The Sacred Story in the World of Work
The dream of commercial success for writers is like a mirage--it offers validation that their work is important and promises to "free" them to do what they love most. But success is rarely, if ever, what they think it will be, and with success comes real peril.
Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, writes in the May 18th New York Times Book Review that "commercial success [for writers] seems a panacea" for all the ways writers can suffer their craft, from obscurity to isolation to financial struggle.
He equates writing fiction with the practice of religion. "It is . . . a way of life, a set of rituals, an orientation toward the universe." He attributes to writing powers that even formal religion recognizes--both in its employment of stories to move the masses, and in its persecution of storytellers whose versions of God or sanctity deviate from doctrine.
"Stories are powerful," Hamid writes. "They are how we make sense of what cannot be known."
Then, referring to the case of commercially successful writers, he writes, "So imagine a situation in which you were paid to pray, and in which a few of the devout were given huge payouts for their devotion." He asks:
"[Might] we professional fiction writers . . . be better off if, like the poets of old, we were to make nothing from our writing and had to earn our living elsewhere . . ."
Hamid would seem to propose that the only way to protect writing from the corrupt influence of commerce is to do it in monkish isolation. I find myself coming to exactly the opposite conclusion. In my view, the devotion to writing is always vulnerable to forces that would compromise its integrity and quality. These could be commercial forces that make a writer want to repeat success, or it could be the impacts of family or work life that compromise a writer's peace.
Devotion is what makes the difference. The architecture of story is embedded in the very DNA of our experience; devotion to writing teaches the writer how to see this architecture--the connections and symbolic touchstones hidden in the fabric of living--and to write about them in such a way that brings to light the meaning of experience. If we fail to be devoted, then our ability to pick up the breadcrumbs of meaning the world leaves behind fades, and our writing suffers.
Hamid warns against the drive to repeat success in order to earn more money from writing--cautioning, correctly, that this can corrupt the purity of devotion.
I think the argument is less about the lure of money than it is about the difficulty of being fearlessly devoted in the first place, always, no matter the circumstance.
The lesson to me--as a writer, a professional, and as a human being--is to devote myself fearlessly to what I care most about in writing, realizing that the act, like any religious or spiritual practice, is most meaningful when one is faithful to the practice of seeking truth, rather than focused on the outcomes, which will always fluctuate.
~ Matt Rigney, 28 May 2014