I found this doormat in a catalog a few years ago, and it makes me laugh. I wouldn’t have the nerve to put it at my front door, but I did save the image to my computer (violating all sorts of copyrights, surely).
The quote itself (minus the small print, of course), comes from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, as an inscription on the entrance to hell. No, I didn’t know that until I looked it up. Yes, it’s fair to question my college curriculum, not to mention what I’ve been doing in the
10 15 18 years since.
At various times, I’ve had it taped to my computer monitor. The words serve as a reality check for me about writing. It’s good to dream of being published, but it probably makes more sense to work hard and develop more discipline. In that case, sort of abandoning hope might be useful, so long as I replace it with something else more practical that might lead to a desired result.
Though you might not think so, it’s a good kick in the pants.
Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone (among others), wrote the foreword to the book Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb*. These few sentences changed my perspective in a significant way:
“…I wrote the following on a piece of paper and taped it above my desk: ‘No one cares.’ It sounds so cold. It looks so cold. But it wasn’t meant that way, not entirely. What I was telling myself was that if I failed, no one would care. If I never published, no one would notice. If I never fulfilled my dream, it wouldn’t make one bit of difference to anyone else on the planet. ‘No one cares’ meant no one was watching, no one was keeping score, no one was judging. I was free. Utterly…And that purified the writing process; it made it about the words and me. That’s it–nothing else in the equation.”
Reading that was very freeing, and it made a lot of sense. By acknowledging that my writing isn’t important to anyone but me (though people who care about me are encouraging and supportive), it means that I can let go of the expectations of anyone else and just do the work, the best work I can.
One more quote, this one from Tobias Wolff’s In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War:
I had begun another novel. I knew it wasn’t very good, but I also knew that it was the best I could do just then and that I had to keep doing it if I ever wanted to get better. These words would never be read by anyone, I understood, but even in sinking out of sight they made the ground more solid under my hope to write well. Not that I didn’t like what I was writing as I filled up the pages. Only at the end of the day, reading over what I’d done, working through it with a green pencil, did I see how far I was from where I wanted to be. In the very act of writing I felt pleased with what I did. There was the pleasure of having words come to me, and the pleasure of ordering them, re-ordering them, weighing one against the another. Pleasure also in the imagination of the story, the feeling that it could mean something. Mostly I was glad to find out that I could write at all. In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head. I could feel it happening. I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.
I should read that last line every day. That, and the one from Lehane that says “No one cares.” And if you put them together? It’s some damn good advice.
*I don’t buy many books about writing, but I bought this one because I heard Ann Rittenberg speak once
and I’m hoping she will represent me someday. (This book is a must-buy, and is chock-full of excellent information and advice.) On her website, there’s a transcript of an interesting speech she gave at Bennington College about the kind of writing she looks for as an agent, and about her interaction with the clients she represents. (And, while you’re there, please beg her not to sue me for printing that excerpt.)