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.
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