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Finding pleasure in the work

2 min read

I wrote my very first novel just after high school. As with most first novels—particularly first novels written by someone hardly more than a teenager—it struggles mightily to be good. Oh, young me wanted so badly to be a writer. That eagerness regularly collided with my inexperience, not only as a writer, but as a human navigating the world.  

Consider this snippet from that first novel:

The third thing I walked away with was a publishing contract. My first novel, after some light editing, would be published in the summer. Marsha had explained to me that it would go to press with a mild run of about one hundred thousand copies. I would receive an advance of one thousand dollars for the book, and of course, she explained, significant royalty checks every two months.

After some "light editing"! A "mild run" of a hundred thousand copies! The thousand-dollar advance must have seemed like a grand sum to me then, and it's clear that I had no understanding of how royalties worked.

But all of this is normal, isn't it? In the early years we don't know what we don't know. As readers, we know what we love; as writers, we're doing our best to imitate. I love the way Ira Glass talks about creativity—and taste, and ambition—for artists who are just getting started:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.

The goals really shift over time, too. How you measure your success and fulfillment as an artist. It just...changes. A lot. The me who wrote that first novel genuinely believed that, by age twenty-five, he'd be published, beloved, writing full-time. Which, okay, that's fine. Sidney Lumet, in his book Making Movies, wrote:

Creative work is very hard, and some sort of self-deception is necessary simply in order to start.

Last month I turned forty-four; more than twenty-five years has passed since I wrote that first novel. If I were looking back over those years, measuring my success by the metrics young me valued, I'd be disappointed. Over time the metrics have changed. I care much more about the pleasure of doing the work; I try not to worry about the things outside of my control. The work itself, really, is the only thing I can reliably affect. I like that much more than any notion my younger self had of fame. Nowadays I do so love the quiet.

See also these past Letters from Hill House: There goes another orbit and The pleasure of doing the work.

letters from hill houseprocessmemories


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