Recently I got email from someone I know who asked me for advice. The email was longer than the excerpt below but I’ll snip to encapsulate:
“how do you write when you’re faced with the very likely possibility that it’s likely all for nothing unless you trip into some luck somewhere? I have no clue how other writers get past this to create stuff, when I’ve pretty much lived a creative life that said if you don’t have something worthwhile that makes an impact on someone besides you at the end of whatever you do, it’s wasted time.”
First of all, if writing gives you pleasure it is NEVER wasted time. NEVER.
I can pretty much recite the utilitarian argument because we see it so much: if you don’t get paid for it, if no one else thinks it is worth money, if you don’t sell X amount or receive Y number of positive reviews, then “you” don’t count. This view does pervade much of our money and success driven culture, and in the 24/7 social media culture where people can interact all the time and where interaction and sharing becomes part of the process, it can seem that writing is inextricably linked to the idea that it only matters if others want it or pay for it or talk about it in the right way.
I’ll say it again:
If writing gives you pleasure it is NEVER wasted time.
I started writing as a teen. Publishing was so distant from me that I only vaguely dreamed of publishing. I was writing for myself and no one else. I’m old fashioned enough that I tend to think teachers having their students “publish” their books in the classroom is a mistake because it makes people think that only publication makes the writing legitimate. This isn’t helped by the current crop of “hot new young writing star” publicity, as if you aren’t published by 25 then you are therefore already a failure. It isn’t helped by people trying to score points in internet debates by saying Writer X has more Amazon or goodreads reviews and thus must be taken more seriously than Writer Y who only has fewer. It isn’t helped by people trying to create hierarchy by claiming that only award and review notice matters, not “mere” popularity. Taken in terms of the act of writing as writing, those are secondary issues in terms of “legitimacy.”
What makes the writing legitimate is the way it makes you feel inside, the spark of excitement as a scene becomes clear, as vivid words and images emerge that you didn’t expect, as characters surprise you.
It’s weird because before I was published I knew nothing about the science fiction and fantasy scene. I had no interaction with anyone about my writing except my high school English teacher and a couple of university writing teachers. The former was great and hugely influential because he encouraged me both in my love of writing and by recommending classics to read that would bring breadth into my imaginative vista. The latter were basically a waste of time because they universally scorned genre, given this was long before genre became cool and “serious,” and kept telling me I ought to write “real fiction” instead of sff.
After college I tried to sell my first finished novel. It never did sell; it was really very bad, and it is PERFECTLY OKAY that it wasn’t very good because I loved writing it at the time I wrote it. I was totally into it.
Everything we write should make us happy as writers in that the writing of it can fulfill something inside us. Everything we write also makes us better writers (if we pay attention).
After failing to sell that book I wrote three more novels. I got an agent by sending out letters and getting rejections until I found one willing to take me on. I got published. Only then did I learn about sff conventions. I knew nothing about fandom or fanfiction.
Now I see that this ignorance has helped me in specific ways.
I always at root write for myself. When I struggle with my writing it is always because I’m worrying not about the book itself but about reception, about outside things. Again, it was easier in the ancient days to just write in the privacy of my own head, and it’s much harder now that I can anticipate that people will be reading and reacting to the words I’m setting down.
Back then I wrote solely to please myself. I wrote stories I wanted to read.
I would ask writers two questions:
1) Why are you writing? What is your goal?
2) Does the story you are writing right now make you happy in the sense that it gives you pleasure and satisfaction as you see it come into being? Leaving aside ALL OTHER FACTORS, just on your own behalf — does it make you smile creatively? Do you think “Whoo! I did that! Ooo! I could do this other thing here!”
I’m not saying it is easy to block out all the other competing goals and voices and complications, but that
is for me the central worthwhile thing about writing.
I care about the other stuff too, of course, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. A lot of my self identity is tied up now with being a publishing writer, and I can’t pretend that publishing, paying my mortgage, reader reaction, reviews, interaction with other writers, reading, and all the elements tied into having a writing career aren’t central to my sense of who I am. It isn’t really possible to Franzen-like block out all the influences that pour down over us, and I don’t want to pretend it is.
But that’s not at root why I started writing and why I continue to write.
I write because, however hard it may be at any given moment, deep in my heart it delights me to writing fiction.
If you can find that place, keep pulling yourself back to that place when you stray, then write the story that you want to tell, and write it for yourself.
Bravo. Sometimes the process of writing is difficult, and if we push through them, discover solutions, we hone our craft and come to that happier place. The final edit will probably not reflect what it took to get there, but my soul will.
Thanks for writing this. As a English major, it can get disheartening when all of my writing classes put literary fiction on a pedestal and act like genre fiction doesn’t exsist. I feel like writing something for me this weekend 🙂
Paul, the entire process really is complex and satisfying. That’s one reason I’m sad when people feel their writing is meaningless unless they have external validation. Nothing against external validation, but it isn’t the sole determiner of writing worth.
Taylor, oh wow are writing classes still doing the lit/genre divide? I had hoped that at least in some places there was more room for genre now, especially given that I’m seeing more academic papers on popular culture and even now on fanfiction which the academics call “story worlds” or some other term.
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