Who Are You Writing For?

I haven’t written about writing in awhile. Not because I don’t have anything to say, because I worry talking too much about it will annoy people. But I’ve noticed a lot of talk about this topic recently, and I feel I can speak from personal experience.

I follow Neil Gaiman on Tumblr. People tend to ask him how he deals with writing; does he write for himself, or for an audience? How you do deal with this big, looming idea of audience hovering constantly over your shoulder while you’re trying to create? An author like Neil Gaiman has the luxury of largely ignoring it. He can write whatever he wants and he’s pretty well assured it’s going to go to print, and probably that it will sell pretty well.

Most of us don’t have that luxury. Creating is one thing, selling is another. And if you want to make your living as a writer you pretty much need to sell something at some point to make it viable. That’s the part of being a writer I’m working on right now and, let me tell you, it sucks. I’ve been writing for most of my life, been writing full-time for a little over two years now, but I’ve yet to sell anything. And those rejection letters hurt. They’re a kick in the gut no matter how prepared you think you are.

But I’ve learned more from those rejections than any other part of my journey.

Last year, about this time, I went through a bit of a funk. I discovered an allergy to tree pollen and, while I think that contributed a lot, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the source of my depression. I’d done my first serious round of novel queries and, as you can guess, it didn’t go well. I secretly hoped an agent would love my work to pieces and I’d be spirited into the world of traditional publishing and everything would be happy unicorns and rainbows. But of course that isn’t how the world works. I think every writer has to learn that the hard way.

There were days I came close to giving up. I would sit down and consider my options. I felt like I was wasting my life. If I couldn’t sell anything, not even a short story, how was I ever going to be successful? Did I suck at writing? Did I have no talent? Why weren’t my stories good enough?

And it sank me into this swirling void I couldn’t get out of. I couldn’t create because I sank so deep in the funk I couldn’t summon the proper creative energy. But if I didn’t write I’d have to give up my hopes and dreams. And if I did that, I’d have to go back to a miserable job in a profession I only sort-of like. I’d have to settle. And while I know life is often about making the best of whatever situation gets thrown in your direction, I didn’t want to settle on something I knew I’d never love, not for the long term.

But what could I do? No one seemed to like my work. And my meager attempts to create something to other people’s expectations weren’t any good either. I couldn’t please an audience and I couldn’t please myself. Everything I wrote had that horrible concept of audience hovering in the background. What if they didn’t like the same things I did? What if it wasn’t unique enough, or exciting enough? What if I wanted to write a story that wasn’t about the end of the world, or the extinction of the human race? What if my stories were personal, what if the main character didn’t save the world but made life-changing discoveries? What if those kinds of stories weren’t able to stand up next to the epic stories everyone seemed to be publishing?

An infographic circulated on Tumblr featuring a quote about creativity. This infographic claims that for the first several years after you start creating, you’re going to suck. You’re going to make bad stuff and that’s okay. Because you can’t figure out how to make good stuff until you make a bunch of bad stuff. It helped me to read it, but it also hurt. Because I thought I was past that part. I thought I was finally creating something good.

But the most important realization for me was the realization that you can’t create under those circumstances. You can’t expect the creative part of your brain to work properly if all you can think about is who is going to buy the book and what the editor is going to tell you to change and what types of stories agents are currently accepting queries for. It’s too much pressure. And creativity takes such an investment that you can’t give yourself over to it if half your brain is on fire with who the hell is going to read this oh my god I have to change everything to suit the audience. It just doesn’t work.

I’m not sure any more how I got passed it. I don’t remember what I was thinking about or what I was reading. At the time, I’d been dead-set against self-publication. I believed I had to be traditionally published to be successful. I believed I needed someone in the industry to agree that something I wrote was good enough to be published because it was the only way to verify I was any good.

But at some point I realized that was hogwash. ‘Good’ is subjective, especially where reading and writing are concerned. I’m certainly not a fan of Twilight which is a bestseller despite poor writing. I certainly don’t agree with whoever thought that was good enough to publish. But I’ve never believed I needed to sell millions of copies of my writing to be successful either (though I certainly wouldn’t complain). Where did I get off track? When did I decide I needed someone else’s validation? And why would I think successfully publishing a short story, which is by far not my strong suit, would equate to successful novels?

When did I let other people take control of my creative endeavors? When did I let this nebulous audience suck all the joy out of my writing?

Trying to break into publishing is a hard, soul-crushing journey. You feel at the mercy of the people with power. You feel publishers won’t take you seriously without an agent. You feel agents won’t take you seriously unless you’ve published something. And I’ve read that some new authors, new authors that don’t become over-night sensations (which is the majority, let’s be honest), feel like they’re at the mercy of poor treatment from the industry because they don’t have any choice. It’s be thankful for minimal payment and bad cover art or not getting published at all. What can you do?

But we live in the age of the internet. We DO have a choice. Several authors in recent years have successfully self-published to digital formats and turned it into successful traditional publication. One only needs to look as far as Wool and Hugh Howey to see that.

That realization – I have a choice – was like a lightning strike. All the sudden I realized I wasn’t at the mercy of a merciless, soul-crushing system. I can do whatever I want. I can create for me. And if the industry doesn’t like my work, maybe readers will. And if they don’t? Well maybe that’s okay too. Maybe they’ll like the next one or the next one after that, and in the mean time maybe there’ll be just enough people who like my work to help me get by until I write a really great novel.

And if I only ever have a small audience of people who like my work, that’s okay too. I write because I want to share my stories and I want others to enjoy them. If my stories only please a few people, isn’t that okay too? If my writing only ever touches one person, that’s enough.

Remembering that I write for myself, because I love it, because it’s fun and exciting, was one of the most empowering experiences of my life. I may not succeed right away. I might struggle for a long time. Maybe forever. But at least I enjoy that struggle. At least I enjoy squeezing those stories out of my brain onto the blank screen. At least I love the end product, even if no one else does.

I don’t have any publications under my belt yet. I’d like to change that, but I don’t feel the less for it any more. At the end of the day, I’m happy with my work and with what I’ve learned doing it. And that’s no small thing.

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