The Fruits of our Labors
[The following is a slightly-tweaked-and-updated version of one of Writing Wednesdays’ most popular posts.]
I have a recurring dream. In the dream I’m invited to climb into the back seat of a limo that’s about to drive off to someplace fabulous. The dream always ends badly. It’s trying to tell me something.
Publication day—or any date when we launch a project that we’ve worked on long and hard—is like getting into the back seat of that dream limo. Launch day gets our hopes up. We’re human. We’re prey to the folly of anticipating rave reviews or long lines outside the theater; we’re itching to check the grosses or the day’s sales on Amazon. I’ve been up and down with these expectations through ten books and a bunch of movies and I can tell you one thing:
Of the two possible outcomes—a flop or a hit—both are delusions.
Here’s my rule for publication day:
When Book C hits the stores, I want to have finished Book D and be deeply immersed in Book E.
Am I kidding myself? Yeah. It’s like trying to ignore the puff adder that’s slithering up your trouser leg. But the exercise is healthy. It’s good karma.
Krishna instructed Arjuna: “We have a right to our labor, but not to the fruits of our labor.” What did he mean by that? He meant that the process is its own reward. The only real reward.
Enjoy the success if you’re lucky enough to get it. You’ve earned it. But don’t take it personally and don’t let it go to your head. Hemingway said if you believe the reviews when they tell you you’re good, then you have to believe them when they tell you you’re bad. So don’t even read ’em.
For me, by the time a book is done—that is, once it’s been through thirteen or fourteen drafts, copy-edited, fact-checked, printed and published—I have a pretty good idea of how good or bad it is. I don’t need a critic to tell me (unless she’s really smart and I can learn something from her insights). Otherwise only two questions matter, and no one can answer them but me:
1. Did I stay true to my vision?
2. Did I give this job everything I’ve got?
Hockey players and prize fighters know what I’m talking about. Did we win? That’s not the question. Did we leave everything on the ice or in the ring? That’s what counts.
If we did that, we can sleep tonight.
I read a story about Cole Porter when he was writing songs for the movies. Sometimes the producers would shoot him down. He’d play them his newest tune and they’d reject it. They’d kick him out of the office. I loved his reaction:
“I got a million of ’em.”
Cole Porter was a pro. He knew he didn’t have just one song, or ten songs, or a hundred and ten songs. He had a lifetime supply.
In other words, music wasn’t Cole Porter’s job, it was his career. It was his calling. It was his love. He was in it for the long haul, come rain or come shine (wait, that was Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer). He was in it for the process, not the product.
There’s a story about Jed Harris, the great Broadway producer of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. A young journalist, in awe of the producer’s many successes, asked him, “Mr. Harris, how do you explain the flops?” Jed Harris laughed. “That’s the wrong question, young man. The question is how do you explain the hits?”
Where is the joy in writing, dancing, film-making, or any art or entrepreneurial venture? It’s not in the praise; it’s not in a paycheck. (Though there’s nothing wrong with praise or paychecks.) It’s in the work itself. The sweat of it and the grind of it and the happy moments when it gets rolling all by itself. Krishna said that’s all we have a right to, and he hit the nail on the head. The joy is private and silent.
So when our next book/play/movie/iPhone app comes out, we want to be working on the next book/play/movie/iPhone app—or, better yet, the next after the next. We want to be a moving target for that sneaky, ego-driven, Resistance-spawned part of ourselves that pins its “hopes” on a ride in a glossy limo. That Lincoln or Cadillac is taking us nowhere. The action is here on the sidewalk, where we are right now.
As you said in another brilliant post: Sit without hope, sit without fear. I try to do that.
send this to every pol in DC.
This post is very timely. This is just what I needed today. Thank you.
A tiny quibble. When you say “Enjoy the success if you’re lucky enough to get it”, I’m sure by success you mean some level of acclaim or financial reward. But if I get the gist of the article, when, as writers, we “leave it all on the page”,when we keep on writing the words our hearts send to our brains, seems to me we’ve already succeeded. Even when that hundredth query letter rejection arrives.
Steven, how do you feel about the popularity and big sales of some of your books (as opposed to critical acclaim)? They don’t seem to be the same thing. I think popularity means an artist has hit a chord in the hearts of people, regardless of what the critics may say.
That’s a smart answer to a tricky queitson
Steven, your pieces always thrown another stick on the inner fire. Thanks for the light and warmth.
It’s like running a marathon. The thrill of crossing the finish line lasts a day or two and then the only way you are going to run again is if you truly enjoy the experience of your body in motion. Process over product. Journey over destination.
I’ve crossed the “finish line” in terms of financial and material wealth. I was never more unsatisfied. Now focusing on the work and every day.
Brenna, I couldn’t agree more. I remember some reporter once asked Chris Evert how long the thrill of winning Wimbledon lasted. Chrissy said, “About an hour.” Not that there’s anything wrong with winning at Wimbledon!
Those two questions are absolutely how I think about the work that I do- staying true to my vision and applying my whole heart and soul to the effort.
Steven, just finished you “The War of Art” yesterday and man, I’m all over this – love it! So true! Even in mastering the essence of what you shared it a lifetime journey. But hey, that’s all we have a right to – and a great right at that !
Is it possible to enjoy the celebration and admiration if they come but NOT get big-headed and off-focus? I completely agree with the process thing but sometimes it seems we work so hard, we deserve to enjoy ourselves a little before we get back to work.
There’s nothing wrong with winning at Wimbledon — and enjoying it afterward. The trick, I think, is enjoying the practice and the training too.
Thanks for the reminder. As a painter I often times wonder why I do what I do, but I can’t see myself doing anything else. I work hard, but sometimes I just can’t seem to make a painting work. Thanks for the reminder that it is more about the process of making art that makes me an artist, not how many successes. And for the reminder to set goals for myself to be on to the next painting, or the one after that to help me remain focused as an artist. I am new to this career and I appreciate your words, they always motivate and inspire me!
Although I agree that the journey itself is a big reward, I also believe that a little success every now and then helps. For me, the lesson I’ve learned is to celebrate our little successes on that road.
For instance: yesterday I received an endorsement for a book I am writing. I called up a friend and we went out to celebrate successes, however small, hike a few glasses, and listen to some music. Today I am refreshed and back in the saddle, pushing back Resistance and writing some more. The lesson: celebrate the work and the success!
Kavafis said ”It is the journey that matters”.
Loving the audible version of The War of Art. Heard about you from a blog about website traffic, then Jeff Walker’s website. Great stuff. Your life experiences made som pretty good no bullshit inspirational sausage and, yes I do like hearing how it was made. Thanks. I’m now a fan for life.
I mentioned this post in a post of my own, which irresponsibly takes Krishna’s maxim to its inevitable, devastating conclusion. If you read these comments and have a few free minutes, you’re welcome to have a look.
Love “War of Art”, bought copies for all my friends who needed to hear it, am still doing so. Thanks for all the fish!
Just finished reading your book Turning Pro and I was inspired to look up the quote (You have the right to your labor and not to the fruits of your labour). The first result brought me to this beauttiful post.
Also This quote is perfectly in allignment with the Lao Tsu’s Tao The Ching:
When the work is done it is forgotten, that’s why it last forever.