Over the weekend, humorist and TV writer Dana Schwartz tweeted this bit of wisdom:
“The terrible thing about [publishing a book/getting your dream job/starting a new relationship] is you wake up the next morning and you're still you. If you're not happy where you're at, no external accomplishment is going to change that.”
To which all I could really add was, “More precisely, none of these things is going to change your life overnight.” Because that sort of big event can have a long-reaching impact, under the right circumstances—you just can’t rely on any of them to instantly solve your problems.
The good news, though, is that if you approach your writing practice with the right mindset, publishing a book should be an endcap on a process that’s already substantially improved your inner life. I’m thinking of a line from W. Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, where he defines winning as “overcoming obstacles to reach a goal,” but then observes, “The value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached… The process can be more rewarding than the victory itself.”
When you challenge yourself to write a book, and then you apply yourself to that task, day after day, until it’s done, the finished manuscript isn’t the only product of the writing practice. You’ve also developed a deeper understanding of the story you wanted to tell—and, ideally, you understand yourself better, because you’re better able to see why this story mattered to you, why it was so important for you to wrestle with it and why it may now be important for you to share it with others. And this isn’t a closed loop, with no impact on the rest of your life. This greater understanding of yourself and your passions will likely, even if it’s just indirectly, influence decisions you make outside of your writing practice.
I almost wrote “inevitably” instead of “likely” just above, but then I remembered just how often the weight of the world keeps us from taking action on those kinds of insights. Journalist (and soon to be debut novelist) Kelsey McKinney knows what that feels like. For her newsletter on women and literature, she recently wrote about her own depression. This passage is about reading, but I think it’s also applicable to writing:
“…it is really hard to read books when you are dealing with other things be they depressions or sadness or money anxiety or just trying to do all of these endless chores that adults have to do to be alive. It’s hard to consume art when you’re tired. Art asks a lot of us. It asks us to think about the world in a broader way. It asks us to question what we know. It asks us to think about the decisions we’ve made and will make. This is sometimes too much.”
We have plenty of reasons for not writing. We tell ourselves we can’t shirk other responsibilities, we continue to worry about what other people might think, we allow ourselves to be distracted by ephemera. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be distracted by quite substantial things, too, and, when that happens, we might tell ourselves that, no matter how much we might dream about it, we couldn’t possibly create anything as substantial as that, so why bother giving it a real try?
Still, best case scenario: Despite all those obstacles, you write a book, you become the sort of person who can write a book, and you learn a fair amount about telling a story, about the world, and about yourself in the process. Whatever happens after that, that knowledge cannot be taken from you. You can, I suppose, not follow through on the implications of everything you’ve learned, but the accomplishment still stands.
I’m not denying that getting a book published is a significant accomplishment, of course. Nor am I denying that, if you’re writing with an eye towards sharing your story with the world, publication is a meaningful goal. I’m just saying that publication, and commercial success if you should be so lucky, are not the things that will ultimately validate you or your writing practice—although, again, there’s no denying that those things can, under the right circumstances, make it easier to pursue that practice.
But you don’t need to depend on the vagaries of the market to commit yourself to your writing practice. You just need to make time in your life to write, and to make the best possible use of what comes out of that time.
You’ll still wake up every morning and still be you. But you’ll also have the power to follow through on your discoveries and, as Thomas Merton wrote in a slightly different context, “be what you have become.”
Which isn’t necessarily fully equivalent to being “happy where you’re at,” to use Schwartz’s phrase. I suspect the two states are, however, awfully close.