Today I’m thinking about the mantra that coaches and writing teachers preach: Dream big. Aim high. Never let it go. Visualize success, etc. It sounds good. But it’s a crock.
False Dreams and True
What do we really want out of writing, anyway? Well, among other things, a big career, that’s easy. Who doesn’t want major respect, a lovely income, major consideration from one’s publisher, consistently getting those major awards, thousands of devoted fans. . . It’s just that, you know, it happens only for a few. Don’t all pile on, now. I know we’re supposed to have a positive attitude. No defeatest thoughts allowed.
Except . . . it only happens for a few. If that’s the case, then it will be awfully hard to accept what it is much more likely we will get from writing: the privilege of publishing stories, some awfully nice-looking books (and some groaners, you know) a pretty nice readership. The satisfactions of writing stories. Because those things look mighty slim compared to that big dream.
You could say that we should aim high and then accept falling a teensy bit short. We would have fallen a lot shorter if we hadn’t aimed high, right? I don’t think so. The more you demand from the publishing world, the less happy you’ll be. Sorry to be the one to say it. Big dreams can get you in trouble. They can fill you with disappointment, self-loathing, self-pity, jealousy and general ornery dissatisfaction. Even worse, frown lines.
The truer dream is the one tempered with humility. The one that expresses the deep and lasting thing that makes writing worth it to you.
Not Too High, Not Too Low
So if our goal in the writing life is not to have a big career, what should it be? Let’s not be timid. We want to publish novels, say. We want to be writing to a national and international audience. If that’s what we want, it can be done! It will be very hard. You will ruin your back, your eyes, your relationships (if you become too obsessive) and you will never perfect your golf game (that novel deadline, you know.) There will be sacrifices aplenty. So it is not a small goal.
But notice it is not that big, bloated dream of six figure advances, awards and book tours. It is not even related to money and prestige. Those things will come or not. It won’t have much to do with your visualizing them and aiming at them.
Most of us are more subtle about our bloated dreams. We don’t admit to others–perhaps not even to ourselves–what we hope for. It is bad taste to admit we want to decimate the competition and leave our friends in the dust. But secretly, we’re aiming high. In my terms, though, we’re aiming bloated.
A Clear-Eyed Love of Stories and Writing
What to do instead?
Let’s begin with a statement about what we love. Something like “The privilege and exhilaration of writing stories.” Or “The company of writers, the journey of storytelling.” Or whatever is the deep reason you’re thinking of devoting your life to sitting at a computer and sweating blood. If your statement keeps coming back to accomplishment and sales, I think you’re on the road to a very rough life. If that’s your truth, you must stick to it. But examine this dream to make sure it’s really the thing you’re going to give up a normal life for!
Now let’s look at the true goal, the clear-eyed one. The achievable one. Such as: “Finding a national audience for my novels.” Or “Growing as a writer, sharing my stories in regional markets, forging ties in the writing community.” I like these goals. They show humility, practical wisdom, compassion for self.
Having come this far, you see where it leads: You inevitably go back to your goal again and again, asking yourself how you’re doing. Am I publishing novels? Check. At least, am I submitting novels to publishers? Check. Is my work getting feedback that it is becoming more competitive? Check.
So, am I happy? Am I satisfied with my writing life? Am I generous to writers who have different goals than mine? Check, check and check.
We measure our progress and our accomplishment against that true goal. And when people at parties ask you when they’re going to make a movie out of your book, you smile enigmatically and say, “Oh, that’s not my goal.” Because you know very clearly what your goal is.
Your dream is simple, clear, humble, and in its own way, glorious. It is a dream that’s worth keeping alive. In the end, it will likely be a pretty good writing career. And that’s not too shabby.