Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

When You Publish a Book

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 14, 2014

The Lion’s Gate has been out for about a week now.

"We have the right to our labor, but not to the fruits of our labor."

The book represents, for me, three years of 24/7 work and an untold tonnage of emotion. Now it’s out there in the real world, on its own. Nothing I think or say or do will have more than the most negligible influence on the way the book is received.

The question for me now becomes, “How do I manage my own expectations?”

For what it’s worth, here is how I think about it:

First, I have been trained in the Tinseltown School of Having Your Heart Broken. It’s a good school. It’s great training. The screenwriter, particularly the spec writer (i.e., one who originates a project on his own), knows that even when she actually sells a piece and gets it made, she will be a) fired, b) removed from the project, c) cut out of all influence. When she finally gets to see the finished product, which is usually by buying her own ticket at some Edge City multiplex, she will find her vision mangled, mutilated, and misshapen. Sometimes she won’t even recognize it. Can she console herself by saying, Hey, at least I got paid? Yeah, but of course by then she has long since spent the money.

Books are much better. The field is level. You can’t be canned. No one will rewrite you. What you put on the page is what gets out there.

The problem with books is it’s so hard to penetrate the clutter. I don’t care how much you network, or how supposedly powerful your publisher is, your book is sallying forth into a marketplace that is overloaded, overstuffed, overstimulated.  Your work is swimming for its life in a sea of other thrashing, gnashing competitors.

My answer, the only answer that works for me, is to remember Krishna’s axiom from the Bhagavad Gita:

You have the right to your labor, but not to the fruits of your labor.

Paramahansa Yogananda told this story on one of his tapes (you have to imagine this being narrated in a wonderfully charming Indian accent:)

Diogenes used to live in a bathtub. One day a man gave him a carpet. A few days later Diogenes called the man to him again. “Please, take back your carpet.”

“But why, Master?” the man asked. “It is a wonderful carpet and I have given it to you with no strings attached.”

“My happiness was unconditioned by the carpet,” replied Diogenes. “And besides I don’t care to sweep it every day.”

Yogananada continued:

In the East we are taught to keep our happiness without condition. Now perhaps we should not all live in a bathtub like Diogenes. But Diogenes understood that his peace of mind must be founded upon his own resources and not conditioned upon the external or the material.

So I am not checking the Amazon rankings every hour. I am not searching the press for reviews. I do this very deliberately and consciously. Through the day if I catch myself starting to root for The Lion’s Gate (which of course is completely human and natural), I pull myself up and very empathically make myself stop.

Months ago I began my next project. The next two actually. I am deeply into them. My heart is with them.

I hope The Lion’s Gate does well. I hope it finds an audience. I am out there right now beating the drums, speaking and giving interviews, trying to support the book.

But I recognize that a work’s reception in the marketplace is only tangentially related to its merit. Great stuff succeeds. But so does garbage. Sometimes garbage beats the hell out of qreat stuff.

And who’s to say what is great? Me? You?

You have a hit and it’s 90% luck. You have a flop with material that’s ten times better than your hit.

Even pure merit, if we could somehow define it with absolute objectivity, proves what?

Success and failure, in my experience, are visored knights. They’re illusions. Pull off the mask and one is the same as the other.

The mystery is trying to teach us something. Have you ever watched the World Series or the NBA Finals and seen the tears and grief on the faces of the defeated? I often think they are the ones who are touched by heaven. The loss they’re feeling, those tears, are spiritual gold.

In the end, for me, you must judge your own work and measure it by your own standards. No other opinion counts.

Don’t listen to the market.

Don’t monitor the charts.

And pay no attention to the critics, particularly—particularly—when they tell you you’re great.

I’ve written, I’m not sure what, a dozen or more books and about thirty screenplays, plus God knows how many projects of other kinds. I can say truly that I can look back on them and judge each one pretty accurately as to how good or bad it is.

I can see the terrible ones. I can see the honorable failures. I can see the not-so-honorable successes. And I can see the real successes.

These works are like our children.

We know when we can be proud of them, and we know when we wish they had tried a little harder or lightened up a little more at crunch time or just been a tiny bit more true to who they really were.

We are engaged, you and I, in a lifetime practice, not a series of one-shots by which we and the world pass final judgment upon ourselves. The arc of our journey is what counts—the arc and the momentum.

