At some point, I'm not exactly sure when, I started telling something to people who told me they wanted to be a writer: "Is that something you want to spend at least an hour a day doing for the rest of your life, whether or not a single other living soul on God's green earth gives a damn? If so, get in line; there's a million others waiting." (That said, I couldn't present you with statistics about how many of them find another hobby after such a speech.)
If it sounds gauche of me to discourage other people, or if it sounds like I'm harboring some resentment of possible future competition, believe me, it isn't that. It's just that there are still staggering numbers of people who get into this game without the slightest idea of why. They think it's about validation of their ego, or about people patting them on the head for their originality or their ideas, and trust me, it's not about any of those things. It's about ...
Brad Warner recently linked to this essay in which a Zen master talks about one of the problems he sees with a lot of would-be prospective students. A great many of them, he reported, seem to have their priorities out of whack. They'll ask if they can go to Japan and do years of hard training, but they can't be bothered to show up at their neighborhood zendo to sit once a week; many of them often can't even be bothered to sit once a day on their own. Brad himself had commented on this tendency before, where he'd see people get all giddy over zazen after one sitting and then promptly do nothing afterwards.
Barring the usual behavior of people who are flakes and flit from one thing to another naturally, I think there's another motive at work: that of people who want to be praised for their intentions, rather than derive an inner reward from their actual behaviors.
I get this one a lot from the above-mentioned wanna-be writers. They want someone to tell them "Oh, you want to be a writer! That's excellent! Here, sit with me," and thus bask in the approval radiated by someone who to them constitutes an authority figure. What they don't want to do is actually put their ass in a chair and finish something, because that would be boring and uncool. They want the big rewards: fame, fortune, cachets of cool.
Never mind that those rewards come to some impossibly minuscule percentage of people who write, and who are typically thus rewarded because they have found a very salable way to flatter people of already-minimal imagination. Their motives are wrong. They aren't interested in the reward and the motivation that actually matters: writing something and finishing it.
Or, if they do put their ass in a chair and finish something, they don't want the act of writing to be its own reward. They get resentful if someone tells them, no, that idea is facile and implausible, you need to rethink it. They remain stuck in expert beginner mode.
Getting published and getting an audience is a nice bonus, and it's worth pursuing. But not because you want those things as the primary goal; those are handy by-products, like the fact that you can eat at the diner across the street from the car shop while you get your oil changed and your tire rotated. You don't go get your car serviced just so you can enjoy their scrambled eggs and raisin toast.
Time and again I think back to what Henry Rollins once said about his own work — that he was "just pretentious enough" to put it into print and get it out there for people to read. I always liked that phrase, and after reflecting back on what I just wrote here, I think I see why. The part he felt was pretentious wasn't the writing itself, but how seriously it needed to be taken in the eyes of others. In his own eyes, making the stuff was never something you could take too seriously. Maybe it was the only thing that mattered.
Other Lives Of The Mind