The Next Big Thing

Whenever I dream of a Big Accomplishment, I recall Robin Williams’s description of winning an Oscar. First, on the night of the blessed event, the world says, “Hey! You won an Oscar!” But by the next day, a friend passing him on the street might only remark, “Hey, there. You won that Oscar.” A week later, the accomplishment is downgraded to a question: “Did you win the Oscar?” A month later, no one remembers who won what.

Any writer, no matter his experience level, no matter how many books he’s published, will tell you that, “You are only as good as your next book.” This can seem like a cruel, treadmill metric by which to live. What’s more, it is easy to lay the blame for this on publishers or the reading public, all those thankless souls who seem to forget so quickly what profit and pleasure we brought them from our toil.

The publishers and readers have nothing to do with this truism whatsoever. We, the writers, invented it, demanded it even. No matter how hard you worked on a book, no matter how honest you were in the telling, no matter how much you loved the final product, as soon as the book is done, you are done with it. You are done creating it, which means you are done learning from it, which means you are a different than the person who started writing it, which means you are meant to write something different now.

Of course you are only as good as your next book. Whether that next book sells as well or is applauded as loudly as the last book is not the point. You and your next book exist in the present moment, where all your accumulated goodness resides. To perceive your work any other way is an inadvertent suicidal dream – to believe that your life, which is only expansion, which is only the next thing, somehow ended before your did.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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The Wall

I had what I think of as an artistic coming-of-age moment while watching the Grammies when I was fifteen. That year, Pink Floyd’s concept album, The Wall, was up for Album of the Year. To me this was not even a contest. I had listened closely and repeatedly to The Wall, and by my estimation pop musicians could pack up their guitars and amps because the art form had reached its unequivocal apex in this album. I never watched the Grammies, but I would that year, if only to bask in the sympathetic glow of the world heaping praise and hardware on my team.

I sat in a butterfly chair in my living room drinking grape juice and waiting, waiting, waiting for that moment. There was a lot of waiting. Album of the Year would be one of the last awards given. No matter, it would be worth it. It would be worth it to know that all the world agreed with me. At last the moment came. The presenter listed the finalists. I felt a strange thrill hearing him lean into the microphone and say, “Pink Floyd’s The Wall.” I felt like he had said my name. That done, he removed the envelope, opened it, and read the winner:

Christopher Cross.

Unbeknownst to me, Christopher Cross’s debut album was huge. Unbeknownst, because every time one of his songs came on the radio, I quickly changed the channel. I understood someone somewhere was interested his music, but it was nothing serious, nothing Pink Floyd needed to worry about at the Grammies. I do not want to diminish the devastation this caused. It was as if I was four and Walter Cronkite had just announced that there was no Santa Claus. It would be days before I could listen to Pink Floyd again just knowing that there were so many people who would rather listen to Christopher Cross.

For a time I tried soothing myself with the knowledge that the world was clearly inhabited by aesthetically colorblind rubes and at least I wasn’t one of them. But this brought little satisfaction. Eventually, I lost interest in Pink Floyd. They were too gloomy, and I was trying to cheer up. Perhaps the Grammy judges found them too gloomy as well. As for Christopher Cross, I have to admit that if Sailing or Ride like the Wind came on the radio, I’d still change the channel.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Won Or Lost

I interviewed Nicole Krauss on Monday. Her latest novel, Great House, was nominated for the National Book Award, and tonight she will find out if she won. Since she’s the only one of the five finalists I’ve interviewed, I’m pulling for her.

I think writing awards can serve a very practical purpose. If Nicole wins, her publisher will be able to slap a gold seal on her book’s cover, which might garner her another 10,000 readers, give or take—though I suspect Great House will do just fine however tonight turns out. Likewise, contests like those sponsored by the PNWA at its yearly conference give new writers a chance to catch the attention of agents and editors. So bravo for contests. Every little bit helps.

Awards are tricky, however, as they suggest that there was ever a competition in the first place.  No one is ever in competition when they sit down to write; to compete requires comparison and there is no one for you to compare to when you write. You are alone and meant to be so. Thus, for those nominated, the challenge of the winner and loser alike remains the same: forget it.

The moment you move your attention from what you want to say to what other people think about what you have said or might say—you are lost. And I mean, completely, and thoroughly lost. You will either not know what to write, or you will write something and dislike it and perhaps even eventually yourself. I say this with complete confidence because unless you know what it is you want to write, you don’t have anything to write.

Not to worry, what you want to say will never leave you, no matter how long you stare at what you think other people think. What you want to say doesn’t care if you won and it doesn’t care if you lost, it only wishes for your undivided attention, for as long as you can give it. And when you can’t give it any more, when you absolutely have to look at the trophy case, be it empty or full, what you want to say will wait still more, wait for you to return and feel the difference between an idea of what you were, and the knowledge of who you are.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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