So I sit down quietly and I ask myself, of The Lion’s Gate or any other work:

Was this a worthy effort?

Did it call upon you to give more than you believed you had in you?

Did you conduct yourself honorably in the enterprise?

Did you give it all you had?

Did you succeed according to your own standards, the measures that only you know and only you can define?

Those are the only criteria I can control. They are “the labor,” not “the fruits of the labor.”

This is life. We are not gods.

It’s good to aspire; it’s worthy to strive; it’s honorable to clash on the field of excellence and ambition. But the prize, even when fortune favors us enough to let us grasp it, must be released in the end.

In Zen it is the sitting that counts. I try (though not always successfully) to keep myself centered in that mind.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

35 Responses to “When You Publish a Book”

  1. May 14, 2014 at 2:18 am

    My life was a mess. It got worse. Then one day I wrote down three headings;

    1. What do I believe is true about life.
    2. What do I value
    3. What do I think life is all about.

    In essence….who the hell am I.

    Under point three I wrote two bullets that I think chime with your post, Steven.

    !!! You can control your efforts, but not the fruits of your labour. !!! I first heard Russell Simmons say this.

    !!! You can only do your best in life, so enjoy the journey !!!

    I created images for each of the three points. About 20 in total. I look at this document every day. Multiple times a day.

    It programs the hard drive in my head.

    My life has been infinitely better for knowing who I am.

    You are all unique.

    Namaste x

  2. May 14, 2014 at 5:02 am

    “You want a level playing field, one where you have just as good a shot as anyone else? Here it is. Do the work. That’s what we’re all waiting for you to do – do the work.” Steven Pressfield… The work is all you really have.

    Brilliant!

  3. Mary Doyle
    May 14, 2014 at 5:31 am

    This post is a keeper for every artist who is doing the work and letting it out into the world – one doesn’t have to look any further than this blog for “spiritual gold” – humblest thanks Steve.

  4. Barry
    May 14, 2014 at 6:25 am

    Brilliant. Beautiful. Thank you.

  5. May 14, 2014 at 6:31 am

    It is good to read this today. Thanks.

  6. May 14, 2014 at 6:33 am

    Ah darn I was going to tell you how much I like Lion’s Gate. Since I can’t tell you, how bout I tell someone else?

    *grin*

  7. May 14, 2014 at 6:35 am

    When it really comes down to the truth, it’s not about us as mere egos anyway. We do what we do, if someone else has an opinion, it can only reflect who they are. After all right or wrong is only a matter of opinion. Nope, control over outcomes and attachments are for a mind set on validation. As one of my fellow scouser’s once wrote ‘Let it Be’.

    Good to read this post, and a timely reminder for me :-)

  8. May 14, 2014 at 6:45 am

    This is a lesson of yours that I keep coming back to, and one of the single most difficult lessons for me to truly learn. I think my workaday middle class upbringing drilled into me that only labor that produces fruit has value. So I do the work, and I try to let the work be its own reward…but there is still that nagging voice that says the work is only worthwhile if you can live on it, if it buys a house or a car.

    Three published books, and that voice is louder than ever.

    But I’ll keep working to internalize Krishna’s lesson. I know that the work is only pure and true when its divorced from lust of result. I know that lesson is true.

    But sometimes the truest things are the hardest ones to accept, aren’t they?

    Thanks again, Steven!

    • May 14, 2014 at 11:06 am

      Steve, thanks for your article. I just had a conversation with a co-worker about the fruits
      og your labor when laboring in the meat-grinders that
      are Hollywood, NCAA sports, IMF, etc.

      It’s true and an eye-opener when you think about it. It hurts a bit too. But I think it hurts because it reminds us that our world view is exactly that, our world view. Not the world we live in.

      Keep ‘em coming.

  9. May 14, 2014 at 6:53 am

    This reminds me of your earlier posts about the “write for yourself/write for an audience” paradox. (I won’t call it a dilemma, because if the work works, there’s considerable overlap.) The paradigm “success=money” derives from the metaphor of commerce, but commerce stripped of a soul.

    Yes, it’s nice to have the externals, for a a lot of reasons. But more is not always better. Further, the external successes are temporary; they will be pushed aside by the next bigger thing. That is the pursuit of vanity, as Ecclesiastes explains it.

