A story on Forbes online just over a month ago was entitled “So You Want To Be A Writer? Here’s How To Make The Transition From Your Day Job”. Straight away, I felt a little irritated. I know it was intended as an attention-grabber, designed to pull readers in, because – let’s face it – everyone is a potential writer these days because it’s obviously such a cinch of a career.
Yet I dislike headlines like that for their inane simplicity. No one has ever written a sure-fire guide on how to become a successful freelance writer, and no one ever will. No matter how good the advice contained within such a book or article, no wannabe writer will ever be able to replicate the path taken by those successful souls who have trekked ahead of them.
Careers can turn on one sentence spoken within one meeting to one specific individual. Even with a detailed map of every action and decision that brought the most successful writer to their current position of greatness, the success of the avid follower of that map is never assured. The guide is little more than a fairytale. There are just too many variables.
Moving beyond the headline, the article described a Q&A session the journalist conducted with a “New York Times best-selling author”. The author is Pam Binder. I had never heard of her, let alone read anything by her, so I cannot offer any opinion on the merit of her work. She’s obviously done well, so I take my hat off to her.
However, she said something within her responses that made me groan. She said this:
“So, if there are any words of wisdom I can share it’s that you really can follow your dream. If your dream is to become a published author, keep writing, learn all you can about the craft as well as the business side, and never give up. The art of storytelling is a gift that everyone can attain.”
On the surface, that all seems perfectly reasonable advice. Burrow down into reality, however, and you’ll find a few holes.
It’s not wisdom to say you can follow your dreams; it’s a cliché. I’ve been guilty at times of uttering such glibness, but only after delivering a hefty does of realism. To give her some credit, Binder does say “follow” your dream not “achieve” your dream, a distinction which will not be lost on those of you (and me) who have been following your dream for decades and never getting any closer to grabbing it.
I equally have no argument with Binder’s advice to keep writing and learn your craft, but then she ruins it by telling you to “never give up”. I hate reading that kind of crap. It’s so easy for the successful person to say such things. What they will never know, and therefore what undermines their advice, is whether they would have continued to slog away unsuccessfully for the following 20, 30, 40, 50 years until they turned their bitter and unfulfilled toes up.
I think not. And there is no shame in giving up when your head is in pieces from banging it against a wall you will never break through. Which brings me to her last pearl of wisdom: that everyone can attain the gift of storytelling.
No they can’t. Of course they can’t. Successful writers like Binder shouldn’t be saying things like that. We don’t need any more delusional people flocking into this profession, thank you very much. This is not a career that requires a recruitment drive. She also belittles the art of writing to suggest anyone can do it. Not everyone possesses every skill, nor is capable of learning every skill. Some people aren’t good at certain endeavours. Some people are good, but not good enough. Some people are phenomenal yet will still never make that crucial breakthrough. That’s life.
I understand why she says this, though. The autobiographies of the successful all contain the same “logic”. For successful people, it is self-evident: they wanted to make it, they tried to make it, they made it. QED. Then, from there, the “logic” arises that there’s a formula for success. It is often summarised by the psychology of achievement brigade who tell you: “What the mind of man can conceive of, and believe in, it can achieve.” Conceive, believe, achieve. Damn, that’s awesome. It’s so simple. What they don’t mention is the vast amount of hard work you need to put it, and the requisite amount of skill you should possess. You also need to take a good long look at who is doing the conceiving and believing; the relative sanity of the person. Unfortunately, the artistic world, with all its branches, has more than its fair share of people who are, to some degree, deluded. And when a deluded person believes in something, it often doesn’t mean a whole lot.
I can think of going to the moon, I believe I will go to the moon, so I will go to the moon.
Will I? Will I hell. I know that because I am fairly sane. In the belief category, I would say I am pretty realistic. Depressed, pessimistic, realistic, optimistic, mad.
Hey, if you want to pursue your dreams, you go ahead – I wouldn’t say otherwise. If people didn’t think such big and mad thoughts, and have such big and mad beliefs, the world would possess but a fraction of its human greatness.
But the clue is in the word “pursue”. You’re running after something, and it may always be quicker than you.