One of the corollaries of the “if only” game is that there are some writers out there who could not possibly have reason to worry about anything as they have achieved a level of success that is unsurpassed, and who represent the pinnacle of the writerly world.
Examples include King, Stephen; Rowling, J.K.; Meyer, Stephenie.
There’s a temptation to think that once an author has “made it” and made it bigger than anyone else, this author will have achieved boundless happiness and contentment and couldn’t have a thing to complain about.
In the comments of my recent “When Dreams Become Expectations” post, as Ermo pointed out, people tended to think of true satisfaction always being perennially elusive, unless you’re a Rowling and King. Then, it seems, people believe that would be completely satisfying.
I don’t know these mega-authors personally, but signs point to this not being the case. In the recent Oprah interview, Rowling said, “You ask about the pressure… At that point, I kept saying to people, ‘Yeah I’m coping…’ but the truth was there were times when I was barely hanging on by a thread.”
Not the sound of someone who feels like they have it made in the shade. I personally doubt Rowling would trade in her success and the sheer level of love for her books for anything, but I also don’t think there’s anyone who ever feels total and perfect contentment and satisfaction with their station. We keep striving no matter how high we’ve climbed, even those who have climbed the highest. Pressure can cut into satisfaction, and the spotlight can be uncomfortable.
It all reminds me of the speed of light (or at least my own understanding of the speed of light, which is likely wildly flawed). The way the physics of light works is that no matter how fast you personally are traveling, from your perspective a beam of light will still look like it’s traveling at the speed of light. You can’t travel alongside a beam of light. There’s no catching up.
And I think there’s actually something great about that. There will always be something to chase, always something to strive for, always another horizon to pursue. Who wants to be perfectly contented? Where’s the excitement in that? There will always be something great to chase around the bend.
Photo by Mila Zinkova via Creative Commons
I am willing to role the dice on making it and not being content. It beats not making it and not being content.
J. T. Shea says
Kathleen is right. Money may not buy you happiness, but it can get you a better class of misery.
Kristin Laughtin says
Even those who have made it to the top have to worry about falling (or being pushed). There's enormous pressure to duplicate past success, and when your past success was phenomenal, any shortcomings in your later efforts will just be magnified.
It's best to learn to be content with what you have while still striving for something greater; that way, you (hopefully) grow but aren't disappointed with what you have been able to achieve.
Marilyn Peake says
Interesting Blog post. I agree with the basic sentiment, that you should strive to be happy wherever you are in your writing career. And there are so many ways to be happy as a writer today. For many, being an indie or self-published author can be glorious because, even though no real money might be made, it’s possible to belong to the wonderful online world of writers. And, in the case of Paul Harding, his indie-published novel TINKERS won the Pulitzer Prize (Pulitzer Prize!) in Fiction, and that’s a glorious thing. Really, in today’s electronic world, all things are possible in the world of writing.
On the other hand, I feel for writers and everyone else who’s out of work, homeless, seriously ill, or at a point in their lives in which they are unable to work toward making their dreams come true because hardships have made that too difficult to even consider. Physical health and having enough money to get by definitely allow people to achieve a degree of contentment that keeps real despair at bay.
I also think there are people for whom the simple joys of daily life are enough and, given good physical health and a dependable income, probably achieve contentment much more easily than writers or other artists do. Artists tend to suffer through a great deal of existential despair.
Bane of Anubis says
We all just need to find our wormholes (i.e., devices that allow us to travel faster than light 😉
Jen P says
As Hilary Mantel said of winning the Man Booker, "it has to be seen as an event in your career rather than an event in your writing, your writing life goes on."
I think of happiness as the waves on the ocean. They change direction, height, frequency and is unreliable. But contentment is deeper, underlying, like the steady swell of transatlantic currents which isn't much affected by weather.
Whilst I agree that the temptation of thinking someone else has made it may corrode your own self esteem and cause you to think of "true satisfaction always being perennially elusive", I am not sure how much of a link there is with achievement. There is a lot to be said for being happy with being and not with doing. Happiness comes from what and who we are, not from what we do. Yes, we may feel elation or pride or contentedness through achievement, but as you say, because (virtually) every achievement can be surpassed your goalposts are constantly moving and everyone's expectations and measures of achievement are different. Being happy for me, is an appreciation of life as it is, in the moment. I look forward to things, and I look back on much, including achievements, with anticipation or recollection of happiness, but a state of contentment cannot be pursued through achievement, in my opinion.
"Who wants to be perfectly contented?" I think everyone does. People who are intrinsically unhappy don't want to be. Being content in oneself, doesn't have to mean you are complacent or lazy. There can be plenty of excitement in looking ahead to new challenges and chasing new dreams, but my core level of contentment will not be affected by their achievement.
