You wanna win the lottery. No, really I’m pretty sure you do.
I get that you probably don’t actually play the lottery. No, you’re too smart for that. You know the odds are stacked against you. You know only stupid people fall for that stuff. But somewhere deep in the back of your mind you’ve got a “wouldn’t it be cool” scenario playing.
I’ve got one. Mine is: “wouldn’t it be cool if some rich inventor (don’t talk to me about there not being any real inventors any more, this is my fantasy, darn it!) just happened to strike up a conversation with me, and sees that golden truth that somehow everyone else has managed to miss, which is that I’m an incredibly bright young individual, who could, with a little mentoring, step into the rich inventor’s shoes being as he’s lacking an heir to his empire? (he’s infertile and he’s opposed to adoption for some reason, shut up!)”
I know it isn’t going to happen. I also know I don’t have any rich relatives that are going to die and leave me all their money. I know I’m not going to stumble over a briefcase full of money from a bank heist gone bad. I know all that stuff, sure. But I can hope, right?
Hope. Now there’s a nasty bugger if ever there was one. Did you know that when Pandora released the demons from her jar (not a box, study some real mythology) there was one left clinging to the inside of the rim? And that last demon was named Hope. That’s right. The ancient Greeks said that hope was in there living it up with all the rest of the nasty things in the world like hate, envy, and canned green beans.
And the worst thing about playing the lottery is when you start to believe that it really could happen. After all, somebody has to win right? We hear about them on the news. Our best friend, knew a guy who was in the same gas station as one guy who won (okay, not actually at the same time he won, more like five days earlier, but still, who knows? It could happen.) Next time it could be us!
Writers have a special variant of this kind of hope. It’s the “wouldn’t it be cool if my first novel became a runaway bestseller and I got like totally rich off of it, and I could quite my day job and write my next novel in between fielding calls from NPR programs in which I discuss my ‘process’,” variant.
And I am here to tell you, no. No it would not be cool. It would suck. Okay, having those buckets of money would be nice for a while, but think about the writers who have trod this path before you. To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, those ring a bell with you? They made a big splash, a huge splash even, but when the time came to follow them up…
See, the problem with winning the lottery is that people who win the lottery don’t know what money means. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the vast majority of them end up back in poverty far faster than you can imagine.
Most of the people who get rich and stay rich do it the hard way. They work and they invest and they get lucky once or twice, and they keep working on weekends while everyone else is having fun, and after thirty years or so of that they’re the head of a good-sized company that employs hundreds of workers when it used to employ just them.
And just like most people who get rich quick don’t stay rich for very long, so too do writers who make it really big with their first book often fall by the wayside with their later work, never quite managing to find that spark of genius that they unwittingly captured.
You wanna be a writer? Don’t aspire to winning the lottery. Take the Terry Pratchett road instead. Terry Pratchett, for those of you who may not know, is a wonderful British writer of comedic fantasy that manages to craft brilliant stories that also make you think. But just this week, when I was encouraging one of my friends to check him out I said, “Don’t start with his early stuff.” Because, as much as I love Terry Pratchett, his early work just isn’t quite as good.
Pratchett did not streak across the sky like a beautiful shooting star, never to be heard from again. Rather he started with a spark, and through care and craft slowly built it into a raging inferno.
There is no mystery to his success. It is evident to anyone with eyes to see that he learned by doing, over long periods of time. And in my mind he is one of the most fully successful authors living today.
Wouldn’t it be cool? Wouldn’t it be cool if you did the best you could and maybe it sucked for a while, but then it started sucking a little less and over time, you started to see what worked and what didn’t work, and you just kept at it through the sheer force of will and stubbornness, until, finally, years later, you were able to write books that would make people laugh and cry and think, all on the same page?
Wouldn’t it be cool? Yes. Yes, it would.