Writers often think that getting published will make them happy. In her new book, “The Myth of Happiness,” Sonja Lyubomirsky, warns against putting too much emphasis on the “happy when” idea. It’s not that the things we think will make us happy don't—often they do—but the new happiness wears off quickly. Soon we get used to the new situation or the new possession and yearn for the next thing. Having goals is not a bad thing, but making yourself unhappy until you reach them is.
I can verify that this applies to writing. Here is the screenwriter’s typical progression:
I’ll be happy when…
- Somebody buys my script, even if they don’t produce it.
- Somebody buys and my script and produces it, even if they change everything.
- Somebody buys my script and doesn't change anything, even if it's not a success at the box office.
- Somebody buys my script, doesn't change anything, and it's a hit at the box office.
- I get nominated for an Academy Award, even if I don't win.
- I win an Academy Award.
The key to being happy seems to be enjoying whatever you’re doing. If you let your happiness depend on a particular outcome, you’re a hostage to fortune.
EPICTETUS HAD A BETTER IDEA
This is one of many aspects of life that the Stoic philosopher Epictetus thought about. I was turned off to philosophy at college by Plato’s account of Socrates’ dialogues; his supposed students always asked the questions that would conveniently lead to Socrates being able to prove his point, rather than the questions anybody really would ask.
Initially I didn’t pay any attention to the Stoics because I thought their key idea was that you should suffer without complaining. It turns out this is only half their point.
I think their idea is non-attachment and moderation. If things are going well, enjoy it, but don’t expect it to last; if things are going badly, that won’t last, either (at the very worst, it’ll end when you die).
I've bene helped through some hard times by the sayings of Epictetus. Here are a few:
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”
“No greater thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”
“If you wish to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”
“When a man prides himself on being able to understand and interpret a difficult book, say to yourself: If the book had been well written this man would have nothing on which to pride himself.”
“If you wish to be a writer, write.”
One of the collections of his sayings is “The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness.”
Another Stoic worth your time is Marcus Aurelius, and his book “Meditations.” Here’s one quote of his that should resonate with writers: “Begin—to begin is half the work, let half still remain; again begin this, and thou wilt have finished.”
(Buying my book, "Your Creative Writing Masterclass," will (probably) make you happy for a while. If you want the happiness to last a bit longer, read it more slowly. If you want the happiness to last a long time, apply the writing advice you'll find in the book. It comes from Dickens, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, and modern masters like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.)