I've been thinking this quite a bit the last couple weeks, probably because I fell victim to a week-long change-of-season funk, the annoying, lingering kind that makes you get all cerebral on yourself…
Why exactly do I write?
I've been able to come up with simple answers. There's the pragmatic reason—I write because I seem to be decent at it and am getting paid, with the potential to get paid more in the future. There's also the philosophical reason, which so many authors articulate as the over-simplified and frightfully hokey, "I write because I can't not write." Well, no, that's not really true, technically speaking. What they mean is, "I write because not writing feels bad," or "Writing gives my life meaning." Fine justifications, as legit as the money-based ones.
But why do we do anything? For the pay-off, financial or spiritual or social or manifested in our sense of self-worth and purpose. So, what exactly am I getting out of this gig?
Income-wise, divide what I make by the hours I put into writing, and in a good month, I'm making minimum wage, if I'm lucky. It ain't the money, honey.
There's a definite thrill in being praised, but truth be told, a lousy review hits me harder than a good one cheers me, as gloomy and ungrateful as that sounds. A bad review makes me feel more bad than a good review makes me feel good—if temporarily. That's a human instinct, to react more potently to threatening circumstances. Criticism is a threat in our modern society, as visceral a scare as being chased by a predator or attacked by a rival was in ye olde survival-times. It only makes good sense that our bodies manifest threats and criticism more potently than the triggers that tell us, "You're doing great! People like you! Five stars!" The latter is awesome…but it'll never compete, gut-impact-wise, with the negative. Not for me, anyhow, though I wish it would. I just have to keep reminding myself of that, so when I do stumble into a pile of the negative, a psychic foot-in-a-turd, my rational brain can remind itself that no, I'm not in mortal danger, my body's just awash with run-away-from-the-wolverine chemicals.
So it's not for the praise. The praise is a bonus, pretty blossoms worth dodging the turds for. What about success, the carrots of potential accomplishments dangling before me? The promise of the next contract, the killer agent, the big deal, the What's Next…? Those are good. I like those, as I'm very goal-oriented and I love qualifying my own progress. I certainly like the days when I make a new sale infinitely more than those naked-feeling book release days. Plus I've always been a bit of a teacher's pet, eager for authoritarian praise from on high. But that's not why I do it.
What about the characters? Do I owe it to my characters to tell their stories? Um, no. I made those people up. If anything, they owe me. Plus they're so much fun to abuse.
Setting aside the reviewers, professional and hobbyist and Goodreads-casual alike, do I write for the readers? Well, kind of. As a professional author, of course I do. I write stories that I hope strangers will read and enjoy. But I've had the good fortune of genuinely being able to accept Stephen King's advice on the topic of reader-pleasing; you can't aim to please everyone, because no book (or song or film or painting or person or recipe) will ever make everyone happy. Not even close. Not even remotely close.
You can only aim to please your Ideal Reader, as King calls him or her, and that's what I do, now. My Ideal Reader changes from book to book. Sometimes it's my targeted editor, or my avid-romance-reader-friend Amy, or my critique buddy Ruthie. But it's always just a single person I'm writing a story for, and hot damn, that's a huge relief. Especially since I have access to that person, and can ask them to read the story as it's progressing, so I know if I'm hitting the mark for my tiny, hand-picked audience of one. And in the end, as long as they're happy then the book's a success, and on an intellectual level, I can shrug off the knowledge that some people will be disappointed, inevitably. Thank you, Stephen King, for setting my brain free.
But I write for myself, I think, above everyone else. Not in a swoony book-of-my-heart-type way. I write because it puts me in such complete control—a control I relinquish the second the book's published, when it's no longer mine to fuss with and groom, set free to fend for itself in strangers' hands or on strangers' screens. But while it's still being written and polished, it's all mine.
It's no secret I used to be a designer. I stumbled across my penchant for fiction-writing three years ago, and though I was always proud as a designer to be able to say that I got paid to be creative all day…it doesn't compare. Ideal Reader aside, as a writer I spend all day doing exactly what I want, for myself. Even during edits and revisions, I still feel in control, because I trust my editors and I trust their opinions and advice will help me make my books better, which I want far more than I want to be perfect straight out of the gate. As a writer I've had incredibly free reign over my own creativity and process—freakishly free reign. And as a pretty autonomous, admittedly self-orbiting personality, that is fucking wonderful.
I guess I don't really know why I write. Not in a way I can distill into a single pithy line, at least. (Clearly not—look how bloated and gassy this very post has become.)
So maybe I should ask myself, why didn't I write, before? Why wasn't I doing this, four years ago? And the answer to that is, because I had no idea how important it was to me, and how much more fulfilled doing it would make me feel. It's like asking someone who hasn't yet discovered their inherent love of exercise, why don't they take up walking or yoga? Well, because you don't think you need to, to live. It's easier not to, and you'll seemingly have more time to yourself if you don't. You don't know until it's gone from chore to habit to hobby to passion, just how essential it is beyond the basic benefits of physical activity and fresh air. You don't yet know that feeling in your body, that thing inside that nags you to go take a walk, tangible as a toddler or pet whining at your hip. That magic that happens when you discover something that's not only good for you, but that you enjoy doing, that some days you downright love. A compulsive, perfectly selfish love, the kind that gets a marathoner in their shoes and out on the road each morning, through rain and snow and injury, against doctor's wishes, the draw of the punishment for whatever reason stronger than an excuse to stay in bed, warm and unchallenged. It's always easier to leave the page blank, after all. But some of us just don't get off on easy.
I think that's why I write, anyhow. What about you?