Recently a short story writer I know said that he felt like he’d failed. All that work and no novel. In that same week a writer who I aspire to be like confessed that she felt frustrated because she wasn’t selling like (another writer whose name you’d recognize.) Then, just last week I complimented a writer on his impressive Amazon numbers. But he was disappointed not to be ranked in the 100s.

Man, expectations can really ruin a writer’s day.

It Ain’t Easy Out There

We know we’re in a tough business. Publishers and magazine editors are picky. We will all experience rejection, and sometimes it feels like a heart break. Also, publishers often are looking for sure wins. Maybe our work is more original than that, but the marketplace is where our work must live, and it can be a punishing place.

When we do get published, the work may not sell as we had hoped. It’s hard to gain traction and visibility in the marketplace. Beyond “hard” success in advances or sales, there are the “soft” metrics: the great reviews, the awards. These perks can elude you if your work doesn’t strike a chord with reviewers or (in case of award nominations) you’re not widely networked. Reviews and awards may not effect “hard” success, but we covet them. (And then even when we get them, it isn’t enough. Maybe I’m nominated for the Nebulas. Hooray! Except then I’m frantic about losing.0

Reaching for the Sky

We know these things. Sort of. We give lip service to the conditions of our chosen profession—but secretly we expect more. In fact we’re proud of it. We’re reaching for the sky. We’re going to slog through until the big sale, the Hugo win, the big sales, the hardcover release, the breakout advance, the fabulous reviews, hell, perhaps even earning royalties.

I’m here to say that this reaching for the sky is getting us a fistful of nothing.

I propose a moratorium on unrealistic thinking. Let’s redefine success so that we enjoy what the writing life really has to offer: A growing power of self-expression. A mounting mastery of storytelling. The quiet surrender to words. The birth of a story, chapter, paragraph that has never seen the light of day until now. The off-hand comment of someone who read the piece and was moved by it. The society of fellow writers who value these same things.

I know, I know, we’ve all taken this vow before—to find happiness in the humble work of words. Lately, from my observations, it doesn’t seem to be working very well.

A Modest Proposal

Lately I’ve been working on forging new thought processes. If our experience of our lives and our days is composed of connections between neurons—and I think this is what brain scientists tell us—then we need to avoid creating strong connections along neuronic pathways that define us on the basis of what we accomplish. It leads us to day-to-day (and moment-to-moment) disappointment. And that saps our confidence and teaches us to be worried and unhappy in all the various ways life can gin up.

You may not have received what you hoped for in that last piece of fiction. But, honestly, what did you get out of it? What growth, what satisfaction, what happiness lay in it? Tell your mind; remind your brain. Forge a new pathway, and tread along it every day for a few seconds. Learn to pull away from negativity.  Try meditation in whatever flavor appeals to you. It doesn’t fix things, but it can help your attitude toward what’s happening. After all, what’s happening right now is what life is made up of.

Because even if we achieve (fill in the blank), the bar will rise. (Remember the example of the writer with the great Amazon numbers?) We’re always going after bigger and better things. But I’m gonna take the position that bigger and better is not necessarily a good thing. Because that climb is endless.

So here’s my proposal. Let’s redefine our expectations. Let’s not reach for the sky. Let’s go for something humbler, more sustainable. Smaller. And let’s practice wanting it.

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This post previously appeared here in a slightly different form in the spring of 2009. I was interested to stumble across it recently and find it just as needful today for myself and for so many writers I know.