One of the best books I've read recently is comedienne Amy Poehler's Yes, Please. Part memoir, part advice book, it's chock-full of wisdom for anyone in a creative field. One of my favorite lines in the book is: CARE ABOUT THE WORK, NOT THE RESULT.
Creativity, Poehler says, is where we find our joy and comfort. We need to put our effort into making the highest quality art that we can. This is THE WORK. It's what sustains us, nurtures our soul. It's what we'd want to do even if we weren't getting paid for it. The work is what is in our control.
THE RESULT is something else entirely. It is how our work is received. The result is agents and publishers and bestseller lists and awards. It's our career--and much of it is outside our control. Poehler describes career as "a bad boyfriend" who "ignores you and doesn't call, who flirts with other people right in front of you. With a bad boyfriend, you're never satisfied." You'll always want more.
The best way to handle a career, like a bad boyfriend, Poehler says, is to ignore it. If you ignore it, it will come to you.
While this approach may work with bad boyfriends, it's easy to wonder if the analogy is truly apt for writing careers. How can we ignore our careers? We all know that in a crowded marketplace we have no hope of getting noticed if we sit idly by. It seems easy for Poehler to say 'ignore it' when she's among the most famous comedians of her generation. She can afford to ignore it, while the rest of us can't.
'Ignore' is perhaps the wrong word here, though I think her sentiment is essentially correct. Poehler references Buddhism many times throughout the book and what I think she's trying to espouse is the Buddhist concept of non-attachment. Yes, we must do all of those things required of us to bring attention to our work, but we need to free ourselves from caring about what happens afterwards. For instance, we should definitely schedule author appearances but try not to be upset if the crowd is small. We do what we can and then recognize the rest is out of our hands. We should promote our work to the best of our ability, but not be disheartened if it doesn't hit the bestseller list.
The hard truth is that fame and fortune in any creative field is a crap shoot. While we'd like to believe that if we work hard enough we can make ourselves successful in the most conventional sense of the word, luck and timing have a great deal to do with it. It's impossible to know what will strike a chord with the public. Just look at what is popular in current culture right now. What we choose to elevate as a culture is funny and unpredictable.
My daughters both participate in a computer programming community on the web. The most popular program? A three-second animated loop of dancing yams. Thousands of people like it. Personally, I don't get it--they look like orange polar bears to me. The point is, it's impossible to predict what is going to take off. I doubt even the kid who created up the program could have dreamed it would receive so much attention. [Actually, if you look at his comments in the sidebar, he's just as surprised as anyone.]
Instead of being discouraged by outcomes, we need to put our energy not into what we can't control but into the work itself--the very thing that sustains us. Do it for yourself and no one else. Take pride in creating your very best work, then let the rest go. The work must be its own reward.