I was spending the weekend going over the final copyedits for my upcoming Berkley/Penguin release (The Way We Weren’t, under my pen name, Phoebe Fox), and having one of Pyle’s moments of creative despair myself. These generally fall into one of a few recurring categories for me:
- Inadequacy: “This is terrible.”
- Perfectionism: “I could have done so much better.”
- Comparison: “[Fill-in-the-blank] is a much better writer than I am.”
- Futility: “What’s the point?”
I’m betting some of these may be familiar to you too, and you may have a few additional greatest-hits creative demons of your own.
This time I was suffering from #4, my So What? demon. I’ve spent many years working on this story, in countless iterations. It was a thrill to sell it and know it would finally find its way to readers, but now that it’s about to, I found myself feeling daunted. In such an overwhelmingly crowded publishing environment, how many people would actually read it? And what would it matter if they did?
That same night I was with some of my girlfriends and talk turned to books we’ve read. I mentioned I’d read one a friend touted, and another asked, “It was good?”
“I enjoyed it,” I said. “I mean, it didn’t change my life, but it was really good.”
My friend laughed. “Has any book actually ever ‘changed your life’?” she asked.
There ensued a conversation about the books that have touched us deeply, but my friend’s question got me examining my feelings about my upcoming release. Am I defining this story as a success only if it’s a major critical hit, or a huge seller, or “changes someone’s life”?
What is the standard of worth for our art?
I’ve written about knowing why you write here, to stay grounded and in touch with what’s important to you in your creative pursuits. And I solidly know my “why” for fiction–I write to explore ideas I want to examine, usually around themes of forgiveness and family, and I want to write the kind of stories I love to read. Both of which I feel good about with this book.
But I got all tangled up in what comes after the creation of the art—which I have no control over. And I reverse-engineered the “results” the book achieves as a justification for its existence: If it isn’t a huge “success,” what’s the point?
This morning I walked through my house looking at some of the artwork in it that regularly gives me the greatest pleasure.
I fell in love with this one–inspired by one of her books I especially loved, The Copenhagen Affair, and it hangs in front of my desk, where my eye lands on it daily and it nourishes my soul.
This isn’t a mass-produced piece. It’s an original, and I don’t think there are prints of it. Only I and people in my home get to enjoy this work of art. Does that make it less “worthy”? It’s worth a great deal to me—it brings me joy every day. Is that not art’s highest calling?
This is a vase made by my great-aunt I never knew. I think its workmanship is amazing–the perfection of its shape, its smooth texture, the colors of the glaze. It’s a simple piece, and the creator gifted it to a family member with no expectation it might enjoy wider “acclaim” than that. Does that detract from its merit as art? Yet here I am two generations later admiring it every day.
Here’s another piece I love and look at daily. My mom painted this watercolor for me from a picture of another piece she copied. It took her nearly a year and she did it in secret, wanting to surprise me with it. These are not her colors–she loves muted pastels–and this is not her kind of subject matter. But she thought it might mean something to me, and she worked hard on the meticulous details, like the crosshatching, and she even changed the name on the boat to the name of her boat that our family had many happy outings on.
All that effort and time…just so it could be enjoyed by a single person. Yet my mom was lit up when she finally got to give me the finished painting, and even more so when she saw my joyful reaction. And she loves seeing it featured prominently in my office every time she visits. It makes me think of her every day, and her love for me. Would I judge this art as pointless?
Why am I so quick to do that with my own?
Why do any of us creative souls impose a barometer of worth on our work that has nothing to do with the work itself and is beyond our control or creation–like reviews or sales or acclaim?
Our concern is the creation of the work—for ourselves, for its own sake. To have a vision in your head, to develop that vision, to set it down in words and bring it to life on a page…what an accomplishment that is! How rare and special to bring something wholly original and your own into existence.
Why must the work achieve more than that to be considered worthwhile? Who is the judge of whether it has worth if not us, its creator?
Why isn’t the making of art—the astonishing process of creating something from nothing—considered success in and of itself?
I always think of the pinnacle of my former career as an actor—which included a number of higher-profile film and TV jobs—as the curtain call of a show I did years ago at a regional theater. I don’t even remember for sure which theater or play it was, but I do remember looking out to see a man on his feet, clapping with everything in him, tears running down his face.
I remember feeling that this was why I acted. That night that man had an experience as a result of what he saw on that stage. I don’t know what it was, or whether it “changed his life.”
But for that moment, something I was part of creating connected profoundly and intimately with another human being. It brings tears to my eyes still to remember it.
To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, If that isn’t creative success, I don’t know what is.
Over to you, authors—do you ever struggle with wondering whether your writing matters? How do you work through those moments? Do you know your “why,” and if so what is it?