In 2002, Elizabeth M. Gilbert divorced her husband of seven years. In 2006, she published the book, Eat Pray Love. Following its publication, EPL spent over 200 weeks on the New York Times Best-seller list, selling approximately 9 million copies. The book was later adapted into an equally successful film by Columbia Pictures, starring none other than, Julia Roberts.
If you look at Elizabeth’s story, one might assume she hit the jackpot, achieving what so many writers only dream about: millions of copies sold, hitting the NYT Best-seller, closing a movie deal, financial freedom, and more. But there was one unforeseen problem with her newfound audience. That is, the question of “now what?”
How does someone, who’s just condensed the previous, emotionally and spiritually-packed, four years of her life, into a best-selling novel, follow up? The world was now watching. There was pressure to repeat the same sales figures. Everyone wanted to know, what will Elizabeth write about next?
So, how do you recreate the fame of EPL? You don’t. Ironically, this became the subject of Elizabeth’s 2009 TED talk on creativity and how to find your muse. Gilbert has since published three more books, neither have achieved the notoriety of EPL. And that’s alright, because that’s the main idea I want to share in this post.
Working for the love of the work
Ever try hitting golf balls? I was never good at it, but in my limited experience of driving buckets of balls wildly off target, you eventually learn to keep your head down, and eyes on the ball. Because, the second you lift your eyes up to see where your ball will go, you miss.
The majority of society measures success through tangible results. Stats like sales, or weeks on the bestseller list indicate notoriety and demand recognition. What this type of measurement fails to show is how the creator actually feels about his or her work. Once there’s pressure from an outside audience to repeat a performance, there’s a psychological violation of freedom.
A lesson from Bob Dylan
When I think of, “indie artist” I think Bob Dylan. Though I never saw Dylan in his prime (1960’s), he continues to release new music, most recently (at the time of writing) his thirty-sixth album in February 2015. With so many years of work, you can’t go to a Dylan concert expecting to hear “old Dylan”. You just won’t. Dylan doesn’t play for the fans, he plays for Dylan.
Of course, not all artists have the luxury to make only what they want. Sometimes, creatives must make what sells in order to support the less-popular unexplored corners of their craft. But, it’s important to note that the moment you start making things for “the applause” instead of yourself, you’re stripped of the creative magic that inspired you to begin with. You’re no longer the drifter with a guitar in a smokey room full of low expectations.
I’ve been writing this blog for three years. You could say, it’s been a massive failure. I don’t have a book deal, movie adaptation, or millions of subscribers. But that would only be one way of measuring it. The way you win as a creative person is to learn to love the work and not the applause. It’s not something you can immediately switch on. Falling in love with the process takes practice and mindfulness in what you’re doing.
I write because it’s fun, educational, and a mental challenge. When that stops being true, I’ll stop writing. As for everything else, well, it’s all just a bonus.