incredibly successful, rich, best-selling woman writer whom so many of us would like to loathe for the aforementioned reasons. And, of course, you are an incredibly human, real, serious, worthy-of-our-sisterhood writer who, we’d all do well to remember, worked her tail off. What would you say if I said I feel jealous of you?
STRAYED: I would say you shouldn’t waste your energy on jealousy. Ever, ever! But especially on people like me. I’ve been writing a lot longer than you have. When I was in my twenties, it never occurred to me to be jealous of writers who were in their forties, writers like Mary Gaitskill and Anne Lamott and Mary Karr, who are all about fifteen years older than I am—the same age difference as between us. They weren’t my competition because I wasn’t in their league. With all Sugary affection, Elissa, you haven’t yet earned the right to be jealous of me.
BASSIST: You once wrote to me, “Success is a pile of shit somebody stacked up real high. It means nothing.” Now that your relationship to “conventional success” has changed, has your view of success stayed the same?
STRAYED: My definition of success has been developed over many years full of both successes and failures. My trajectory has not been failure, failure, failure, then success. The successes have been there all along, and all along, there’s also been a steady stream of rejections and disappointments. I imagine this will always be the case. It’s the writer’s life. It’s true that Wild’s reception, in particular, has been rather breathtaking, but it hasn’t made me measure success differently. I keep faith with the work. Wild would be the book that it is regardless of how many people read it. I’m very sure about that. When I say, “Success is a pile of shit somebody stacked up real high,” I mean it’s folly to measure your success in money or fame. Success in the arts can be measured only by your ability to say yes to this question: “Did I do the work I needed to do, and did I do it like a motherfucker?”
BASSIST: When I moved to New York, I named the wireless network in my new apartment “Famous.” How fucked up is this?
STRAYED: It’s incredibly fucked up. Have you talked to your therapist about this?
BASSIST: He’s the one who recommended Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.
STRAYED: It seems to me it would help if you refocused what it is you’re trying to be. Do you want to be famous, or do you want to be a great writer? Sometimes those two things are one and the same, but often they aren’t.
BASSIST: I christened the wireless network “Famous” before the letter was published, when I thought fame was the intersection of writing and money.
What’s miraculous to me about the process of writing to you, and having you write back, is how it’s altered my core architecture as a person. I had cared deeply about being famous, so much so that it was getting in the way of my writing, and once you called me out on it, I was able to see it was true. As Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights said to the Dillon Panthers: “Success is a byproduct.”
If I were tech-savvy enough to change my network name, I would change it to “Humility/Surrender.”
STRAYED: I think most writers feel the same way at the beginning—that fame is the definition of success. In my early twenties, I used to go to readings by famous authors and fantasize about being that person on the stage someday. The longing for success is a healthy force when it drives you forward in the hard times, and because of that, I think it’s kind of sweet you gave your wireless network the name “Famous,” but part of maturing as a writer is understanding how to measure success. It’s not fame and money for many writers. I mean, walk around the AWP conference, and you’ll encounter hundreds of successful, accomplished writers who are not famous or rich—or, at least, not rich from their writing. The other thing I’d like to note is that we’re talking about a very particular kind of fame when we talk about famous writers. If you asked people what they think of Alice Munro, most would reply, “Alice who?”
BASSIST: To which I’d respond, “Alice Motherfucking Munro, that’s who.”