Who among us doesn’t want more? Often it seems like whatever we writers have isn’t enough. I remember once, years ago, complaining to my agent about how one of my books was doing. (By the way, many people would have thought it was doing just fine.) My agent told me that she had an author who was then occupying the #3 slot on the New York Times Bestseller List, and was miserable and obsessed (see Envy) that he wasn’t #2 or #1.
Sheeesh, I remember thinking. I’ll never be that way. Now that–that’s crazy.
Well, maybe so. But I have noticed, in my own writing life, that as soon as I reach a certain goal, my mind–like a quick-eyed, sniffing little bunny rabbit–immediately darts to the next. When I was in graduate school, I wanted more than anything to have a book contract for my first novel before I graduated. (Yes, I know, I was a greedy young writer with something to prove–to myself, to the world, or so I thought.) I achieved that improbable goal, and then I wanted more. I wanted a teaching job at a good university, preferably an Ivy League one. Check. I published a second novel, a third. I wasn’t getting what I considered to be the serious review attention though. I badly wanted that. With my fourth book, I got it. I wanted to be published in The New Yorker, and places like Granta. Right around that time, I got that too.
Shut up, already, I know you’re thinking. You got everything that you wanted, right?
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear writer friends, I’m here to tell you in all honesty that it doesn’t work that way. I know some of you are sitting there thinking what a greedy b#@%tch. And others of you are probably nodding your heads in recognition. Because this is the way it is. If we are fortunate enough to reach our goals–whatever they might be–almost always, we want more. I remember, last year, waking up in London to my husband, waving his iphone, telling me that Devotion was #3 on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List. Now that was a very good day. That evening, now in Paris, my husband, son and I went out and celebrated. And I’ll admit: I had a moment. All was well. I was in Paris with my beloved family, we were on our way to teach at our wonderful writing conference, and my book was improbably a bestseller. We toasted with champagne, we ate all manner of delicious French food, and I was completely, utterly content.
How long did it last?
It was one, maybe two days later that the fretting set in. Would the book hit any other bestseller lists? (It did.) How long would it remain on the list? (One week.) What was I going to do next? (It would be a long eight months before I’d be able to sink into something new.) Was the publishing industry in as dire straights as it seemed? (Um…yep.) And then some icky things happened. My book required an enormous amount of traveling and time away from my family in order to keep word-of-mouth going on it. I grew ragged and worn to the bone.
How I wish that we all could hold onto the joyful moments as they come! Whether the joyful moment has to do with completing a short story, finishing a manuscript of a novel, finding an agent, getting a book deal, admission to a writing workshop or conference, or simply feeling good at the end of a writing day–to be able to breathe into the feelings of accomplishment and creative satisfaction is all any of us ever can hope for.
I do think that greed comes from this: each and every one of us writers pours our whole selves, our hearts and souls, into the work at hand. Those flimsy pages represent our very beings. And so of course there is no “enough”. But I hope for all of us–at least on good days–we can counteract our greed, with this, in the words that Martha Graham wrote to Agnes DeMille on the opening night of “Cabaret”: No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.