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There’s a certain misery in the air right now. I’m reading it on other writer’s blogs. I’m feeling it myself. Seeing it in tweets. Hearing it in late night conversations in bars. It’s kind of everywhere. So many writers I know, or who I follow on line, or in interviews, are grappling with their own self worth as writers. If I’m not selling am I still a writer? If I can’t get published am I still a writer? If my contract got cancelled am I still a writer? If my next book doesn’t do as well as my last book am I still a writer? If I don’t win awards am I still a writer? If reviewers hate my books am I still a writer?
I myself have thwacked a few writer friends with pep talks in the last few weeks.
Actually, it’s just the one pep talk and it goes like this:
You can only control the book you write.
You can’t control whether you sell it. You can’t control how big the advance is if you sell it. You can’t control how much is spent promoting it. You can’t control how many copies Barnes & Noble takes or whether they take it at all. You can’t control whether punters buy it when it finally appears on the shelves. You can’t control the reviews. You can’t control the award committees.
Spending time and energy angsting about any of that stuff will only do your head in.
All you can do is write the very best book you can.
It will get published or it won’t. It will find its market or it won’t. It will sell or it won’t. It will win awards or it won’t. None of that matters if you’ve written the best book you can.
Books with huge advances and the biggest marketing and publicity budget in the world sink like a stone. Books with nary a sheckle spent on them take off out of nowhere. Books you think are terrible do great; books you worship sell fewer than a thousand copies. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Do not let it do your head in.
Because if you believe that your worth as a writer is tied up in how well your books do even success won’t help. Do not be gloating that your book is doing better than so and so’s. That you can write full-time while they need a day job. Tables turns. So what if your current book is the hugest hit ever? What happens if the book after that isn’t? What happens if your biggest success is already behind you? Does that mean you’re not a real writer? That you’re a failure?
Elizabeth Gilbert touches on all these issues in her recent wonderful talk on genius and creativity. If you haven’t already, you really must check it out for she argues that you cannot let your sense of self get tied up in how your books do and also that it’s a pernicious myth that a creative person must be insane or damaged or both and that ultimately your art will destroy you.
It dovetails neatly with my thinking of late. Because I’ve been wondering if all the angsting that I and so many other writers do is fueled by a belief in those myths. Do we angst because we think we should? Because that’s what we’ve learned writers do? Deep in our subconscious do we believe that we’re not a real writer if we’re not suffering?
I believed it growing up. When I was young I obsessively read and re-read Katinka Matson’s Short lives: Portraits in Creativity and Self-destruction and the work of all the writers included in that book. I honestly thought that in order to be creative I would have to suffer and be self-destructive.
It bewildered me that any time actual bad things happened I found myself unable to write. I was not inspired by them, I was devastated. I have always written more prolifically and better when I’m happy. Later, much later, I could make sense of the bad things, but never at the time. Conversely I am always much happier when I’m writing a lot. When the writing is going well I’m way happier than any award or review or book sales have ever made me.
I have also discovered no correlation between how emotionally fraught it is for me to write a book and the book’s success. How To Ditch Your Fairy was the easiest and most fun book to write, thus far it’s been my most successful. Despite my struggles on the rewrite of the liar book it’s still been a much easier and more fun book to write than Magic’s Child, which was (other than my PhD thesis) my most unhappy writing experience. Rewriting the liar book’s been hard, but it’s also mostly been pretty enjoyable. Sometimes I’d really like not to be in the narrator’s head, cause, well, she’s a compulsive liar, but the tricky structure has been an excellently brain stretching experience. I’ve learned so much writing the book; I think I’m a better writer because of it. That’s very happy making.
If the liar book does well in the real world that’s great, but even if it doesn’t, I still know it’s the best book I could possibly make it.
I will admit that I have talked about writing the liar book as though I were suffering. Because I kind of thought I should be. Which is nuts.
The myth of the suffering artist is very pervasive.
