There is a famous psychological study that shows that people who win the lottery and people who are involved in catastrophic accidents return to the same original base level of happiness after two years. People who make more than $75,000 are barely affected by further raises at all.
Success and fortune are normative. When we experience success, no matter how great, we first experience a blip of happiness, then we get used to it and start looking for what’s around the bend.
And for writers, as previously chronicled, this leads to the “If-Only Game.” If I could only find an agent, then I’ll be happy. When you get that agent it becomes: If only I could find a publisher, then I’ll be happy. If only I could make the bestseller list, then I’ll be happy. If only I could have as many Twitter followers as Neil Gaiman, then I’ll be happy. We allow our success to be the new normal and aren’t satisfied even when we reach the next milestone because there’s always another milestone to be had.
But I think there’s another hidden danger for writers that can dampen writerly happiness: using our daydreams to get us through the tough times.
You know how it goes. You face a difficult time while writing, you don’t want to do it, you’re putting in such incredible hard work, and your mind starts drifting to your book being published and taking off and becoming a bestseller and being the next Harry Potter only more popular (don’t worry, we’re all J.K. Rowlings before publication) and sitting on Oprah’s couch and building A FLOATING CASTLE IN THE SKY TRUST US WE’LL BE RICH ENOUGH. And you use those dreams to power through the difficult stretches and redouble your efforts.
And that’s perfectly natural! No judging.
But these dreams are sort of like the dark side of the force. Use them too much and you’ll turn into a Sith Lord.
When you allow daydreams to fill that gap to get you through the tough times, or even when you’re just letting your imagination get the best of you, the dreams can gradually evolve into the reason you were writing in the first place. They were how you got through the tough times, so now they have to come true for it to be worth it. They start to become a crutch–take that crutch away and you fall over because you were leaning on an endlessly elusive dream.
Those dreams can morph into expectations without the writer even noticing it. You start thinking, if this doesn’t happen, what were all those hours for? Why am I dealing with this frustration if it’s not going to amount to anything? Why am I doing this?
And after those dreams are eroded by reality, suddenly there’s a hollow place where those dreams used to reside. It doesn’t feel worth it anymore, even if you’ve achieved modest success that you should be extremely proud of, and would have made you happy if your expectations were in check.
Careful with those dreams. They seem so bright and shiny and harmless and they can help you out through the tough times and it’s so fun to let your imagination run wild for a little while, but let them get the best of you and eventually you’ll hollow out and get all wrinkly and pale and lightning will start shooting from your fingertips.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli
Sounds to me like you're asking for people to settle: "You've got your little crumbs; how dare you–how GREEDY of you–to want an actual piece of the pie." The great achievers never settle. I'd never have you as my agent!
What have The Sith got to do with getting published?
First you told us that on Survivor, the contestants who always say they aren't there to make friends, never win. Now you're telling us that if we dream too much then we'll turn into Lord Vader?
I'm still trying to work out what Survivor has to do with becoming a novelist – now I've got this Sith thing to unravel.
I swear to god, this blog, when it's not downright cryptic, is more depressing than informative or inspirational. Every time I visit this place I end up feeling a deep sense of despair or confusion.
I haven't got anything to add to the discussion, because, quite frankly, I have no idea what's going on, but here's something that Lawrence of Arabia wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."
So what does that mean?
I have absolutely no idea, but it makes at least as much sense as bringing Star Wars and Survivor into all this.
Pam Torres says
This hits the nail right on the head. I just quit my day job (I'm in a position to do so) to see if I am truly a writer. Sure, I have all the little daydreams just like a new bride who dreams of the white picket fence and two cars in the driveway, handsome husband, two kids. The reality is if you live your life this way (most people get this) you will never be happy. Happy is a state of being. Writing is a state of being. You are either a writer or not. I believe I am a writer. If other people like my writing and are moved by it that is like the whip cream and cherry on top of an ice cream Sunday. However, I still love ice cream just by itself. 🙂 Thanks for succinctly stating what every writer needs to remember.
If you're going to mention Oprah's couch and lightning coming out of fingertips in one post, you definitely should have linked to this famous video. But maybe you meant to allude to it.
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
Excerpt from 'If' by Rudyard Kipling.
That was one of best Star Wars-fused explanations I've ever heard.
