If you've been out of town or off-grid for the last few days, then you probably missed hearing about Neil Gaiman's commencement address to graduates of the University of the Arts. Even if you've heard about and/or listened, it's a speech well worth listening to again. So, go ahead; I'll wait.
Now, there's a lot in this particular speech worth focusing on, especially the stuff about making your own rules. On the other hand, I'll be honest: I did that way back. Figured out which rules I could break and the ones I had to stick to, and then acted accordingly. Would I have gotten further faster if I'd stuck to the rules back then? Again, being honest? The answer is no. I did stuff you weren't supposed to, but I'd gone by the rules for a while, gotten nowhere, and decided I couldn't be doing any worse , so . . . why not?
Of course, it also might have been that what I'd actually written before wasn't what it needed to be to break in. But I don't necessarily believe that either because I'd been playing by the rules with stuff that kept being routinely rejected--but which got accepted, pretty much right away, once I decided to break the rules.
But that's not actually what I'm writing about today. Nor do I agree with every single one of Gaiman's points because, honestly, you really DO need to a) be a pro, b) be on time and c) be turning in good stuff. I don't know anyone at this stage of the game who can be an absolute schmuck and yet be so totally brilliant that everyone just puts up with it . . . but then again, I don't move in the same circles as Gaiman and King and anyone else who's a mega-bestseller.
No, the part of Gaiman's address that I breezed right past--but which was, for me, the most important part--and something I still need to focus on is that whole enjoyment thing. It's really fascinating that while I heard it, I didn't "hear" it and it took a friend to point out to me what I'd missed. That's because he knows me, very well, and I'd just been stressing about everything I needed to get done in x-amount of time. He knew what he was hearing and how to rein me in.
Ask anyone who knows me, and they'll tell you: I'm a glass half-empty girl. Nothing's ever quite good enough nor do I believe that anything good--except my husband--lasts (and there are days when I wonder how much longer he'll put up with me). Call it a Freudian thing, or a result of being a kid whose dad was in a coupla different concentration camps, but I just don't trust that good things won't evaporate. I guess you could say that I'm not a look-on-the-bright-side kind of gal.
I tend to stress. I tend to do exactly what Gaiman talks about. I am ALWAYS thinking ahead to the next day, the next book, the next project, when I just MUST get a new book out there . . . all that stuff. Any enjoyment--even the accomplishment of FINISHING A BOOK (which is HUGE, guys, HUGE)--only lasts for a small span before I get restless, need to move on, have to edit. That kind of thing.
Now this type of restlessness is very good for, say, a medical student. An intern. A doctor, who's always leapfrogging ahead, thinking down the road, trying to figure out what might help someone in distress. In psychiatry, you're always in multiple times at once: in the moment with your patient; in their past, trying to tie what you're hearing to what's come up before; and in the patient's future, thinking about you might do or suggest that will help down the road.
But in terms of actually ENJOYING the moment--the fact that I'm holding a book I wrote in my hand?
Well, I do . . . and I don't.
I remember when all I wanted was to publish a short story. Then, it was I'd like to keep on publishing short stories. Then, it was holding a book I'd written in my hand. Then, breaking out of work for hire and into seeing my own stuff in print. Then . . . You get the picture. It's very Roseanne Rosanneadanna: always something.
I also think that I breezed past that part of Gaiman's address because I must have some fantasy of what making it to that point entails. Unlike Gaiman, I don't have long signing lines and all that; I'm not a tenth of the way to where he was when Stephen King gave him that advice. Putting aside the fact that if Stephen King liked ANYTHING I'd written and told me so and then gave me advice, TOO, I'd probably have a heart attack . . . I think that Gaiman's inability to take the advice points up a fundamental insecurity we writers have--and, maybe, always should.
A friend of mine makes distinctions between an author and a writer. Authors live in Author-Land, a lovely alternative universe where they rest on accolades, hob-nob with influential people, are quite fun at parties, tell super stories--but don't write a darn thing, or--if they do--not a lot or very good anymore. They live on what they've done. Think . . . Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner . . . or any writer who's effectively stopped writing but still has THE NAME.
Then, there are writers: people who grind it out, like golfers, every day. They do the work. They produce. They're in the trenches.
The thing is, I think Gaiman was being a writer: someone who had to look ahead to the next book, the next paycheck, the next series . . . whatever. I think that, if he's honest, Stephen King was and might still be that kind of writer, too: a man who could live on Author Island but has both the drive and the inability to stop writing. Both are successful precisely because they never could NOT look ahead to the next project. Oh, and yeah, they write well.
But you understand what I'm saying. Most of us will always be only as good as the next book, which means that being in the moment and enjoying the ride take as much work as . . . well . . . the work. For me, there's the flip-side, too: when the writing is going well, I BLOODY LOVE IT. There is NOTHING in the universe I'd rather do--and then I am enjoying the ride.
So, maybe, enjoying the ride is about enjoying the process of writing: the craft, the discovery, the desire to push oneself just a little harder, try something just a little different. Failing sucks, no question. But when you succeed--when you KNOW you nailed it--there's nothing finer. What's even better is when you get to share this with other people; when you entertain them with the world you've created. Enjoying THAT ride is just as important.
I think the take-home here is figuring out what "the ride" is and means to you, and understanding that the ride may change over time as you mature as a writer and go further along in your career. Recognize that enjoying the ride may mean something as profound as holding a bestseller YOU WROTE in your hand or allowing your SO to drag you to a movie because you've put in a hard day, sweating over that keyboard.
So, be flexible. Enjoy. And, remember: it's never a bad day when there's cake.