    The pursuit of inner success, of the transformative work, is permanent because, as you note, it is revelatory of the wellspring.

    The difference may be summed up as the difference between craft (from “strength” or “skill” in Old English) and crass (thick, fat, heavy in Middle French, from the Latin). Pursuit of craft gives us skill, reveals strengths we didn’t know we had. Pursuit of the crass makes us thick-headed and fat.

    And yes, our books are like our children. We should judge neither by their material success, but by the quality of their lives and the positive impact – the acts of goodness and kindness – they produce.

  10. May 14, 2014 at 7:05 am

    I share your feelings. It’s frustrating to labor alone, and expose your heart for others’ benefit, only to remain unknown or ignored by the masses.

    Yesterday, I studied ’search engine optimization’ to improve my book’s visibility. But, when I looked at what’s trending in Google Trends, I was gobsmacked that the masses weren’t interested in one topic that mattered. It was all about celebrity scandals, pop singers, or today’s sports’ status. I’m concerned the masses have lost the ability to think for themselves.

    As a result, I came to the same realization you expressed, that we “must judge your own work and measure it by your own standards. No other opinion counts.”

  11. Jeanette
    May 14, 2014 at 7:14 am

    I will be printing and put on my refrig, where I go when resistance is high. I remember what you had suggested, never dis a muse, write for yourself and go forward. For the last twenty years, people would ask me when would I be writing my book, I spent the last twenty years not knowing what to write that they would read. While I have a radio show, people would rather comment on a post I put about swarming termites in New Orleans rather than cancer, how to help others and what to do if you have a healthcare challenge. People love drama and hearing themselves talk. Today, after reading this post, I will too, remember to be so over the social media. Thank you for the emails, they do touch the thoughts I have and help to inspire my soul.

  12. May 14, 2014 at 7:22 am

    My first book was trashed by a critic in the biggest newspaper in the state. I had acquired none of your wisdom at that point, Steve, so I sobbed — off and on — for days. My husband ran out of patience. I turned to our daughter, then seven. “You think that’s bad?” she told me. “A girl in my class said the snacks you made taste like laundry soap.” Pause. “And she’s tasted laundry soap, so she knows!”

    About this time the editor of an online writer’s magazine trashed my essay about the grief I felt on Katie’s first day of kindergarten.

    “There it is,” I thought. “Two independent sources. My writing sucks.”

    But my policy was to send something out the same day I got a rejection, and soon Spirituality & Health published the kindergarten essay — in a four-page spread, complete with photos.

    Then it hit me, what I’d learned in sales training: SWSWSW. Some will, some won’t, so what?

    Bad reviews and other forms of criticism still sting. But I try to think of myself as a true journalist, who keeps experimenting — and reporting back on the results.

    • May 14, 2014 at 10:29 am

      Oh Maureen Anderson, I wanted to hug you! What a terrible thing to go through. Your daughter would probably laugh at that now. KIDS!

      • May 14, 2014 at 10:35 am

        You’re sweet. Thanks!

        The child was punished, to my dismay — no snack privileges for a week. Ironically, my husband soothed this time. He wished he could take away the reviewer’s snack privileges, too!

        • May 14, 2014 at 10:37 am

          And just to clarify, it was my daughter’s classmate who lost her snack privileges.

          I congratulated Katie for the honesty — eventually!

    • Nik
      May 20, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      Don’t sweat it. That reviewer was probably a freelancer with no training in criticism or journalism, helping to fill out a books section that’s been gutted.

      Even the last few “great” newspapers have gutted their book review sections. And anyway, a reviewer is just a person with an opinion who happens to have a platform.

      While it’s frustrating to get a bad review, newspaper critics are not the authoritative taste-makers they used to be.

  13. May 14, 2014 at 7:40 am

    Here’s something… Steven you reminded me of the profound (but all too “passing”) difference reading Autobiography of a Yogi made in my life a couple of years ago. Yes, the audio of that voice, too… I smiled the moment I saw/recalled the name Yogananda and thought, “Where have I been with my own self?” This is a very important question for me. Today!

    So thank you. You never know what connections you’re making, what golden threads you’re pulling out in the universe to create this mysterious beautiful tapestry of life we are sharing — if you don’t own the fruits of your labor you can know that they fell on my earth and seeded mine today… and onward those sprouts will spread.

