Why Writing Is Like Playing The Lottery

I have occasionally bought lottery tickets, despite traveling in the sort of circles who sneer at that with the old saw, “A lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math.” I know this, and yet, the lottery calls out to part of my brain that I can’t turn off.

When you’re a writer, you are constantly running through story possibilities. You’ve gotten these characters to a point; what now? What would Dev do in this situation, or what if the situation were different? You play the “what if” and the “what now” game with your stories, and it becomes a little harder to stop doing that with real life. When you apply for a job, you start imagining what it’d be like to work for that company, what the commute would be to that office, what the new salary would be like, and all kinds of things. You worry about details that you will have ample time to figure out if you need to–and which are days or weeks away. Your life is a story you are writing every day, after all, and it helps to dream about the many twists and turns it might take.

When you date (it has been a long time for me, but still), you imagine what will happen if things work out. A lot of humor is based around people thinking way too far ahead after a first date (“can you imagine what our wedding would be like?”), but the humor hits home because a lot of us do that. We think about the future a lot; it’s one of the rare abilities that humans and a couple other animals can do. Sometimes we take it to extremes, and I think writers channel a lot of that excessive unnecessary future-planning into stories.

Which comes back to the lottery. I know you were probably thinking that writing is like playing the lottery because there’s a tiny chance of “winning” and becoming a J.K. Rowling or a Stephanie Meyer, but no. Publishing is like the lottery in that regard. We don’t write–most of us don’t–to become famous. We write to share our stories and we hope for the fame and sales so we can write more.

No, writing is like playing the lottery in that it opens up dreams and worlds for us. I am fully aware that I am donating a dollar or five to the lottery people when I buy a ticket. But what I get back is the very pleasant “what I’ll do if I win” dream, and the feeling that it just might happen. And every time I write a story, I get to imagine what will happen, and in the story it does. So the lottery gives me that dreaming, and that’s worth a couple bucks every now and then. It’s just something that’s a part of my life: I spend a non-negligible amount of every day imagining the future, good and bad. I might as well spend a buck and imagine a really nice one.

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