But Liz Gilbert is right: it’s a stupid myth. We should forget about it. Write because you love it. Write because it’s your job. Write to produce the best books you can and to be happy with them. No matter what happens after they’re out of your control you will know that you made them as good as you knew how.
That’s the part of being a writer that is in our own hands; that’s the part that truly matters.
Posted by Justine at 1:47, 17 March 2009 under How To Ditch Your Fairy, Liar, Magic or Madness trilogy, Publishing business, Ranting, Writing process | 23 Comments »
Tricia Sullivan Says:
Hmm. I thought all writers were crazy, but you are not acting crazy enough if you keep posting stuff like this.
I might actually print this one out and stick it up on the wall beside my desk. Thanks!
For more sanity, Kay Kenyon has wise words of a related bent. http://kenyonsf.livejournal.com/33348.html
March 17th, 2009 at 2:20 AM
Sir Tessa Says:
March 17th, 2009 at 5:33 AM
Eric Luper Says:
This is how I said it the other day: http://eluper.livejournal.com/108730.html
March 17th, 2009 at 8:50 AM
All the questions at the beginning of this post made me want to tell the people who are asking these questions, “Are you writing? Then yes, you’re a writer.”
March 17th, 2009 at 8:53 AM
this is a wonderful post. It’s hard letting go of the tortured artist mythos, especially since it seems to be EVERYWHERE (and I have to say I do think much of the internet writer’s blog thing – present company excepted! – is contributing to it) and it appears to be even harder not to get hung up on the whole publishing issue. So yes – write because you love it! or write because you hate it but it nevertheless feels like the most important thing you can do.
you say ‘I have also discovered no correlation between how emotionally fraught it is for me to write a book and the book’s success.’ You mean commercial success here, right? I’m interested – do you think there’s any correlation between how how good or successful you think the book is artistically, and how hard it was to write?
March 17th, 2009 at 11:07 AM
john cash Says:
I remember seeing the “suffering artist” myth pop up in the old cartoon “Beanie and Cecil.” (Anyone remember that one?) Cecil, a sea serpent, wants to become a beat artist, and his nemesis Dishonest John tells him great artists have to suffer, and proceeds to make him suffer in a variety of cartoon ways. Not recommended for real life.
And yet, people who have experienced suffering and can use it to put emotional power into their writing, singing, and painting can make phenomenal stuff. Without prison, would Dostoevsky or Solzehnitsyn be as powerful? Without addiction and life on the street, would William S. Burroughs or Tony O’Neill or Billie Holiday or Marianne Faithfull be as compelling? Without the death of her mother, would J.K. Rowling have succeeded in representing death so successfully in “Harry Potter”?
To counteract the “suffering artist” myth, we have to admit suffering’s role, in life and so in writing, but avoid glamourizing it as though without it you can’t ever be a cool artist, writer, or person.
March 17th, 2009 at 11:37 AM
7. Justine Says:
Lilya: You say ‘I have also discovered no correlation between how emotionally fraught it is for me to write a book and the book’s success.’ You mean commercial success here, right?
I mean both.
I’m interested – do you think there’s any correlation between how how good or successful you think the book is artistically, and how hard it was to write?
Not for me there isn’t. Maybe for some other writers.
March 17th, 2009 at 11:56 AM
Thank you. Needed that.
March 17th, 2009 at 12:39 PM
John Cash – that’s a slightly different point though, isn’t it? Yes, great artists can use the bad times they’ve been through to enrich their creative work, but those bad times weren’t caused by their work. I’m pretty sure Solzhenytsyn didnt’ seek out the gulag in order to become a great writer. and I always thought the main contribution prison made to Dostoyevsky’s work was to give him time to write, free of the usual round of debts and gambling…))
March 17th, 2009 at 2:19 PM
Lauren McLaughlin Says:
Thanks, Justine. Just… thanks.
March 17th, 2009 at 2:44 PM
Diana Peterfreund Says:
I think there are two different issues at play here.
