“If you like writing, why can’t you just write? Why do you need to publish it too?”
This pointed question comes up in conversation once in a while. It usually follows my description of the hard road to publication. It’s a well-meaning question, but it still hurts. It seems that wanting to have a career as a writer puts me in a different category than many other professionals.
If writing is what I love to do, why not just write whatever I want and put the pages in the proverbial drawer? The first time I was asked that question, I was so baffled by it I didn’t do a good job explaining myself. Then I took some time to think it through. Why do I want to publish my work? Why isn’t writing enough? And here’s my answer, going beyond the obvious aspect of paying bills.
Writing is easy, rewriting is hard
Recording your ideas as they pop into your head is easy. All it takes is pen and paper, or a keyboard and a screen, and some free time to do it. But your first version of those ideas is as clear to the rest of the world as your night dreams. You need to go back and sort through your words, put your ideas in order, cut the tangents, beef up the essential, and present the whole package in a way that another brain can comprehend.
The authors I admire are those whose writing resonates with my (different) brain. They did the hard work of forming their rough ideas into coherent and compelling proposals that had me hooked. Because they are my models, I want to be able to do what they do. I want my writing to be as advanced and sophisticated as theirs. In fact, I want to do even better than they did.
More than ten years ago, when I read the story of Pierre Bezukhov in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I was disappointed. Pierre is a debauched young man who experiences a religious conversion. Yet this type of transformation that’s incredibly fascinating and complex was documented in just a few pages. I wasn’t happy with how Tolstoy had handled it, and I decided to write a story that captured that worldview shift in greater detail. So I wrote my speculative historical novel, which has gone through a couple dozen revisions so far.
I recently asked my husband if the idea of “writing as mastery” makes sense to him. He’s a Distinguished Engineer at Microsoft, a title of achievement that only a limited number of people receive in their careers there. His take? He wouldn’t write code just for the fun of it. He needs to know that his software is used by other products, and that it makes a difference in people’s lives. If he can feel that way about his work, why should I feel embarrassed about wanting to share mine?
“as writers, there is one thing we all want: to communicate. To reach other people. To be part of the great conversation of the human race.” – Lisa Cron, Story Genius, p. 48
What will I tell my children?
When my kids are old enough to ask me what I’ve done with my life, I don’t want to tell them that I spent years locked in my room typing away just for my entertainment. What kind of example would I set for them? They will also be looking for role models, and a navel-gazing mother who never contributed to the community outside her house is not going to inspire them. It won’t even elicit respect.
“human beings have evolved to seek meaning and purpose. In the most profound ways, we’re social creatures. Why? Because the drive to connect with and serve others also promotes survival. How? Because people who cooperate are more likely to survive than loners. Society depends on stable interpersonal relationships, and society in so many ways keeps us fed, shelters us from the elements, and protects us from enemies. The desire to connect is as basic a human need as our appetite for pleasure.” – Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, p. 147
Romanians have a saying, “Don’t cast your shadow on the ground in vain.” If you’re alive under the sun, do something useful with your life. Writing just for my own enjoyment is against my basic humanity. We all want to do something useful with our lives. I know my writing will not change the world, but it might once in a while add something meaningful to someone’s life. My mother is a retired high school teacher who spent her whole career helping minds blossom at a critical stage of development. My father built the new wing of my former high school. My work is to write, and I want it to exist outside my head and my desk drawers. I want my children to know what I did while casting a shadow on the ground.
This is it, a short and simple answer, but it took me a while to get to this clarity. And now that I have it, I wrote this piece and revised it and published it on this website. Because it might be useful to other writers who are asked once in a while: Why do you need to publish your work?
“while interest is crucial to sustaining passion over the long-term, so, too, is the desire to connect with and help others.” – Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, p. 149
When you’re a writer, publishing your work is what you must do in order to claim your place in your community. Acceptance of your writing is rare, rejection abundant. At times, it seems easier to just withdraw from the world and write only for yourself. I can’t do that. That’s not what my role-models have done, that’s not what my family is doing, that’s not what my children will do one day.