“And the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Literature is….” I don’t know about other writers, but I’ve usually gotten my acceptance speech written before my next novel or short story is even outlined. Most have, I suspect. Probably most people who try to accomplish something of any significance do the same thing. I also dream about the huge amounts of money my efforts will surely generate. I mean, spending longer at the top of the NY Times Bestseller than any other writer ever has should be worth a few bucks. Right?
Some are afraid to admit to these delusions of grandeur. It’s always fun to watch a writer put on his serious face and proclaim that dreaming of success is just a distraction. It’s all about the work. If you hear a writer say that, you know he’s in the right field. Especially if he writes fantasy. Writers spend a large part of both the day and the night inventing new realities populated entirely by characters we created. Don’t believe for a minute we don’t spend time creating new realities for ourselves.
The day dreams become a problem only if they get in the way of productive creativity. When they’re kept in control, they can be a great motivator. If all I thought about was the work, the problems, and the likelihood that almost no one will ever read the crap I scribble down, I’m pretty sure I’d have a different outlook on life. I’d probably still write because the stories and the characters don’t give me much choice. Every one of those characters, though, would endure untold tragedy and suffering, then live to a ripe old age so they could relive their misery for a long, long time. It’s better for everybody when I dream a little.
The thing about fantasies is that every once in a while they become reality, and some of the magic is almost always lost in the transition. What nobody tells a new writer, or practitioner of any other medium, is that the dream of critical acclaim almost always negates the dream of financial success. Likewise, winning awards that proclaim, “This is a great piece of work,” are a pretty good sign that independent wealth is not just around the corner. From my limited perspective, the popular writer buys a beautiful, ridiculously expensive beach house with his own private beach, and the Pulitzer Prize winner might score an invitation to spend a week enjoying it, if the “successful” writer likes his work.
So what to do? Write what sells, and enjoy the money, or write what’s seen as intellectual and enjoy the praise of academia? Always remembering, of course, that a little piece of your soul goes into every creation whether it’s literature, painting, music, dance, or whatever. People whose opinions matter little to me in everyday life become hugely important when their attention is focused on something I’ve written. I might pretend otherwise, but the truth is that my insides are all knotted up until a verdict is given. It comes down to validation, and the question becomes do I want to be validated with financial prestige, or with academic prestige.
It seems like an easy question to answer. Do you need money? Then go with the money. Do you need your self-esteem boosted? Choose the critics and the academics. Do you need both? Congratulations! You’re screwed. Actually, that’s the catch. It doesn’t matter which one you need, the work is almost certainly going to get you neither. A few people will read it, and most will at least claim to like it. But hundreds, if not thousands, of books are published every day, and every one of those writers has the same dreams. Some of the best ones will languish, never reaching more than a couple of hundred readers. Some of the worst ones will take off, earning their writers lots of money. All of them will compete for attention and sales.
The reality sounds discouraging, and sometimes, it is. It makes the question of what to write and who to write it for easy to answer, though. Write what’s true. Write the characters that demand to be birthed onto a page and allowed to take their chances out in the world. Tell the story that won’t shut up until it’s given form and substance. Make it as polished and accessible as it can be, then give it to someone who can make it better. Some people will like it. Lots of folks won’t. Either way, that idea is no longer screaming to be let out. Another has taken its place. Time to write another acceptance speech and start looking for a nice beach house.