In 1937, literary critic Cyril Connolly sat down to write a book around an unusual question: how does an author create something that lasts for 10 years? Connolly’s view was that the mark of literary greatness lay in standing the test of time. With the spectre of world war looming on the horizon, the idea of anything surviving in an uncertain future had a kind of poignancy and meaning to it.
The book that Connolly wrote, Enemies of Promise, explored contemporary literature and the timeless challenges of making great art. While it never became a trendy cultural sensation, this unusual book ultimately endured through wars, political revolutions, fads, massive technological disruption and so much else. It lasted first for a decade – in 1948, 10 years after its release, Enemies of Promise was expanded and given its first reprinting. The book got the same treatment in 2008.
Is that not the kind of lasting success that every creative person strives for? To produce something that is consumed (and sells) for years and years, that enters the canon of our industry or field, that becomes seminal, that makes money (and has impact) while we sleep, even after we’ve moved on to other projects?
The novels of James Salter have been described as “imperishable”. A translator of the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once observed that the man’s writing possessed a certain “changeless freshness”. One of Bob Dylan’s biographers has pointed out that even though many of the musician’s songs were written about momentous events in the 1960s, the music holds true and has “transcended his time”.
Not only writers or musicians, but, in their purest form, every entrepreneur, designer, journalist, producer, filmmaker, comedian, – anyone doing any kind of creative work – is attempting to do just that: to have impact and to survive.
Yet most of us fail in that effort. Why? First, we must grant that it’s really hard. Back-breakingly, you-might-end-up-going-mad-if-you-think-about-it-too-much hard. They never give themselves a real shot at it. They want to make something timeless, but they focus instead on immediate payoffs. During the creative process, many are led astray by shortcuts.
And too often they think that a good idea is enough. The hard part is not the dream or the idea, it’s the doing. It is the driving need that determines one’s chances. You must have a reason – a purpose – for why you want the outcome and why you’re willing to do the work to get it. That purpose can be almost anything, but it has to be there.
Here are some good ones: because there is a truth that has gone unsaid for too long. Because the world will be better for it. Because you want to capture something meaningful.
These are the states of being that create great works of art – not passing or partial interest – and these are the states you should be seeking out. A desire to impress your friends, or because you think it would be interesting, or because all you care about is quick money – well, that will not be remotely enough.
Compare two creators: one who cares less about what he’s making and more about what it can do for him (make money), and another who says, “This is my life’s work” or “This is what I was put on this planet to make.” Who would you bet on?
Every project must begin with the right intent. It might also need luck and timing and a thousand other things, but the right intent is non-negotiable – and, thankfully, intent is very much in your control.
Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday is published by Profile Books at £8.99. To order it for £7.64, go to bookshop.theguardian.com