Linda Gray says
I went to Bouchercon last week in San Francisco. It was fabulous, and HUGE. 1,400 people there, including over 350 published authors in mystery/suspense/thriller/noir. Those published authors were working hard, doing panels and presentations and encouraging apprentice writers. I think even the greats–David Baldacci, Lee Child, Laurie King, Denise Mina and so many others– were buoyed by digging in and being part of the writing tribe, the one that is always striving for great writing.
Stephen Prosapio says
Great blog post. I was just considering this recently. Spooky too about Rowling because I was thinking — "What *does* she do next??"
A few weeks back I signed my first contract with a very small (but real) publishing house. My mind's first reaction was "there must be something wrong here" my second was "yeah but I'm going to have to work that much harder to make the book a success" and I stopped myself before my third negative thought. I realized precisely what you wrote: there will always be something else. So I took the time to just sit back and ENJOY what was happening.
Key to happiness isn't getting what you want, it's wanting what you have.
Tara Maya says
There was some study which I'm too lazy to look up to cite properly, but I believe it was in the field of the "study of happiness" which looked at how happy people said they were a year after something horrible, like losing their legs. Turns out: about as happy as they were before losing their legs. Same with a "happy" event, such as winning the lottery. People tend to return to their baseline levels of happiness.
Adam Heine says
"You can't travel alongside a beam of light. There's no catching up."
Nah. I have proof we'll be traveling at the speed of light by the year 2050. Coincidentally, that's also the year I achieve perfect happiness.
When J.K. Rowling was working on the last book of her series, I remember wondering how anyone could possibly survive that pressure! I so admire her for writing with the whole weight of the world's eyes on her. I can't think of any other author who has had to deal with that kind of public pressure. Personally, I would have cracked. I suck at pressure.
In terms of never being content, what you say is very wise, and I believe a Great Truth, Nathan. In fact, there's a whole religion based on the reality that desire never ends – Buddhism. Personally, though, I don't agree with the Buddhist conclusion that desire is therefore the root of suffering, and one should detach from desire, and the world, to rise above it(although I greatly admire Buddhism and agree with many of the teachings, just not that one). I think it is in the striving and the journey where the real gold lies.
I believe there is a reason humans were created to constantly yearn and strive, and never quite arrive for more than a few moments.
It's our fate – tragic, comic, always noble, and perhaps divine – that there is always another mountain.
(Not that resting isn't important too. Rest is good. Resting between steps.)
But, anyway, don't take my word for it. As proof, I submit to you this very wise song. I remember I deleted it the last post, and I'll post it here again because it fits just as well. Sung by Ms. Miley Cirus, written by Jesse Alexander and Jon Mabe:
"There's always gonna be another mountain
I'm always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be a uphill battle
Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose
Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb"
I absolutely agree that it is human nature to keep striving.
Elizabeth O. Dulemba says
Well said Nathan. I completely agree. e
Nathan – Wonderful blog. First time I've had to comment. As I read your words I thought of my favorite passage from John Nichols in "On The Mesa."
He wrote, "We are touched my magic wands. For just a fraction of our day life is perfect, and we are absolutely happy and in harmony with the earth. The feeling passes much too quickly. But the memory-and the anticipation of other miracles-sustains us in the battle indefinitely."
I saw that interview with Oprah and J.K. It was very interesting and confirmed my opinion that it's all about perception and beliefs. J.K. said that she found it difficult to believe in herself, but she always believed in her writing ability and the future success of the first Harry Potter book. I feel her relationships would be more challenging for her than her work, despite the pressure, as her confidence doesn't lie in this area.
Oprah, on the other hand, came across as a force of nature. When I checked her past accomplishments, what she'd achieved by the age of twenty one was incredible.
Hollie Sessoms says
This is universally true. It’s the basis of economics—there are unlimited wants and limited means. Thank God! How boring would it be to have nothing to look forward to, nothing to make you try harder?
Marilyn Peake says
Forgot to mention that I loved your mentioning speed of light theories! My favorite part of doing research for my sci fi novel was reading physicists’ theories about the possibility of time travel as related to speed of light. As the velocity of an object approaches speed of light, time slows down. Turns out that scientists have noted that even astronauts traveling in the space shuttle – which moves incredibly fast, but nowhere near the speed of light – moved forward in time by a few nanoseconds. Time distortion occurred for those astronauts – only by about 0.001 percent, but enough to prove Einstein’s theories correct. Also, scientists were surprised to discover that inside the Bose Einstein condensate, light slows down and stops, and now some physicists are thinking that this discovery could possibly lead to the development of a time travel machine. Pretty weird and fascinating stuff. Hope I didn’t wander too much off-topic. It is very cool that you included a mention of speed of light in your Blog post today.
