Here’s a funny thing: Most writers I know (myself included) are never happy. Or maybe happy isn’t the right word. Satisfied is perhaps a better choice. Yet, since satisfaction often ties into happiness, maybe we’ll stick with happy. Whatever you want to call it, I’ve never met a group of people so prone to career dissatisfaction than writers. No matter how much we achieve, it never seems to be enough.
Here’s how it starts: We aspire to begin a project, so we bargain with the universe. “Just give me enough time to work on my novel, or memoirs, or whatever. I’ll be happy with just one hour!”
Sure enough, we get that hour and begin work. But soon it’s not enough. “Just let me finish this project. That’s all I ask. Let me finish!” And we work hard, and use our time wisely, and eventually… We finish the book! Hooray! The happiness/satisfaction lasts about a day.
Then we want more. “Just let me get an agent! If I have an agent, I’ll be happy.” But an agent doesn’t appear, so it’s back to starting a new project and bargaining with the universe for time once again. Or, an agent does appear and the bargaining starts anew…
“Just let my agent find a publisher for this book. I’ll be happy just to be published.” Sure you will. Because the minute you’re published, you’ll want to sell books. And not just sell books. You’ll want to see them in bookstores, not just online. And in libraries and airports. Once you’re selling, you’ll want to sell more. And then you’ll probably want to be published with a bigger house, get a bigger advance, hit the NYT Bestseller List, see your books turned into movies, make a million bucks, and so on until you’re ruling the universe from atop your pile of published hardcovers.
(If you go the indie route, it’s much the same, except you get to skip the agent part of the happiness path and go directly to sales, movies, and world domination.)
The goalposts for career satisfaction keep moving. At no point do we (well, most of us) sit back and say, “Hey, I’m pretty happy here. I’ve got all I want.”
This is both the blessing and the curse of writing as a profession. In many jobs/careers, the goalposts are pretty clear. You reach a point where you can be promoted no higher, you get tenure, you put in your “hard twenty” and get your pension, you make partner, or you hit the salary ceiling. “This is as far as I can go,” you say, “So I’ve ‘made it.'” You can relax, secure in the knowledge that you’ve achieved all you can. Or maybe you reach retirement age and are either forced out, or you simply reach the point where you say, “There are plenty of other things I want to do in life, so I’m out of here.” Either way, the end game is clear. There comes a time when you’ve achieved all you can and you can be satisfied with that result.
But writing is different. There’s almost never a time when you’ve hit the ceiling. No matter where you are on the career path, there are always other things out there, dangling like carrots for you to chase. Worse, it’s easy to see those who are further ahead and envy their successes. (They are front and center in the bookstore, interviewed in every magazine, or walking red carpets at movie premieres.) Success is far more “in your face” in this profession than it is in others. When an accountant is more successful than you, you may not be able to tell other than by looking at his client roster, for example. Whereas with writers, it’s pretty damn obvious who is J.K. Rowling and who isn’t.
As a result, it’s difficult to be happy wherever you are because there’s always somewhere else you can be. Not published? Get published. Or shoot for a bigger house. Published only in ebook? What about paperback? Hardback? Audio? Heck, get a contract for all of the above! Unagented? Get an agent. Self-published? Shoot for more sales or “critical mass.” Or just shoot for traditional publication. Published with a Big 5? What’s wrong with you? Ask for a bigger advance! Oh, your book is a TV show? Well why not a movie for the next one, dammit! That movie didn’t win an Oscar? Well, the next one had better!
(Okay, I’m getting a little ridiculous. But perhaps not by much.)
Heaven help you if you backslide a little bit, or fail to progress along the path quickly enough. Or have a friend/writing group member who moves ahead of you. Oh, and don’t forget about the person who makes big money for (in your opinion) writing garbage. Those are even more sources for unhappiness, and there are plenty more.
What’s doubly hard is accepting a plateau. Sometimes, in any career, you reach a point where you think, “This is it. I can’t go any further.” It may be because you know your talent isn’t enough, or because the system is unfair (ageism, sexism, racism, etc.), or because you’ve screwed something up and everyone knows it, or any of a thousand other reasons. Sometimes there comes a day where you have no choice but to accept where you are because there’s nowhere else to go. While it’s always hard, it’s easier to accept in some occupations.
But writing? It feels like there should always be somewhere else to go. After all, advancement hinges solely on your work and willingness to hustle, right? Well, yes and no. There are reasons why progress can be interrupted or halted and they always feel like personal failure, even if they’re totally unrelated to your work or ability to hustle. Writers tend to believe that everything is under our control, somehow, even when it’s not. When we run up against the uncontrollable, we confuse it with failure. (Don’t get me wrong. It works the other way, too. Sometimes we truly fail and confuse it with something uncontrollable. Either way sucks, it’s just that the former means we’re stuck while the latter means there may yet be room to move up.)
Writing is a job that takes your envy, insecurity, FOMO, competitiveness, ambition, and talent, twists them into a thick rope and beats you with it. Daily. Sometimes hourly. No wonder writers are never happy. It takes a very strong person to say, “I like where I am. I’m satisfied and none of those other things appeal to me, or make me envious. If they happen, great, but if not, I’m still happy. Contentment doesn’t come easy.
What’s really funny is that the more unhappy we get, the more we want to go back to the beginning. To write just because we love it. To put all that other stuff aside and write our stories without worry about the outcome, or reaching the next rung on the ladder. We yearn for those days when all we wanted was a spare hour to write. Just one spare hour! It was so much simpler to want to write than it is to want all the other stuff that goes with it. Writing was the thing that was supposed to make us happy. It does, but it also opens the gates to a whole lot of unhappiness.
Is there an answer? A way to magically become happy and satisfied with wherever we are on the path? If there is, I don’t have it. I suffer from the same daily rope beatings as most other writers. Despite having read a ton of self-help books, I still haven’t achieved contentment with my lot in the writing life. I still want more, but also less, if that makes sense. I’m working on it, though, and have some thoughts to share next week.
(Image by Alexas_Fotos)