The Force is with you, young Bransforder.
Thank you so much, this comes, for me, in a perfect timing!
Plus it was a fun reading 😉
Hyla Molander says
Think I may need a month to process this post. Your insightful words speak directly to that fear I think most of us experience that we are not enough. Aren't we all–at some level–simply little children wanting to be accepted?
Dude, you kinda screwed up with that last line, cuz fingertip-lightning sounds fun.
Word ver.: cursasol: an obscene method of sunburn prevention
I don't agree with your analysis at all. Dreams are the cornerstones of this country. It's what America is founded on and what makes America great (think post-it notes and other inventions). For me, dreams are what keeps me going and, yes, dreams are what get me through the tough times. When you're losing everything, when you've just left the bankruptcy attorney's office, the dream of one day being a best-selling writer is really all you've got. It's the one thing that always remains constant in this inconstant world. And yes I do have great expectations (thank you, Dickens). If I didn't expect to get published, why would I keep writing? If I didn't expect to make millions, why would I put in countless hours editing? Or querying for that matter? Dreams and expectations are one in the same. Otherwise, you might as well crawl in a hole somewhere and give up on life.
"it's so fun to let your imagination run wild for a little while, but let them get the best of you and eventually you'll hollow out and get all wrinkly and pale and lightning will start shooting from your fingertips" . . . kind of like lady gaga
Leigh D'Ansey says
Thanks for this great post. It's very timely for me.
Tess Cox says
I appreciate you so much! Your insights are so grounded and rational, and yet they speak to the internal (and somewhat spiritual) process we all deal with. How does a young man have all this wisdom?
thank you for sharing this peace. There is an ancient scripture that says, "learn to be content in whatever circumstance you find yourself." (my paraphrase), and I think making the distinction between dreams and expectations is a timely one for me. Thank you again. Your insights are valuable to me.
Kerrie T. says
This is so me…in every aspect of my life. I often find myself thinking, "Why can't I just be happy with what I've got? Why can't I just live in the moment? Why do I need to do more? What am I trying to prove?" Unfortunately, I have not found the answers to these questions…
Claude Nougat says
Great post, Nathan, as usual. And this time it's very thoughtful: should help a lot of people. Yes, happiness is only in the present moment and that's where you have to go look for it…
But if one never thinks about the future, why bother to write?
Mmmm, a conundrum if I ever saw one!
Nathan, I know you mean well but I urge you not to underestimate the power of positive thoughts, or unwittingly cause your readers to do so. Over and over again it has been proven that positive thoughts (including day dreaming) when they are mixed with definiteness of purpose, persistence, and a burning desire for their translation into reality can become manifest. Opportunity often comes disguised in the form of misfortune or temporary defeat, that’s why so many of us fail to recognize it. Your mental condition manifests itself in the results of your thought-inspired actions.
Muhammed Ali was a typical example of this. Long before the world began hailing him as the world’s greatest boxer, he used his daydreams to get him through the tough times, whether they be efforts by racists to keep him ‘in his place’ or the negative attitudes, words and actions of people who didn’t believe he could ever make it. He understood how important it was to psyche himself and continually convince himself that he’s the greatest and would scale the heights of boxing success; that his thoughts would lead to him doing what he needed to do to achieve his goals. He understood the mechanics of manifestation, as evidenced by what he manifested in his own life by becoming the greatest boxer of all time.
I say never stop day dreaming – just try and marry your thoughts with the appropriate actions. Let us learn to use the power of thinking positive, adopting positive attitudes and affirmations to gain important life benefits. Moreover, let’s always remember the words of Arthur Conan Doyle. “Two men looked out through prison bars … One saw mud, the other stars.”
This is a great post, Nathan. Very insightful. Thanks 🙂
Jo Eberhardt says
I realise I'm 8 months late in commenting on this, but I just read it and can't resist. I think you're absolutely spot-on.
Dreams lead to expectations,
Expectations lead to Entitlement,
Entitlement leads to the Dark Side.
No, dreaming isn't going to lead you inexorably to the Dark Side. Just like being afraid of heights, or afraid of your Tie Fighter exploding, isn't going to lead you inexorably to the Dark Side. But when you can no longer separate yourself from your dreams… well, that's when you may want to start looking at a costume change.