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I was driving home one day, having spent the afternoon with an old friend. He was a writer like me, though a playwright and screenwriter rather than a novelist. However, like me, nothing much was happening for him career-wise, which is why I got to hang out with him. He had flown to Seattle from Los Angeles to build and install some custom cabinets for a mutual friend. I, meanwhile, would be back to my job as a waiter at a steakhouse the next day.
All this was floating around in me as I drove through our mutual friend’s splendid neighborhood. What nice houses, I thought. I’d like to have a place like this some day. When I sell a book, I thought, maybe I’ll be able to afford such a house and have someone install custom cabinets. This appealed to me. Not that I cared much about cabinets, but I liked the idea of someone building something specifically for me. That’s how life ought to be lived, I believed. I thought of my job and my unpublished novels, and said to myself, “When I’m successful, then my life will feel built for me.”
Something unusual happened at that moment. I sort of split in two, half of me like an author, the other half like a character in that author’s story. The author heard the character say that his life would be better when he was successful, and then the author said, “I’ve been living my entire life for results. They’re all that matter to me.” In the next moment I came back together, and knew immediately that living my life for results was completely backwards. But I knew this in the way a writer knows he’s got a good story before he knows how to tell it. Which is to say, I had no idea what I was living for, what success was, if not results. It felt like I would be playing a game without keeping score.
I didn’t know many other writers then. I do now, however. Most of the writers I know, both beginning and experienced, struggle in one way or another with this challenge. The writer’s career can easily feel dominated by results. From rejection and acceptance letters, to contracts, to Amazon rankings and bestseller lists, the author has many results by which she can measure her success. Unfortunately, these results are never stable. One acceptance letter can be followed by months of rejection letters; Amazon rankings can fall; contracts can shrink. We have no salary, no time clock to punch. How quickly uncertainty can give way to despair. How easy to look with envy at Brand Name authors, not just because they’ve sold more books or won more awards, but because their success seems so much more entrenched then yours, because they’ve somehow built a fortress of certainty within which they can live happily and confidently and safe from the violent storms of change.
I have always taken my writing very seriously. I had been writing regularly and diligently and honing my craft since I was a young man. I had attended writer’s conferences and learned about how to find agents and write query letters. But what I had not learned was the true source and measurement of an author’s success. When I sit down to write, I ask questions. I ask, “What do I want to write about today?” Or, “What should happen next?” Or, “How can I describe that feeling of knowing something before you can prove it?” After I ask a question, I wait and listen, and eventually I get an answer. I used to think I was the one who both asked and answered the questions. After all, I was the only one at the desk. I really began to understand success when I accepted that something else answered the questions I asked.
What you call that something else is up to you. Some call it The Muse; others their imagination. Some call it their spirit guides or God or Source Energy. The word’s not important. What is important is to understand your role in the creative relationship with whatever joins you at the desk. And it is a relationship. Unlike all the other relationships you have with people you love and people you tolerate, people who interest you and people who kind of drive you crazy, your Muse is absolutely consistent. She doesn’t have bad days. She isn’t capricious. She never worries, and she won’t blame you for her troubles because she doesn’t have any. She’s here just for you every moment of every single day. All you have to do is ask a question to which you sincerely want an answer and there’s she’ll be. You will, of course, have to translate those answers some, and that’s where the business of craft comes in. Learning craft, however, is relatively easy compared to learning to trust that the relationship with that Muse is the source of all the publishing results you desire.
You see your Muse doesn’t care about results. She doesn’t care about your Amazon ranking or what your agent thinks of your new book. She just wants to create stuff. Don’t ask her about the future. Don’t ask her what other people think of your work. Don’t ask her if your story’s any good. Just ask her what should happen next. Ask her what your heroine does for a living or why the prince can’t get home. All the results I’ve wanted have grown out of that relationship. As an author, it’s the only certain thing in my life. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I don’t know how many copies of my books I’ll sell or how many hits I’ll get on YouTube. But I do know my Muse will be waiting for me at the desk and she’ll be ready to answer any question as long I sincerely want to ask it.
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