“I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.”
– Vincent Van Gogh
Here’s a story: About ten years ago I was speaking to a potential student on the phone, and he told me that if the book he was planning to write didn’t become a bestseller, he would consider himself a failure.
My heart sank.
I gently tried to explain to him that writing can actually be fun, and that in order to allow your story to come alive the thrill of creation must be its own reward.
But he wasn’t having it.
I couldn’t reach him, and since I don’t teach a class on how to write a bestseller, I gently suggested that he try UCLA extension.
Well, three years later, I was teaching my 90-Day Novel course in a rented classroom in Culver City, when a gentleman walked in. As the students introduced themselves, I recognized his voice. He explained that he was lost and struggling, and that he had been working on his novel for quite a while (about three years) but that the characters felt lifeless.
When we put the result ahead of the process, we are misunderstanding the process of creating art.
Did Stephen King set out to write a bestseller when he wrote his first novel, Carrie? (Apparently his wife found the first few chapters in the trash and convinced him to keep going.)
Did Norman Mailer know that his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, would make him a literary sensation – before he wrote it?
What about J.K. Rowling, toiling away in a coffeeshop as she wrote her first Harry Potter book?
And the publishers weren’t outbidding each other for first-time novelist, John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. (He got a 5k advance and kept writing.)
Let me keep flogging this premise. Publishers rejected The Help fifty-six times before first-time novelist Kathryn Stockett finally got a yes, and her book became a bestseller and a hit film.
If you set out to write a bestseller, you probably won’t finish your manuscript. But if you write the story that you are burning to tell, knowing full well that no one may ever read it, I promise you this: it will change your life.
I have no idea if the gentleman in the class ever finished his book, and if it ever became a bestseller. But I was touched by his humility. And I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he is now a working writer. Frankly, the number of writers that have passed through the lab and gone on to careers as professional writers often surprises me. Because the truth is, when I work with writers, I’m never thinking about the result. My job is to guide you, and to thrill in your process. To do otherwise, I believe, would be a disservice.
Writing a novel is a search for the truth. The convergence of art and commerce does not happen in the imagination. In fact, art is often richly rewarded for the very fact that it eschewed monetary considerations.
George Saunders’ experimental novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won the Booker Prize and cemented his reputation as one the most original voices in American literature. Critics raved at his strange new approach to narrative fiction.
Do you think George set out to write a bestseller? No. He set out to write the best story he could write. And while he may have wondered if anyone would ever read this weird book, he had experienced enough pain writing fiction that didn’t bring him joy, that he was willing to surrender to his muse and become a channel for the words that wanted to pass through him.
When you make your career aspirations more important than your story, you tend to kill what you’re attempting to birth. Bullying your psyche to make your story better won’t work. Be kind to yourself. Trust the process. Lose yourself in it. When you go deep into the cave and write from that naked place, you will shine a light for us, you will begin to see the things that make us trust you, and we will want to hear what you have to say.
Learn more about marrying the wildness of your imagination to the rigor of structure in The 90-Day Novel, The 90-Day Memoir, or The 90-Day Screenplay workshops.