When I posted about the writer’s battle with “the demon of futility” I mentioned the frustration that can come from identifying yourself as a writer.
People ask what you’ve written. They’ve never heard of it. They’ve never heard of you.
In a way this is perfectly natural:
A book can be a success by any reasonable standard without appearing on the New York Times bestseller’s list.
Or the USA Today bestseller’s list.
Or even without getting one of those gorgeous little orange flags on Amazon.com.
Obscurity and Fame
A lot of people have dreams of fame. Some think the way to fame is to write a book. I say
Do the math.
So, what if something you wrote did become a bestseller?
Well, first of all
But then after that,
What of it?
It is always a matter of fame and obscurity.
Do the Math
Say you score that big league victory. You hit the New York Times Bestseller list. That means your book sold something like 10,000 copies in that particular week.
(My little orange Amazon flag came from less than that, by the way. Way less than that.)
How well known is your work after such worldly success?
Well if there are 300,000,000 people in America, and 10,000 now own your book, you have potentially impacted 0.0033% of the population.
Odds that the person you just randomly met will know your work? Very small.
Fame or Approval?
What lurks behind the desire for fame is a desire to be praised. We are fighting our own sense of inadequacy. We don’t feel we are good enough in some deep down existential way. We want others, the world at large, to say we are worthwhile.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers of 4th century Egypt had to wrestle with their own desire for fame and accolades. They didn’t seek approval. They avoided it.
Here’s a saying from one of Benedicta Ward’s translations that I really like:
They said of Arsenius and Theodore of Pherme that they hated fame and praise more than anything.
Arsenius avoided people likely to praise him.
Theodore did not avoid them, but their words were like daggers to him.
8.3, “Nothing Done for Show”
Motives are always mixed. In some proportion, these ancient monks who fled the world wanted to impress others.
They fought that portion of their motives.
If others approved of them it was a problem. It gave the wrong kind of satisfaction. It pleased the wrong part of them.
It made them happy about something other than progress.
Whataya gonna do? Live in a way that people DON’T approve of? No.
- The monks had to stay true to their calling. That calling increased qualities that lots of people admired.
- And at the same time they had to avoid getting their vanity flattered.
These two chose to do that in two opposite ways. In the process they give us two (truncated) strategies.
Arsenius kept away from people to stay focused.
Arsenius chose the easy way. If he interacted with people, their praise would make him complacent. He needed to keep his eyes down and stay in his cell.
- That works for the writer who just keeps writing. He hunkers down and does his art. When he gets published he doesn’t read the reviews and doesn’t give interviews. He moves on to the next project.
- Better, though, to say it might work if you are very well established, or if you happen to have written a runaway bestseller, or if you don’t mind being extremely poor.
- Most writers, artists of all kinds, have to interact with the world or nobody ever finds their work.
Theodore interacted with people and kept focused.
Theodore chose the harder way. Rather than relishing the praise, he kept himself aware that praise was not his goal — in fact it was a temptation. It was painful to constantly set affirmation aside and get back to his calling.
- That works for the writer who knows she needs to be involved with readers. She knows that interviews lead to book sales, and finding readers is crucial.
- But if she stops and feels satisfied with the attention, she slacks off. Her next book only gets her second-best effort. Maybe she doesn’t even write it.
- Listening to fans and critics she has to wrestle with her motives all the more regularly.
Fame or Service?
Fame is sort of a silly goal anyway. You can’t spend it. And it would be inconvenient much of the time.
For most of us the best stuff we do is for an incalculably small audience.
I know a lot of pastors. Some of them are great preachers.
But most preachers do their best work for a group of a hundred or so people.
Week in, week out, they hone their understanding of God’s grace in Christ as found in Scripture.
Week in, week out, they shape that message to best impact the lives of a particular community.
In a modest-sized town, only a small percentage of the people will ever be there to hear even a single sermon.
But these preachers really help people: If you listen to excellent, thoughtful preaching Sunday after Sunday it can change your life.
It can seem paradoxical:
- The number impacted is discouragingly small.
- But the size of the impact can be incalculably great.
Like a faithful preacher, a writer has to think about making an impact on a small portion of the vast number of potential readers. I have to help whoever happens to, in the words of the angel to St. Augustine,
Take up and read.
Set your sites on fame and find yourself in futility.
Set out to help people and you might just find yourself an audience.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on fame in the comments. Have you seen any of your “fifteen minutes” — and what has been the result?
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