No Formula

This month’s issue of Author features an interview with Richard Bach, whose Jonathan Livingston Seagull sold approximately 40 million copies worldwide. I love the story of this book precisely because it is such an unusual candidate for mega-bestsellerdom. A book about a seagull that is less than 10,000 words long and is illustrated with black and white photos is far from what one thinks of when imagining what would be seen atop the New York Times list—yet there it was.

I decline the idea that there is a formula for success of any kind. Where in current (or past, for that matter) publishing wisdom would you find the recipe—Seagull, Short Story, Pictures = blockbuster? It defies all publishing logic except for this: people will want to buy what makes them happy.

The formula does not exist because no one knows for sure what will make them happy until they see it. That certain types of books routinely find their way to bestseller lists only means that human beings are habitual and will return to what has habitually moved and entertained them until something better or at least different comes along. But habit or no—no one knows what they want until they see it.

I know I don’t. I really don’t know anything until I see it. All I have is a feeling, which often arrives in the form of the question, “What do I want now?” It’s the most important and virtually the only question I ever ask. And no matter whether I’m choosing my next meal or my next scene, the process remains the same. I begin with the feeling I want and then wait for an idea that matches that feeling.  Then I make a decision and take an action and then ask what I want next. Repeat billions of time and you have a life.

But I never know what I want until I see it.  I can’t and I don’t want to. All of our lives exist out in the endless, dark, malleable potential we call The Future. The Future awaits our decisions with absolute obedience, without judgment or celebration, whether we want to read books about lost symbols in Washington D.C., or a seagull seeking to perfect his flight.

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