Sunday, 6 December 2015

Why Being a Writer means Learning to Care Less

Whaat? That's not right, surely?

Writing is about baring your soul - you 'open a vein and bleed onto the page,' as Hemingway is widely rumoured to have said (although there's plenty of evidence that Walter Wellesley 'Red' Smith actually said it before him.) We write about the human condition; the frailties, the hopes, dreams, joy, anger and despair of life. How can we do that if we have the empathy of a lump of granite?

Relax, I don't mean that kind of not caring. Pretty much impossible to purge that from a writer's soul anyway. We're born to notice stuff, think deeply about that stuff and then be compelled to write about it - and caring about it comes with the territory. No, I mean the kind of caring that can destroy a writer's career before it's even begun, and has certainly done for the dreams of many an aspiring one -  caring about what people think of you as a writer.

There's a kind of poetic cruelty in it really. While you're writing your novel or whatever you must care like the mother of all Care Bears. You must care about every moment of every plot event. every hint of subtext, every word of character dialogue... you must care...

Right up to the moment you've finished and you're ready to reveal your work to the world. And that's when you're supposed to immediately flip your Care Switch to the 'off' position, so that when the dissenters, naysayers and folks who just plain don't like what you spent a huge amount of time caring your arse off about can descend upon it and pull it to pieces like the contents of a KFC Bargain Bucket. And you can smile sweetly and thank them for their 'feedback.' Because don't we all know that "all feedback is good feedback?" As somebody somewhere said that one time...

While I've been writing Redemption, I'll admit I've been having the odd fantasy moment. Some people dream of winning the actual lottery; I've indulged in dreams of winning the book publishing lottery and having gazillions of people reading Redemption and loving it. And heck, part of the reason it's taking me so long to write it is because I want to make it as good as I can in order to have the best odds of even knocking at the door of that dream. To have a best-seller... that must be truly awesome, right? The ultimate high for any writer.

And then I remember how that went for E.L. James.

When Fifty Shades of Grey first hit the readersphere it was the red-hot, New Awesome Thing in the world of books. Everyone who was anyone had read it or was reading it, it sold in the squillions and every living creature in the western world except perhaps garden insects had heard of it. Everyone wanted to talk to Ms. James, the 'shy housewife' who had written it apparently on a whim, powered by little more than divine inspiration (we-ell. okay, maybe a little Twilight inspiration thrown in as well) and good old-fashioned determination. She was a freakin' legend, and her book was a resounding call-to-arms, both for the neglected lady-readers and the aspiring writers longing to be her...

For about.... ooh, the first five minutes of its published life. Remember that? Most people don't, 'cause that's how short that time period was.

Suddenly, as quickly as it arrived, the tsunami of PR turned from positive to very, very negative. It was amateurishly badly written! It painted a horribly inaccurate and offensive picture of BDSM practitioners! It set a terrible example to young girls - that wanting to be with a douchebag who abused and uber-controlled you was totally okay if he had washboard abs and truckloads of cash to splash! And then the hate trickled down to Ms. James herself; she was the bad writer of the bad, bad books - and probably all kinds of weird as well...

In no time at all, it became trendier to say that either you had read her books and hated them, or you hadn't read any of her books and would never lower yourself to do so. (Even if the fact that it and its two follow-up books made their author ridiculously rich suggests there are a hell of a lot of liars out there.) But Ms. James didn't change a word of the text in the time Fifty Shades went from Hero to Zero. All that changed was the viewpoint of first the media and then the media-gobbling public. So if that kind of nuclear manure-strike can happen to someone who, on balance, wrote a phenomenally successful trilogy in terms of both notoriety and sales... well, what hope is there of escaping derision and mockery for the lesser-known and practically invisible writers? Like... erm, me for instance?

Does E.L. James care about all the mean things people have said about her and her work? Dunno - maybe we should ask her after she's adjusted her posterior on that pile of money she's probably sitting on right now. But for us lesser-known and aspiring writers there is no bottom-cushion of wonga - and there may never be - so we're probably gonna care that little bit more if we 'fail.' And if we care too much, we may believe it's Fate's way of telling us we're not meant to be writers and we should quit while we're ahead, before we embarrass ourselves any further.

We must not care enough to believe that.

Us writers write because we have to. We write because it's who we are as much as what we do. And it's only when we're brave enough to write things we fear people don't want to read that we can dig deep enough to write our every best stuff. We have to care enough about our writing to not care what criticism we attract from those who read it. This is about more than just growing a thick skin to cope with it when it arrives; it's about shutting your ears to the negative voices telling you not to take that risk in the first place.

Some of the greatest writers in history have written stuff intentionally designed to piss certain sections of society off. That, in part, is what makes it great writing. If you write to be liked then you're basically King Canute, screaming at a tide that does what it damn well wants to. You can't please all of the people all of the time, as the saying goes. So you might as well say what you mean and mean what you say.

Be you. Because there's no-one else better suited to the job.

No comments:

Post a Comment