Seth Godin has a new book out, called The Practice: Shipping Creative Work. I have always found Godin’s work to be exceedingly helpful (though I haven’t read The Practice yet).
I bring up Seth Godin’s new book because Daniel, a reader of The Habit Weekly, wrote to me about it a few days ago. Danile felt that Godin was encouraging in a specific area where I had been discouraging:
[The first line of The Practice] is, “Shipping — because it doesn’t count if you don’t share it.”
This line brought be back to a newsletter of yours that has always bothered me — the one about your advice to the woman who wanted to get published. In the end you walked away sad because you did not think publishing should have been her primary goal.
The newsletter rubbed me the wrong way, in a good way. Made me think about why I’m writing my novel. Why anyone does. In the end, I still disagree with you on this and think publishing is the natural and proper desire of the writer…
Today, with this Godin line, I was curious if I misunderstood you. Godin seems to be affirming this woman, and affirming me and my desire to publish. To share. Not to keep it to myself or indulge for art’s sake, whatever that means.
Daniel was referring to an issue of The Habit Weekly called “So You Want to Be a Published Author” from this past summer. In this letter I described a meeting I had with an unpublished writer who told me that getting published was the most important thing in the world to her…and she wasn’t speaking hyperbolically (or, in any case, didn’t think she was speaking hyperbolically).
The gist of that letter (and my conversation with that writer) was that getting published isn’t going to change you into a different person. It’s not going to end your self-doubt or give you self-worth or prove that you haven’t been wasting your time. When my writer friend said getting published was the most important thing in the world, she was asking for trouble—trouble if she failed to get published, and possibly more trouble if she succeeded.
I ended that letter by quoting Kurt Vonnegut: Make art “not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”
All that does seem to be at odds with Seth Godin’s memorable opening: “Shipping—because It doesn’t count if you don’t share it.”
But I don’t really disagree with Godin’s dictum, though I think he’s overstating the case: there is plenty of writing that does good work in the writer even if it doesn’t get shared. Surely that work “counts” too. But central to Godin’s way of talking about creative work is the idea that we do it for other people, not for ourselves. Another of his dicta is “Make things better by making better things.” We ship work because it’s a way to serve others and make a difference in our culture.
I think Seth Godin and I are both talking about being motivated by others-centeredness rather than self-centeredness. I remember what it was like to feel that getting published was the most important thing in the world. In my case, at least, it was about the need for a gatekeeper to say, “Yes, this is good enough work. You are a good enough writer.” The approval of a publisher felt good for a while, but the good feeling faded when book sales didn’t meet my (entirely fictional) expectations. For my own sanity, I eventually had to separate the value of the work from its success or failure in the market.
When Godin says “it doesn’t count if you don’t share it,” he is addressing another facet of the creativity-and-self-worth dilemma…the end that is retiring and/or perfectionistic and/or insufficiently confident to finish and ship work.
The other HUGE issue here is the difference between “shipping work” and “getting published.” As I have already suggested, the idea of getting published is very much connected with the idea of a gatekeeper/tastemaker judging work to be worthy. While I haven’t ready Godin’s latest, in the past he’s had a lot to say about new models of publishing whereby we are able to say to the world, “Here, I made this,” instead of seeking the approval of a publisher: “Here, publisher, I made this. Would you be willing to show it to the world?”
For the last few years, my own writing and other work has been all about “shipping” rather than “getting published.” Every Tuesday, I try to give a finite number of people something that is worth their time and mine, and I’m not asking permission of anybody besides the readers. That’s a very different way of thinking compared to the way I was thinking in the early 2000s.
I realize that, depending on what one is doing and where one is in the process, there can be a lot of overlap between shipping and getting published. But the distinction is worth giving some thought to. How can you put work into the world without asking the permission of gatekeepers? You can make things better by making better things. And an appropriate kind of self-worth, by the way, is a happy byproduct of doing good work.