  14. May 14, 2014 at 7:59 am

    Thank you Steve!

  15. May 14, 2014 at 8:40 am

    Amen! Amen! Amen! Such truth here, and if I stop worrying about whether people like me based on whether or not they’re buying my books I’m so much more at peace.

    And at the end of the day, when I tuck each child in, no matter how they performed, I still love them unconditionally. So it is with my books, too.

  16. Eric
    May 14, 2014 at 8:41 am

    What a great, moving piece.

  17. May 14, 2014 at 9:37 am

    I’ve started THE LIONS GATE and am loving it. You’re a great writer, but more importantly, a great person. Thank you.

    • May 16, 2014 at 7:11 pm

      I couldn’t agree more Marcy.

  18. May 14, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Thank you for this. Very meaningful and moving.
    Love your writing!

  19. May 14, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Beautifully put, Steve. Detach from outcome while giving it your best. Now if I could just get my hair to look like Paramahansa Yogananda’s.

    Posting from Manduka – Love, Sharon

  20. Mike Byrnes
    May 14, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Steve:

    I have never been published (resistance is my shadow). But I have raised two stepchildren. One keeps in touch. The other does not respond since the divorce.

    At my age I look back and realize that when your kids go out on their own you have know idea how they will turn out. Or if your efforts had any influence on them.

    Maybe, some years later, you will catch a glimpse of your influence in the way they laugh or talk or treat others (or live their lives).

    But some of us may never know whether we made a difference until we’re nearing the finish line. I agree with you that the only solution is to live (or write) so that we can honestly say we gave it our best shot.

    Let me share this with you now.

    Because of what you have written, I’m giving it my best shot.

    I bet I speak for everyone on this list, when I say ‘thanks’. And I hope that my simple thanks will help carry you until “Lions Gate” reaches #1 on Amazon. You have earned more, but my heartfelt gratitude (and my commitment to fight resistance) is the best I can offer right now.

    The fact that you are already working on 2 more children inspires me to never say ‘never’.

    Thanks, Steve.

    – Mike

  21. May 14, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    Even though I am a photographer, I follow your blog. Many of the principles you teach about writing apply to photography. The opinions of others are not the true measure of my work. I “must judge [my] own work and measure it by [my] own standards.” Thank you for the continuing encouragement!

  22. Danna Vitt
    May 14, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Steve – Congratulations on the release of your new book. Thank you for this post today. Your honesty is refreshing and life-changing. Through reading “The War of Art” (at least 10 times)I gained the understanding that if I need a guarantee of results, ain’t nothing ever gonna get done. “Labor but not fruits of labor” has brought me freedom, I’ve been unchained from the assurance of results.

  23. May 14, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you for this very timely reminder. I frequently struggle to remain non-attached…and to value my own assessment of my work rather than depending heavily on feedback from others. I was talking to a friend about this only this morning. It’s a stretch into further growth to trust my own evaluation…and be satisfied with the work I put out. I SO appreciate you sharing the inner parts of your process, as well as giving us ideas about the nuts and bolts.

  24. May 14, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    This is one of my favorite quotes you’ve shared over time “You have the right to your labor, but not to the fruits of your labor.”

    I’m deeply grateful that you’ve expanded upon this today because our need for affirmation can be so subtle. Constantly luring us to look outside ourselves. I know I need to hear this reminder often and appreciate how you deliver it so eloquently.

  25. May 15, 2014 at 4:08 am

    From May Sarton’s Journal of Solitude: “From my isolation to the isolation of someone, somewhere who will find my work there exists a true communion. That is what I can hope for and I must hope for nothing more and nothing less”

    May Sarton wrote this after suffering through a devastating review, having hoped for a best seller.

    Isn’t what we hope for “true communion”, even if it is from some individual souls, somewhere?

  26. May 15, 2014 at 6:58 am

    The full quote can be found on Terri Windling’s blog, “Myth and Moor” today:

    http://www.terriwindling.com

  27. Rodney Page
    May 16, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    I desperately needed this today: “You have the right to your labor, but not to the fruits of your labor.” Tough love. Thanks so much!

  28. May 30, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Thank you so much for reminding us of those important pieces of wisdom! Detachment is key but it’s not easy to attain, and even less to maintain.