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.