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.
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Art: The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli