Sunday, 6 March 2016

So... Why Are We Doing This Writing Thing Again?

If you're a writer, have you ever asked yourself "Why do I write?" Or does it seem like a redundant question?

I'll admit it's not one I've given much thought to in the past. Why do I write? Might as well ask 'why do I eat chocolate?' or 'why do I listen to music?' So perhaps it was rather ignorant of me to assume most other writers felt the same way. After all, the process is not always rainbows and fluffy kittens, so it's gotta be something pretty powerful that keeps you showing up at the page. Especially during those times when everything you write makes you feel like a dyslexic toddler trying to bang out War and Peace. With a crayon. On a pebble-dashed wall.

But then I saw two posts on a writing forum I frequent, from two different members, in the same week. And, on the surface at least, they seemed to be making two very different points about writing and writers.

The first was just a simple, one-line statement: "Everyone can write, but not everyone is a writer." That was it -  nothing more in actual words, but the added sentiment of "discuss" was certainly implied. And discussed it was. Of course it wasn't the first time I'd heard the view expressed - in fact, anyone who's been writing for longer than about ten minutes usually gets to hear it by at least the eleventh minute. Many people who responded to the post shared the view that the very act of writing is enough to make that person a writer, and objected to the implication that only those who were 'good at writing' had the 'right' to award themselves the title of Writer.

Because therein lies the problem. How do you quantify what 'good' writing is? E.L. James and Stephanie Meyer, to name but two, have been repeatedly mauled by both literary critics and 'discerning book lovers' (whoever they are) for their allegedly terrible prose and awful characters, but they've sold millions of copies of their books so they must be doing something right for a hell of a lot of people. While at the other end of the spectrum Hemingway is regularly lauded as a literary genius, but if you don't like his style (and I'll confess to being one of those who doesn't) you're not going to enjoy reading his books no matter how super-awesomely frickin' amazing he apparently is. So what if it had been up to me and people who shared my views to determine whether or not Hemingway was 'allowed' to call himself  a writer? What if all those publishers who initially rejected the Harry Potter stories also got carte-blanche to tell J.K. Rowling "Oh yeah, and, because we don't like these books we also don't think you should consider yourself a writer anymore. Sorry and all that, but' y'know - not everyone's got the X-Factor?"

So this post received quite a clear, majority answer; if you write, you're a writer, and any implication of there being some sort of 'standard' that must be met before you're allowed to think of yourself as a 'proper' writer is elitist and pretty much unenforceable anyway.

The second post, however, was a little more complex, and definitely harder to unpack. The Poster said he'd been writing for just over four years and had learned a lot about writing in that time - from books, courses and online websites and forums just like this one. He'd also recently been reading a lot of works by other authors - authors he'd always admired and were well-regarded. And he felt that, after all these four-plus years of learning and writing, his own work was as good - and in some cases, better - than works written by these other authors. In short, he felt he'd learned all he could possibly learn about writing and couldn't get any better at it than he currently was. So... should he quit writing altogether?

If your reaction to that was "whaaaaat?" don't worry - so was mine. Why in the holy heck would you quit doing something you thought you were - not just good at, but better at than people who were already successful in that field? That's not so much dropping the mic as whacking yourself between the eyes with it and then falling offstage because you can't see properly. As the thread progressed it seemed what he was really saying was that, after his four years of learning all he could possibly learn about writing and reaching a position where he felt he was at least as good as most of the authors he admired, he still wasn't published or anywhere near as successful as those authors. And with that in mind, if he really couldn't get any better at writing because he was as good as he could ever get... what was the point in carrying on? Why waste his time continuing with his writing if apparently no-one was noticing how talented he already was?

A lot of people pointed out the most obvious thing to him; four years is a ridiculously short time in the growth of a writer. In fact, in terms of human development it's comparable to reaching potty-training stage. You wouldn't expect a four-year-old to beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon - even a super-talented one - and it's the same for writers, because there's a lot more going on under the surface than what you see on a page of any author's work. Successful authors become so because they make what they do look easy - but they only get to that stage after years of hard slog. And none of them would ever say they've learned everything they could possibly learn about the craft - nope, not even Stephen King or J.K. Rowling.

But as I thought more deeply about these two posts, I realised that, even though they appeared to be offering different perspectives on writing, the sentiment behind them was actually the same: if you can't be among the elite of writers there's no point in even trying to be one. Forget about doing it for the love of writing, or because you feel you have things to say - commercial success and recognition is the only thing that legitimises your work.

If you really believe this - if this sounds like your reason for becoming a writer - you are, I'm afraid, setting yourself up for a lot of frustration and disappointment. At the very least in the early years of your journey as a writer - and, maybe, for the majority of it. Because success and recognition isn't guaranteed, for any writer - no matter how talented they are. For every famous writer like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, who are able to make being a best-selling author their actual career, there are hundreds more who make so little from their book sales that they still have full-time, non-author jobs to pay their rent and bills (or a supportive spouse with a reasonably well-paid job.) These authors have no shortage of loyal fans who love their work... but in terms of money earned from that work there are probably part-time shop assistants who earn a higher wage than they can ever make in book royalties.

I can't help wondering if the two posters of those forum threads consider those kinds of authors fools. Would they tell them to give up? "Face it, you're obviously not good enough at what you do to make a proper career out of it, so stop wasting your time and find some other vocation you can make real money from." Thing is, if writing is in your blood, heart and soul it's not that simple. Because here's the point that those two posters are missing; those of us who love being writers don't write for the money or the fame. I'm not saying we don't want those things (most of us do, even if we don't admit it) but it's not what drives us to write. If we could look into a crystal ball and see our future, and that future showed us we were never going to make any money or get any fame for the stuff we write - well, we'd still write anyway. Because we'd have to. It's who we are and what we do.

I used to say that I would never, ever tell anyone they should quit writing. But after reading these two posts I've changed my mind. Now, if anyone comes to me and says "Should I quit writing?" I'm going to say the following:

"Yes. If you're asking yourself this question - and asking it honestly, rather than in that cringey fishing-for-compliments way people sometimes do - you should quit writing. If you're thinking "that £1.99 Kindle book I read said writing books was a quick and easy way to make money, but I'd have earned more working in McDonalds by now," then definitely quit. Quit it completely. And then see how that goes...

"If after a while you feel like a weight has been lifted, or you find some other hobby or creative outlet that fills you with more joy or brings greater rewards than writing ever did, you'll know you made the right decision. You were dead right to quit. Enjoy your new, writer-free life!

"But if you feel like a part of you is missing, like some of the colours have gone from your life, and that you keep finding yourself going back to your notebooks or computer and jotting stuff down 'just for fun'... you'll know you can't stop yourself from being a writer. It's who you are. You might never be a famous one, or a rich one - but you are a writer all the same."

If a writer is what you are, quitting is not an option for you, any more than breathing. So don't quit being a writer. Instead, quit building up a list of expectations for what a writer is 'supposed' to be. Contrary to what the media would have you believe - in this Tweeting, FaceBooking, selfie-posting, Strictly X-Factor's Got Talent-saturated society we live in - fame and fortune are not mandatory qualifications for being a proper, bona fide writer. Hell, you don't even have to wait until you've had work published before you can officially wear that Writers' Badge.

It's not about the money. It's not about the fame. So if that's all you want from writing... well, there are quicker and easier ways to get both of those these days. Being a writer aint a job, sweetie, it's a way of life. But a rich and rewarding one - even without the cash and the celebrity status - if it's what you're born to do.

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