Writers tend to aim really high. We want to sell a screenplay and see it on the big screen. We want to write a novel and watch it rise on the NY Times bestseller list. We want Terry Gross to grill us on our upbringing before we dive into discussion of our work.
For the most part, it’s probably good to aim high. Especially if it inspires dedicated hard work and focus.
But if your ultimate goal is a tough one to reach, it’ll be awhile until you arrive at it. Not to mention that long uphill hike towards success can be a daunting one. Some days you may feel that your dreams are completely impossible. It’s scary; and the only way to persevere is to figure out how to cope with these feelings.
First up, you have to accept that achieving a goal doesn’t necessarily equal happiness. You will still be the same person you are now, just with a prettier resume. Okay, and more money. But studies show that after a certain point income gains don’t equal happiness gains. Attributing happiness with mega-success is dangerous. It allows us to ignore our current emotional state by convincing ourselves that we’ll be happy “later”. But what if you reach your goal and you still aren’t happy? Success is not the end all be all. Oftentimes it brings about new problems. Ones that you wouldn’t have been able to fathom before. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, discusses life after success in her Ted Talk.
Every way you look at it, Gilbert “made it”. She wrote a huge bestselling book that became a Julia Roberts movie. It made Gilbert famous; she’s one of a handful of authors that actually gets recognized in public. Her second book was eagerly anticipated by many, and that terrified her. She felt paralyzed by the fact that it would be impossible to please everyone with book #2. She explains, “…all of those people who had adored Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be Eat, Pray, Love and all of those people who had hated Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it would provide evidence that I still lived.”
She found herself feeling oddly similar to who she was long before success hit. The person who received an endless line of rejection letters in her mailbox. The person who felt like a failure. Gilbert hypothesizes that her success felt reminiscent of her time as a “failure” because both states are miles outside of any sort of comfort zone. There is great insecurity that comes along with success and failure. It can totally squash any desire to do creative work. But Gilbert found her way back home. “Home” in Gilbert’s case, was writing. She said, “I realized that all I had to do was exactly the same thing that I used to have to do all the time when I was an equally disoriented failure. I had to get my ass back to work…” Her second book bombed. And it was fine. Because she returned to writing, released another one, and it did great. And that’s fine, too.
The happiness that we all seek doesn’t come from the awards and the glamour and the money. It has to come from the process and the journey. Everything else is just a nice plus.
“For just a moment, pause where you are, and soak in the current state of the room around you, and your own state. Just notice what this is like.
Now see how this moment is enough. Just as it is. Without any need for improvement. It is a wonder, and there’s no need for more.
Now see how you are enough. Just as you are. Without any need for improvement. You are also a wonder, exactly enough.
You can go about your day, pausing every now and then to do a check: is this moment enough? Are you enough? And try answering, “Yes, absolutely and wonderfully.”
What if the best day of your life passes right through you and you don’t notice it because you were busy imagining a future that doesn’t and may not ever exist?
Value the time you have with your friends and family. Notice the lady who makes your coffee every morning and always has something funny to say. Appreciate the things that are working out right now.
Enjoy this time of writing on spec, not under deadline, without notes you disagree with and the risk of being fired. You might even miss this time one day.
And finally, celebrate the small writing victories.
I recently saw my ten minute play performed in Colorado. It’s easy to lessen the situation and belittle it: it was community theater, the theater wasn’t huge, blah blah blah… But that’s not what I focus on. I focus on the fact that for the first time in my life I was paid to write. My play was one of five selected out of hundreds. People laughed at words that I wrote. It was the first time I felt respected as a writer.
Yes, I’m aiming high too. My goals go beyond community theatre, but this was a huge victory for me. So I stopped and took it all in and it made me happy. I think it’s little victories like this that keep us going towards the big goals.
Celebrate yours. Did you get your friends together for a reading of your work? Did your writers group like your stuff? Did a mentor of yours give you good feedback? In the middle of your latest rejection letter, was there a small personalized encouragement this time? An editor hoping you’ll keep trying?
For a few moments, let that be enough. It feels good.