The Fall 2005 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review focuses on happiness (I’m not actually a Buddhist, but I do enjoy the review; and yes, I am still reading magazines from 2005). The issue offers many articles and ruminations on the nature of happiness, but what caught my attention was a piece by Thanissaro Bhikkhu in which he wrote of “skillful” and “unskillful” desires. He writes that we all desire happiness and that “whatever the desire, if the solution actually leads to happiness, the desire is skillful. If it doesn’t, it is not. However, what seems to be a skillful desire may lead only to a false or transitory happiness not worth the effort entailed.”
Naturally, I found myself thinking of the desires of writers — not only as a writer myself but also as a teacher of writing. As a university professor, I found that many, if not most, of my students desired a good grade more than they desired becoming a good writer. And among my adult students and fellow writers, I find that we are often attracted to being published almost more than we are drawn to writing stories that we are genuinely proud of.
Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird by Bird that her students “believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo…But this is not exactly what happens.” Having read Bird by Bird before publishing my first short story, I didn’t believe her, just as none of my students believe me when I tell them the same thing. But if and when we do become published authors, we realize that Lamott is right. Nothing really changes after you publish your work. (And, as she points out, it’s actually very discouraging when you tell people you’re a published writer, and they’ve still never heard of you.) It’s wonderful to know that your work is being read and enjoyed, of course — but in the end, if you continue to write, it’s still only you and the blank page, and it always will be.
So I encourage students to focus on the work itself, on what they have to say. I advise them not to worry about publication until their writing is the best it can be, and remind them that rushing a piece to agents or editors before it’s ready is a lesson in futility. They will most likely not believe me — and that’s okay. Part of the process of becoming a writer is discovering, through the predictable highs and inevitable lows of publication, that the joy is in the work itself.
I ended up envisioning my own writerly definitition of “skillful desire,” which is to desire what is within our reach as writers. This, of course, means the work, not who publishes it (or when or where or for how much). While the term “happy writer” may be an oxymoron, I think we’d all be happier if we focused more on our growth as writers rather than our publication credits.