My brother works in Hollywood, which in certain ways isn’t all that different from publishing, but in one way is significantly different than publishing – money. I’m not saying you can’t get rich writing books – indeed I’ve met many writers who have – but success in television and film almost always translates to a level of financial wealth not known by every successful novelist. Money is great, but its potential can sometimes distract you from the job at hand, which regardless of your medium is always telling the story you most want to tell. The other night my brother was playing poker with a new group of pals. It wasn’t going well. The stakes weren’t high, but he was in the hole and playing poorly. After another bad hand, he realized he wasn’t even enjoying himself. Why bother if there’s no pleasure?
He got up from the table for a short break. As he stood outside he realized he was only playing for himself. He was only playing so he could walk away with twenty extra dollars, so that he could win not just cash but these men’s approval. It meant nothing. So he told himself a story. He decided he was no longer playing for himself but for his new girlfriend’s children’s college fund. He sat back at the table and was immediately dealt a near-perfect hand. Before long he was back in the black.
He did not know it at the time, but he had discovered a fundamental truth of all artistic endeavors: that every work of art, that every story ever told, should be in service to something greater than the Small You, the you who needs a roof over your head and the approval of others. And by service I do not mean the sort of altruism my brother concocted that night, though that is fine; rather the understanding that you write to share whatever you believe is of value.
Once upon a time you were not a working writer. Once upon a time you merely loved to read. One day you read a book, and you were transported. What a gift! Why, it was as if the writer had told this story just for you. Remember how glad you were on that day that such a book existed? You are writing now, in part, to offer such a moment to another reader like yourself, another reader you will probably never meet. This is service. Do not doubt for a moment that the world is a slightly richer place when you offer it the gem of a story you discovered in yourself.
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