This week I heard from a lot of people who are disenchanted with the books they’re writing or have written. Most of the writers I know work in nonfiction, which you sell on the basis of a proposal, and once you have a contract, you write the book. It’s a tough slog, but you sort of expect that; 80,000 words don’t write themselves.
So here’s what you tell yourself: I will be so happy when this is done. I can hardly wait to see this book in print. I am so excited to have finally achieved such an important goal.
And then the box of books arrives, and far from ripping it open with glee, tears of joy streaming down your face, you think, “Eh” and stick it in the corner.
Now, for writers who are trying to get published (at least, those trying to get published the old-fashioned way), this seems like the kind of problem they’d like to have. It’s sort of like people saying, “Oh, the doctor says I need to gain weight!” or “I have too much money; please help me figure out how to give it away!”
But the truth is, arriving—reaching a goal, accomplishing something you really wanted to accomplish—is never what you think it’s going to be. There are still bills to pay, and there’s still rejection. (On Monday, I found out Avalon wanted to publish my third novel with them; on Tuesday, I found out a publisher who’d been seriously considering my fantasy novel had decided to pass.)
Here’s the thing: You’re supposed to feel all superfantastic when the box of books comes, but the reality is that everyone is bitching that they don’t want to have to buy the book, and your sister wants to know why you made a snide remark about her on page 271, and your writer friends are pissed because you’ve got what they wanted, but they take comfort in the fact that you obviously achieved it by sleeping with the editor because your book sucks so badly.
Plus, your work is only just beginning. You’ve written the book, now you have to promote it. Good luck with that. If you don’t sell a metric ton, your publisher will dump you, and others won’t touch you, and next year you’ll be self-publishing and trying to tell yourself it’s all for the best.
I don’t mean to sound discouraging, just realistic. These are the reasons why the box of books isn’t going to fill you with glee. But I’m not going to tell you that the solution is to realize only the process matters, not the result, because the result matters, too. And I’m not going to say that arriving is an illusion, and you’re an idiot for wanting to get there. And I’m certainly not going to say that fulfilling a goal isn’t worth the effort.
What I am going to say is that it’s the small things, not the big ones, that will give you joy.
I remember when I earned my Ph.D, I had this curious feeling of let-down in the weeks leading up to graduation. I had worked so hard for this achievement, and I should have felt excited about walking down the Hill and getting my diploma, but I was just “eh.” I had a job, so it wasn’t panic at finding myself without prospects. And it wasn’t that I was going to miss being on campus: for the year or two I worked on my dissertation, I was rarely on campus, and I had created a life outside of the university. So I should have been thrilled, and I wasn’t. I was going through the motions.
The week before graduation, I went to pick up my gown. You had to go under the stadium to a guy at a table and hand over a sales confirmation. The place was deserted when I got there, except for the guy behind the table, and I was in a hurry. He took my paper and he said to me, “Ph.D?”
He was an older man, and he moved slowly as he leafed through the piles of gowns. He came back with the package bearing my name and he slid it across the table.
“Lot of work went into that,” he said.
And that was when I started to cry. That was when I knew I had graduated, and the ceremony with the diploma was just for other people.
“A lot of work,” I said, and took the package.
When my agent sold Dojo Wisdom to a major publisher, it wasn’t the contract, or the box of books, or the ceremony when it won an outstanding book award, or even the checks in my mailbox. It was getting out of a cab on Houston Street and looking up at the building where I was about to go have lunch with my editor. I’m in Manhattan, going to lunch with my editor, I remember thinking. If that didn’t sum up everything about what I wanted my life to be, I don’t know what would.
When “For Jessica” was read by eight gazillion people, and commented on by approximately half of them, it was certainly gratifying, but mostly it was surreal: I had expected three friends and my dentist to read it. When the KU alumni magazine asked to publish it, and I agreed, it wasn’t the photo shoot or the check that made me happy (though I liked the check just fine).
It was the old guy at the coffee shop. He and his wife come in every Tuesday and have for years, and we have always said hello, and that’s about it.
This time, he said, “I saw your story in the alumni magazine. It’s not the kind of thing they usually run.” He stopped, and seemed to be trying to think of what he wanted to convey about it. “I’m glad they did,” he said finally.
And then, “You know, I put it in the recycle bin. Then I took it out and read it again.”
And that, my friends, was when I knew I had done good work.
Being a writer is a hard, confusing, thankless kind of life, except for the times when it isn’t. It’s just that those times are never when you expect they’re going to be.