Dani Shapiro
July 8, 2009

On Focusing on Results

The other day, I had a long talk with a writer friend who’s having a tough time. “If only I could see the future,” she said, “then I’d feel better.” I stopped myself from answering: “Wouldn’t we all?” Wouldn’t we all like at least a peek into a crystal ball? A life spent writing, more than most sorts of lives, is one lived as an act of faith. A glimmer of an idea becomes a sentence. A sentence builds to another sentence, then another. A paragraph. A few flimsy pages. Sometimes the whole mess gets thrown away. Other times, something begins to happen. A feeling, a sense of momentum, a shimmer around the edges that makes us thing that maybe, just maybe we’re on to something here. So we keep going. If we’re writing a book, the few flimsy pages become a pile of pages. The pile of pages becomes a novel, or a memoir, or a collection of stories. But still…there are no guarantees. Every writer I know has some version of the “if only’s”.

If only that literary magazine would accept my story.
If only I get that fellowship.
If only I sell this book.
If only I can sell it to a particular publisher.
If only they pay me _____.
If only they print enough copies.
If only it gets reviewed in ______.
If only Oprah picks it.
If only it becomes a (regional, national, international) bestseller
If only it moves from #16 to #7 on the list.

I promise you, all of these “if only’s” are real, even though some of them might seem preposterous. When I was getting ready to publish my first novel, my agent at the time told me that she had an author who was #3 on the bestseller list, but was obsessed with #2 and #1. I was perplexed, somewhat disbelieving. Surely, I thought, a writer who has reached those heights of success would feel satisfied. (I still kind of think this.) But it did illuminate what I think is a universal truth for all of us writers, which is that nothing is ever enough. I’ve experienced this myself. I’ve received some great piece of news — a rave in The New York Times Book Review, a second printing, a movie option — and my mind almost instantly leaps to the next thing. Happy, certainly. Relieved, to be sure. But also, grasping. Wanting more. Wanting to see the future. Full of more “if only’s”.

I understand why this happens. It happens because in order to write anything good–anything that feels alive–a writer has put all of herself into the writing. Heart, soul, intellect–all in there. So what external result could possibly be enough, after years of immersion, years of struggle, of solitary grappling with the page? The answer is that there IS NO ENOUGH. The crystal ball, if we had one, would show us a landscape of peaks and valleys, ups and downs that are useless information for us.

All we have the right to hope for — a teacher once told me — is the chance to do it again. And again, and again. With no answers, no guarantees, no knowledge of the future. Only “a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching, and keeps us more alive than the rest.”