Talk about reaching for a huge goal – physicists who are actually developing and testing theories related to possible time travel are fascinating to read. They are incredible dreamers, and their books are filled with inspiration.
Oh, I also like your underlying point (I think) about envying a hyper-successful author. They've acheived something, but it is transitory, and has to do with their journey, not ours.
It's not like they've achieved the end-all and be-all of existence. They are still struggling like the rest of us. So jealous – although very hard to escape…is probably abit misplaced. Much better to concentrate on our own journeys.
Great post, great discussion. Thank you.
Michelle @ The True Book Addict says
Thank you for this thoughtful post. I think all of us who write secretly hope (I know we do) that we will end up like King or Rowling. At this point in my life, I'm so far from contentment, it isn't even funny. But I keep striving and like you said, it's the striving that keeps us going.
Susan Kaye Quinn says
People don't realize how difficult success can be – sometimes even more stressful than failure. After all, we can always blame that on someone else.
Success brings expectations, and that is often the hardest thing to deal with. That being said, people who are successful at being successful – I want to be one of them. 🙂
maine character says
Striving is the drama of life, but often what we treasure most are the things we already have.
Sebastian Junger put it this way:
If you haven’t crossed over, you think the people that are well known have got something you want. And then when you get over there, you realize the things that give you pleasure are still all back there on the other side.
Gail Shepherd says
I've just finished reading about some of Rowling's plagiarism suits, and I'd think that having to constantly fend off grasping/greedy/delusional lawsuits would take at least a bit of the shine off world fame and fortune. Everybody has their crosses to bear.
Donna Hole says
I think the next novel idea is always just around the bend, waiting for an Author to chase it down.
I imagine once the high of accomplishment – after each successful completion – lasts only so long before a new project is needed to fill the void.
I hope someday I get to test that theory . .
Love your blog–great post
This kind of reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
"We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about." –Charles Kingsley
Old Salt says
Let me share a secret with you. After you've lived an exciting life, been around the world two or three times, and are satisfied that you don't really have anything left to prove, it wouldn't take a lot to become truly contented…and there's a lot to be said for contented. Getting just one piece published would just put the icing on the cake. Ambition's for the young. Great post.
Debbie Haughland Chan says
We create our own happiness. Contentment and happiness can be attained whether the world inhales our every word or spits it out with distaste. Thanks for the reminder.
Great post and I love the photo.
Yosemite National Park?
I feel perfectly contented when writing.
Draven Ames says
Thank you for the good post again Nathan. Hearing about Rowling feeling that way is amazing. There will always be more for us to do, no matter how far we make it. I think it is true for most people.
In meeting a lot of authors, I've noticed that none of them have a lack of things to do. We have so many stories in our head, it would be impossible to write them all. There is no end to our imagination. If all of the world is a dream, then our dreams may be a world; what are books, but dreams?
Thank you for another wonderful read.
Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy says
Excellent post. In my journalist work I have met several celebrities and what always struck me, no matter what their field of fame, is that they are just people too. They have their everyday worries and cares – theirs may be different that ours but they have them just the same.
Thinking that those who have reached a higher pinnacle of success than the common folk are happier is giving into that old "grass is alwsays greener on the other side of the fence" philosophy or falling for the notion that money can buy happiness when, of course, it cannot.
Is it wrong that I feel like I've "made it" by being referenced in Nathan's blog?
In another life, I covered sports. One thing I noticed about all successful athletes is that there was no greater pressure than the pressure they put on themselves. It worked for and against them, helping them achieve their goals but leaving them unsatisfied that they weren't the greatest ever (or some other nonsense). Still, like many have said, what's life without goals?
Mary Aalgaard says
Great words of inspiration, Nathan! It gives meaning to the unsettled feeling that we get. It means we still have so much more to do on this Earth. The race is not over – keep on running!!
Ishta Mercurio says
I like what jewel fern said about striking a balance. you don't want a life without goals, without something to strive for. But a life in which you are always striving and never accomplishing is equally empty.
I think the pressure of living up to an expectation of maintaining a level of greatness that one has achieved pretty early in one's career must be very daunting.
Peter Dudley says
Who wants to be perfectly contented? Where's the excitement in that? There will always be something great to chase around the bend.
Trust me. This is not a sentiment to share with your wife.
Writers like Stephen King and Jay Lake impress me because they keep writing no matter what life throws at them. King is going blind and Lake is battling cancer.
They refuse to be content with what they've done, but keep thinking about, working on, what could be next.
Teri Bernstein says
King says in his memoir/essay On Writing that he writes 2000 words per day, 6-7 days per week. He may have "made it" but his daily approach is "chop wood, carry water." Writing is what he does. "Being a writer" is not what he does. IMO.