The first one, which I absolutely agree with (even if I find it difficult to put into practice) is “Protect the Work.” The only thing we can control is the book. head down, nose to grindstone, shoulder to wheel, damn the torpedoes, all those truisms.
The other issue is the myth of the tortured writer. I admit I’ve never been a fan of that one. I don’t care much for being tortured, and writing had always been something that makes me happy. Right now, however, I’m finding it’s the other things in my life that are making me happy: my husband, my new house, my puppy, my friends. I am intermittently having problems finding the joy in writing. February and the secret project was a good month, and I’m sure once I get past this issue I’m having with the current WIP, it will be full speed ahead. but write now, man. It’s the whole “stare at a blank page until droplets of blood form” stage, and it’s hard to keep the doubt demons away and “protect the work” when you are wondering whether the work is worthy of protecting.
March 17th, 2009 at 4:35 PM
I agree. many people ask, “am i a writer?” I always think of it as this. it you write, your a writer. your writing can be horrible, but you are still a writer. If you yourself feel happy with your book, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks. Satisfaction is the key.
March 17th, 2009 at 5:16 PM
Samira Hodges Says:
What a great post. And well-timed too. I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for writing it so beautifully.
March 17th, 2009 at 7:32 PM
What fantastic advice, although its easier to be rational on a good day…
And I figured out a long time ago that i don’t have to be a tortured soul to write, but getting involved with the publishing world can be akin to torture at times .
March 17th, 2009 at 8:18 PM
Mary Elizabeth S. Says:
I have the opposite problem. When my writing isn’t going well and my self-esteem is lagging, I start to wonder in the back of my mind if success (success being defined as a written story that I am happy with) is dependant upon having a good time writing. People talk about how their best writing is done “in the zone” and how when they have it right they just fly along. And when I’m not flying along in the zone, I start to get scared that it means I’m a bad writer and my story is coming out all wrong and will never work right. It’s at those times when I wish I *did* believe that suffering made writing better, because it would mean that the more I struggled with the story the better it would come out. Which is, I know, just as silly as thinking the other way around. But I’ve always been a little odd, and I never promised reasonableness, anyway.
March 18th, 2009 at 12:36 AM
Karen Mahoney Says:
I know I’m late in saying ‘thanks’ but I’ve read this post several times and am SO grateful for the words I need to hear right now. Thank you. My book is on submission with my fabulous agent right now, but it’s a process that feels agonisingly slow… I keep forgetting to focus on the next project – on the things I *can* control – and instead obsess over my email inbox.
Cheers! (I’ve linked to this on my blog.)
March 18th, 2009 at 6:29 PM
Sonya M. Sipes Says:
Happy = Good Writing
I totally agree! I find that my lighter stories fill me with satisfaction much more fully, and that my heavy/dark fiction weighs on me as heavily as it does on my characters. I wonder what that will mean to the reader? Which story will they find more memorable? The one that I smiled through? Or the one that weighed me down?
Great post, thanks for sharing your point of view.
March 18th, 2009 at 10:11 PM
To the extent that you’re commenting on the angst of whether or not you are/are still a writer (as opposed to the other argument, of whether or not you need to suffer in your life to have fuel with which to create art), I think the best way to answer the questions you mention (such as ‘if my next book isn’t as good as my last, am I still a writer?’) is to stop and ask them about someone else. Is (for example) Stephen King still a writer if his latest book is not as good as ‘Christine’? Clearly, yes. Why should the answer you give about yourself be any more negative than the answer you give about someone else?
March 18th, 2009 at 11:22 PM
If you tell all your writer friends that, they will never worry about sales and reviews again!
By the way, I think the liar book sounds amazing, so I think it will do well in the real world too!
March 19th, 2009 at 6:02 AM
Heather S. Ingemar Says:
I think this is a post EVERY writer needs to read.
March 21st, 2009 at 1:43 PM
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