It is good to want things. We are brought up to want, and although the state of our country might indicate otherwise, ours is a nation founded on the ethos of hard work and dreams. We set goals and embark on the slow grueling process of achieving them. For writers, this usually means toiling away in isolation, in questionable states of hygiene and undress, with little thought to or interaction with the outside world. But there comes a time when the bit of fiction or poetry or memoir we’ve been chipping away at is ready to seek its audience and it is this crossroads that I’d like to pause on here.
I don’t think I’m alone when I say the rare publication acceptance or accolade is like a piece of Fruit Striped chewing gum – vibrant in all its colors, delicious for the first five minutes, utterly quenching, then flavorless, tough in the jaw, stale.
My breath rank again.
(Maybe I am alone and just an asshole.)
Like any habit, it’s easy to get hooked, caught up in the cycle of temporary highs followed by deep unhappiness, misery, that gnawing nagging pit.
More, there is always more: to do, to write, to submit, to plan, to pitch, to apply for, to attend, to edit, to read, to be.
Part of it is human nature: to be striving constantly. Once we settle into the sticky trap of complacency there is no getting off the couch. Maybe I’ve been hanging around my kids’ karate studio too much, but most of us don’t have a 22 year-old sensei hollering at us to try harder. If we don’t push ourselves, no one’s going to step in and do it for us. We have to be at once our toughest critics, demanding quality, and also our own motivational coaches.
And yet: Where hunger drives us, greed can ruin.
There is a classic fable called The Magic Fish. It’s a morality tale, big on message, but for all its righteousness it’s a prompt for my kids – their starry eyes fixed on the next 1000-piece Lego box, on another frilly dress – to take a long steady look at what they already have.
Many could benefit from the reminder.
At sea, a humble fisherman discovers a magic fish. His shrew of a wife is jazzed by the news and demands he treat the sea creature as a genie. She starts wishing big: a nice house, a grander house, a castle and so on. The fisherman reluctantly passes along these requests. Of course, nothing satisfies her and within short spells, a day, a week, a month, her eyes an avid green, she desires the next newer bigger thing. Ultimately, the fish (who, true to storybooks, is actually a prince) puts the kibosh on her orders and reverses the couple’s fortune.
It’s the greed coupled with entitlement, of feeling deserving of something unearned, which can prove a real recipe for disaster. (Look at Wall Street.) And though it is mortifying to admit, I once was that brat who thought a book by 25, 30, 35. When that failed to happen – when I failed to do the actual worthy work – I bailed. I sat on the couch.
Life is fragile. In the last six months I’ve been reminded just how fragile it all is, every moment fleeting, none of which we can ever get back. We might as well relish the coffee we’ve brewed, for which we’ve shown up, and try not to take the rest of it for granted.
Maybe it’s the season, but for me this also means practicing gratitude. To stop and appreciate the incredible kindness and generosity of community, the simple fact that I am slowly stringing words again, and to still some of those thoughts on marketplace, muzzle the voice blowing foul in my ear with its incessant, frantic cries of what’s next.
I don’t know what is next. When friends ask what I am working on I am grateful because it reminds me of what is important: to produce my best work. That, alone, is the goal. Who knows if someday that might ever involve a book, though in all likelihood my anxiety probably would only deepen if I had one, publication anxiety giving way to selling anxiety, followed by second-book anxiety, and so on. See? Despair is never farther than arm’s length away.
The truth is, we’ll always put pressure on ourselves. It’s endless. We keep at it or we die, so let’s hope we get to keep at it for a while longer. And while we’re striving – aim for a healthier balance.
In June, the director of my daughter’s nursery gave this little end-of-the-year spiel to parents:
Two people are on a boat. One person spends the entire trip peering off the railing, taking in the scenery, salt air, birds overheard, the graceful curves of the dolphins – while the other person spends the whole time studying his watch, tapping the second hand, pacing the deck like the white rabbit muttering I’m late, I’m late, when are we going to get there, I’m late. Of course, both people arrive at the exact same time. One person had a dandy time; the other missed everything.
Who knows bupkis about where we’re headed or what life will throw us or how much time we have. What we have is now, our creative process, the journey, each small success, be it a story that touches a reader, fiction that tells a truth, an honest word. That much we can hold in our fists. Right here, today – this is good, thank you. This is enough.