PJ Lincoln says
I think it kind of comes under the category of, "I'll be happy when…"
I thought like that for a long time in many areas of my life. I'll be happy when I have a cool girlfriend. I'll be happy when I make xxxx amount of money. I'll be happy when I have big muscles and a six pack of abs.
The only problem with that kind of thinking, is that you miss out on the great things that life has to offer each and every day. It's a no-win, self-defeating mentality.
I applied it to writing, too. I'll only be happy when I'm published by a traditional publisher. I'll only be happy when I get critical acclaim as a writer. I'll only be happy if I can peck out 1,000 words per day.
The funny thing is, writing wise, when I removed all of those restrictions and expectations, writing became fun again. I actually wanted to do it and didn't feel disappointed or overwhlemed.
Tess Cox says
There is an ancient scripture that says "…but I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content."
This blog was an important reminder to me.
While being constantly drawn toward the Porch Light of "getting published" like a bug on a Summer's night, I must also avoid the "zapper" of unrealistic expectations that would leave me lying dead and underfoot on the porch as others fly by me on their way upward.
I must find balance between my inward and outward journeys in order to maintain my sanity! (and a stable day job…..) I must find my sweet spot where writing is for the joy of it, and not for it to feed me!
thanks, Nathan. And I enjoyed the guest posts last week. Saved some of them, too!
Roxane B. Salonen says
Excellent post, Nathan. I haven't been by in a while but a friend pointed me to you today, and boy am I glad she did. Wise words indeed!
I think yearning for some higher goal (my fingers keep typing gaol – hmm what does that mean about me?) keeps successful people sharp.
How often have you read the latest book from a 'made it' artist and wondered why they are just phoning it in.
No one is guaranteed that next book – maybe King and Rowling level authors get the next book, but if it's not great, they don't get another.
What I think is, if I get into the 'made it column' I would be considering retiring at the top, or finding a way to keep my ego hungry.
Thanks for the post
Before success the pressure is applied by yourself and after it's applied by everyone else. Just a thought.
Reality verses Illusion.
The Wave verses The Point.
That's why the art and business of writing can never be separated. Even the unpublished writer has to be clever enough to pay the rent and buy groceries.
I never met a rock star movie star or writer that wasn't struggling through that particular day I met them; whether fretting over the creative process or protecting their ability to engage in it by securing their economic priorities.
I pursue the Great American Novel.
I may never actually catch up to it similar to the beam of light allegory but the chase is a good and engaging kick that keeps me focused on thinking feeling growing and learning ever more precise ways of stating and achieving life portraits in words and thought-scapes.
"Some of us pursue perfection and virtue and if we're lucky, we catch up to it. But happiness can't be pursued. It either comes to your or it don't. You can always say, if only this and if only that, but if only is a state of mind that we get into when we feel deprived."
Jack Fate – Masked and Anonymous 2003
Cool. My new icon showed up.
That's a Blobfish. Not a Starfish or a Tuna.
pamala owldreamer says
I hope to write a great book someday. What aspiring writer does not? I wrote my first novel five years ago.I'm still learning the mechanics and rules of writing. of course I think my novels are interesting. Good?maybe. Great?possibly. I'm too close to tell.maybe if you have to ask,you aren't. I love to write and weave a story and I guess when all is said and done,that is what counts the most. However,I would be a liar if I said I didn't want to be as good or even better than Roberts,King,Poe,Rowling.Bottom line is A writer is judged by how many books they sell.They don't have to be a literary genius to write a bestseller or a technically perfect writer.But,they have to tell a damn good story. I will keep butt in chair,keep learning, and maybe someday Nathan will be commenting on my bestseller.
Sierra Gardner says
I personally think it would be a little terrifying to be so successful – EVERYONE will notice if you mess up or write something sub-standard. As for being perfectly happy having 'made it,' I think writing is a bit like falling in love. It's tempting to think that the perfect person is going to 'fix' everything and make us happy. But it never works that way. If you can't be happy as an obscure, unpublished writer chances are that fame and success aren't going to change anything.
I recently read that we need to remember that our leaders, idols and great writers are just people. When we make them more than that we are taking away the possibility that we could ever achieve their success.
Yup, you're right about the speed of light (I'm a physicist). As long as you are in an inertial (nonaccelerating) reference frame, you will always measure the same speed of light as anyone else in an inertial reference frame. Nice analogy!
Douglas Adams says
Its the journey not the destination that brings happiness.
Meghan Ward says
This post reminds me of the book Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Todd Gilbert. What you THINK will make you happy often is not what WILL make you happy, so we end up striving for the wrong things, including book publication!