Jerry Seinfeld: Why can’t you be a comedian just because you’re talented and you’re smart and that’s why you’re a comedian?
Garry Shandling: Why so angry, Jerry?
Every week, I have a conversation or two with prospective clients. People who ostensibly want to write a book. (In many cases, they don't. Not when I'm done talking to them, anyway. What can I say? It's a gift.)
Every such conversation begins and ends with goals: What do you want? How bad do you want it? After all, "write a book" is such a fuzzy notion. Folks carry around so many different, contradictory, and often nonsensical ideas about what it means both to write a book and to have written one. To achieve anything close to what feels like success, you must be completely clear on both these aspects with yourself, let alone any collaborator like an agent, editor, or, well, me.
This discussion of Kieran Setiya's new book, Midlife, reminded me of the distinction between telic and atelic. They derive from the same Greek root that gives us teleology. Think the difference between "stuff you do towards some desired end state" and "stuff you just do." Dieting is telic, eating is atelic. Writing a book is telic, writing the Maven Game, definitely atelic.
Prospective clients and I dive deeply into the teleology of their dream project: Why bother with a book proposal and a literary agent and an auction and all that noise? Forget failure—what will it look like if they're actually successful? Do they know? Have they even given it any thought? If they have, do they really even want that outcome all that much? Don't come to a book collaborator for discipline, folks. Or did paying for that annual gym membership end up delivering the six-pack abs?
If you're publishing a book just to selflessly spread some information with the world, write a blog post or self-publish a tract on Amazon.
If you're publishing a book for fame, fortune, or (barf) influence, don't bother. For those who aren't already famous, fortunate, and influential, publishing a book isn't going to change anything.
As you can imagine, this is an uncomfortable conversation. A little too much clarity, like when you're on your way home after a bender and the sun comes up and there's a jogger pushing a double baby stroller up a nearby hill while on a conference call. Ugh.
Once we've gotten to the heart of the author's teleological intentions—harder in some cases than in others; some people simply refuse to think things through—it's on me to determine whether or not they want this outcome badly enough to do the work to get there. Or, at least, to have a shot at success. I'm not interested in writing atelic book proposals.
Most don't have the requisite grit. A handful do and, as tiring as it can be to work with someone so driven, that's ultimately what I'm looking for in my clients. Sheer, dogged relentlessness. (Did I mention it can be tiring?)
"Let me tell why my TV series in the nineties was so good," Jerry Seinfeld tells Alec Baldwin on Here's the Thing. "[In] most TV series, fifty percent of the time is spent working on the show, fifty percent of the time is spent dealing with [the] personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We spent ninety-nine percent of our time writing, me and Larry. That door was closed. 'We're not taking the call, we're going to make this scene funny.' That's why the show was good."
I'd like more than anything to be the guy who shuts the door. But I'm still the one who takes the call. From the very beginning of his career, Seinfeld has known what he wants and has really, really wanted it. Reading an interview from the early eighties, it's hard to see any real change in the core of Seinfeld's personality or drive compared to this 2013 conversation with Baldwin.
When Baldwin asks Seinfeld why he didn't build an even bigger fortune after the show ended as the producer of other people's sitcoms, Seinfeld scoffs: "You can't trick me into thinking that's good," he says. "It's not good, because most of it is not creative work and not reaching an audience." Seinfeld knows exactly where he wants to end up and he doesn't let anything or anybody stand in the way of getting there. (He compares his romantic relationships during his pre-marriage career to disposable Dixie cups. So, yeah.)
You can have all the talent in the world, but what use is any of it without telic drive? For decades, Seinfeld has talked to his close friend on the phone for an hour or more every day. This friend has a similar comedic sensibility and Seinfeld clearly considers him a comedic equal. Yet only one of these men is a comedy legend-slash-billionaire.
Seinfeld's participation in the daily call is telic. Talking to his friend plays an important role in his creative process, providing a place to work through new material before bringing it to a club. Seinfeld's friend, on the other hand, is content lounging on the couch and chatting with his pal Jerry. Completely atelic.
Nothing wrong with atelic creative work of any kind. Here I am doing this, after all. But don't expect results. That's a lie that gets sold to writers, that the cream rises to the top, that someone was plucked from obscurity. Speaking as a former editor, nobody's doing any plucking, not in any field of creative endeavor. The successful people you envy all plucked themselves with a vengeance, believe me, no matter what story they sell to GQ.
If you want what they have, go pluck yourself.