Meet Aaron Benham — a family man, professor, and writer. He loves motorcycles (and women). Faces writer’s block. Struggles with unhappiness. He’s also the main character of Thomas Williams’ 1974 novel The Hair of Harold Roux, one of Stephen King’s favorite books on what it means to be a writer.
In the story, Aaron Benham reflects upon his unhappiness. He recalls his days as a student, tirelessly working toward a dream of becoming a successful writer — but now that he’s achieved that dream, he ironically longs to be as he once was: a student in pursuit of a goal.
I read The Hair of Harold Roux toward the end of my MFA while racing to finish my thesis (Ann Joslin Williams, the author’s daughter, was my advisor). Aaron’s reflections, however, made me pause, because they resonated with a question whispered from the back of my mind.
What happens after I achieve my goals?
I dreamed of graduating, and I dream of publishing novels. I dream of success. But what happens when (if) I get there?
Will I be dissatisfied?
And if I’m dissatisfied by success, as well as the years leading up to it, then when the hell will I ever find satisfaction as a writer?
The trap of dissatisfaction
We all began writing with simple motives. We wrote because there was something exciting inside us that wanted out, and we kept writing because we loved it.
But early on there came visions of success. We imagined our stories in print, winning awards, being adapted for film, etc., etc. Shimmering and alluring dreams, all exciting, so much more exciting, in fact, than the present, that we started to live with our heads in the future.
The future became the answer to our dissatisfaction, and our present efforts in turn became a means for achieving it.
No wonder we struggle to be satisfied, when all our present efforts are treated like a passage to somewhere else. It’s even worse when we do reach success, only to realize the joy we’ve been working toward is quick to fade: a phenomenon called the hedonic treadmill.
That’s the trap of dissatisfaction.
Remembering why you write
How do we break free from dissatisfaction?
By refocusing on the little things.
There’s joy to be had in every stage of your writing life — the excitement of finishing your first story, the comradery of a student workshop, the affirmation of publication, and onward. All of these experiences are worth savoring on the road to success.
And even when those joys pass, the craft itself will always offer humble, everyday rewards, like the triumph of finishing a difficult chapter, the excitement of new insights, or the simple satisfaction of growth and progress. These are the joys that never run dry.
So write for these present-day joys. For the fulfillment and love of the craft.
Still dream big and set goals — but let “success” be a consequence of your earnest pursuit of writing, rather than its driving purpose.
That way you can savor your writing today. You can enjoy success tomorrow. And when the thrill of success fades, rather than feeling empty, you’ll feel ready and excited to start your next story.
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