Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why We Write

Think back – far, far back and farther still. Think back to the time before the time you knew you wanted to be a writer. Yes, I realize this may feel like asking you to think back to life inside the womb, but humor me for a second, will you?, and try.

Do you remember where this desire came from? Do you remember where it all began? Do you remember that feeling of excitement, that thrill, that would overcome your senses when you would sit down and scribble your stories or poems or plays? Do you remember, specifically, the difference between that time – the time when you wrote with no expectation for reward, no thought that this thing might some day get published or that you might some day be recognized for the exceptional talent that you are – and this time – a time when everything seems to hinge on acceptances and rejections?

I’ve often said that I believe if you’re writing solely for the purpose of publication or because you hope that one day you might make a living off of this, you are doing it for the wrong reasons. This, of course, is unfair. Everybody has the right to their own secret purposes in life. My point, however, when I make a broad statement like that, is that you’re probably setting yourself up for failure if this is why you write. It seems like a waste, to me, to spend so much time and energy and effort, if you’re only doing it because you think it will bring you things that may never come. Publication, whether small scale or large, seems like an achievable goal for anybody who keeps at it, but the chances that you will one day make a living off of writing are extremely slim, no matter how good you are, and they seem to be getting slimmer with the changing technologies and DIY trends in today’s publication industry.

In addition, I believe that your chances of reaching any measurable level of success as a writer are greatly diminished if success alone is your driving force. Here’s why: rejections will always be more plentiful than acceptances. Period. You may have to live through years of rejections before you even get an acceptance at all, and that first acceptance will probably be for a very small journal that is mostly (or perhaps even only) read by other contributors. (I don’t mean to suggest that such an acceptance should be taken lightly. I’m a firm advocate for small journals, as an editor of an online journal myself, and I believe that getting anything accepted anywhere is a big deal. However, a small journal acceptance certainly is a smaller triumph than, say, if you were to get something published in the Paris Review or Granta.)

If success alone is what’s driving you, it seems unlikely that you will be able to bear through the years and years of scratching your way up to finally reach a level of success that someone other than you might be impressed by. That is to say, I believe that writers who write to get published will, most of them, eventually give up. It just isn’t worth it.

But if you write because you love to write – if you write because it gives you pleasure, because it adds meaning to your life, because it helps you to understand and interpret the world around you – if, in other words, you write now for the same reasons you wrote back then, in that forgotten time so long ago, then none of the rest of it matters at all: not the acceptances or the rejections, not the money or the recognition (neither of which are ever likely to amount to much, anyway). The only thing that matters is the feeling you get when you write. The only thing that matters is the writing, itself.

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