Why We Write, Why We Don’t

About a year or so ago a writer acquaintance of mine posed the question: What you would write if it were only for yourself, and nobody else’s eyes ever saw it? It was an interesting question, and one I’ve thought about intermittently ever since. I didn’t really have an answer then, and I’m not sure I have one now. I guess if I’m being honest, my answer is this: I probably wouldn’t write if nobody were there to read it.

This tells me two things about myself. One, I’m not in love with the process of writing, and don’t see it as an end unto itself. Second, I need an audience to be properly motivated, or at least the prospect of an audience.

Am I an outlier? Maybe. Many writers simply have to write – it’s in their blood, as essential as breathing. Some keep diaries or journals that will never be shared with another. Many simply enjoy the act of writing, because it’s fun or therapeutic, and lets them pour their thoughts and emotions out. Stephen King once said he might retire from writing as a career and never publish again, but he’d still keep on writing every day. It’s just part of his DNA, something he enjoys more than maybe anything else.

I understand that POV – to a point. The reason I started this website, and this blog, is to promote my work and build readership. But the truth is, I kind of enjoy it. It’s a nice break from the paying gigs, which involve getting assignments and delivering them on deadline. With a blog I can write what I want, when I want. Maybe not a whole lot of people read it, though some do. That’s enough to keep the wheels turning.

Would I write it if nobody were there to read it? Ummmmm……..probably not.

This might have something to do with my former career as a journalist. Writing for newspapers and magazines, you know the readership is already there, built in. So you write for readers. A couple of newspapers I wrote for had circulations of 250,000-plus, back before the internet disrupted the whole industry and flushed those numbers down the toilet. When you added in all the readers who shared a single edition, there might have been more than 400,000 potential readers for any given article I wrote, six or seven days a week. You didn’t have to go looking for large readership – it came looking for you. That probably influenced my current mindset that writing is for readers.

I definitely wouldn’t write fiction if I didn’t think someone would read it. In fact, the reader is pretty front and center in my mind as I write fiction. That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it. You’re supposed to just pour the thing out, be true to your own voice and story. It’s great in theory, but it doesn’t work for everyone. I just have to believe that someone will read what I write. It doesn’t have to be that many readers, either. It can be only one – the person who reads the submission. But I need someone waiting on the other side, ready to read it.

Writing fiction is difficult enough in the best of circumstances. It ain’t easy, finding the motivation to begin a story from scratch and then build it into a finished piece, word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. I have to force myself to sit down and do it. It rarely comes flowing out of me. It’s more like assembling IKEA furniture. You start here and do this and then that and at some point, it’s done. Maybe never as well as you’d hoped. But done.

If I thought nobody would read my fiction, I wouldn’t bother. I don’t wake up in the morning with an urge to write, create, tell stories. The act itself is not a big enough incentive for me. I need to know that another set of eyeballs will see it, for better or worse.

Most people probably write for four basic reasons: They enjoy it; they have a story to tell; they want to earn money from it; they like being recognized for their work. If you asked me to put those in some order of importance in different categories, it would look like this:

Fiction

  1. Recognition
  2. Urge to tell a story
  3. Money
  4. It’s enjoyable

Blog

  1. It’s enjoyable
  2. Urge to tell a story
  3. Recognition
  4. Money

Web Content

  1. Money
  2. Money
  3. Money
  4. Recognition

Let’s pretend nobody is reading this blog but me. Let’s be brutally honest.

I really, really love it when somebody reads something I’ve written and has nice things to say about it. It’s a massive high, a massive ego boost. It makes me feel special, larger than f*****g life. It probably gives me an outsize perception of my own worth, but I don’t care. I’ll take those moments of praise and ride them to the heavens.

Money is also important. The reason I write web content for certain sites is because they pay me to do so. If I weren’t paid, I wouldn’t do it.

Now, do I write fiction that gets submitted, rejected, and never published? Yep, no doubt. I don’t get paid for those. But there’s always the prospect of getting paid.

I also don’t mind writing fiction that gets published but offers no pay. The fact that it’s published in the first place means some publisher liked it, and other people end up reading it, so it feeds the ego. Plus, you can hang it on your CV, let others in the industry know you’ve been published by someone who values your work. This in turn can lead to future submissions being published, because the easiest way to get published – and paid – is to be published in the first place.

Let me also admit that there have been times when I’ve gotten the recognition and money and wanted even more recognition and money. A couple of years ago a story of mine placed second in the Writer’s Digest Annual Short Short Story contest, which received thousands of submissions from around the world. Pretty cool. When I got the email congratulating me I nearly jumped out of my seat – partly because of the ego boost, and partly because it promised a very nice check for a very nice piece of money.

Even so….

The winner, the one person who placed ahead of me, got her story published on the Writer’s Digest website and in the magazine. She also got a photo and bio published, and was interviewed for a larger article. I just got my name, story rank and story title published.

That’s when it hit me how great it would have been to be the winner. I could have gotten my own photo, bio, interview and story published. And here’s what really chapped my ass – the second-place winner used to get all that. For years and years they would also publish the second-place entry, along with a bio. Then, around 2016 or so, they started just doing it for the first-place winner.

It didn’t take me long to pout about how tantalizingly close I got to the top of the leaderboard without quite reaching it. It could have been me getting the full treatment, the full glory, the full ego boost, the bio, the interview, the biggest goddamn check!

Is this unseemly? Does this run contrary to the true aim of art, this hunger for recognition and money?

Maybe.

But I honestly don’t give a shit.

Recognition and money are part of the allure of being a successful writer. Who doesn’t want a little recognition for their work? I don’t care who you are. You could be a plumber or a CEO, and I bet you like it when a customer tells you that you did a slam-bang job of fixing that drainpipe, or the Board of Directors tells you you did a slam-bang job of getting that deal done.

As for the money….

Some of my favorite writers did it for the money, because it was their job. They weren’t necessarily motivated by some magical, mystical muse floating around the ether, urging them to tap into their tormented souls or some such crap. They needed to make money, and writing provided a way to do that. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain – they all wrote pulp fiction back in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when a market existed for such things. They cranked out story after story, book after book, to meet demand. They were very commercial. The fact that they turned out to be excellent and important writers whose work is still valid today was simply the olive in the martini.

So: Would I write if I had no readers? Probably not. But let’s suppose I had to write something that nobody read. Let’s suppose I got an assignment telling me to write something no other human would ever read, and you can’t cheat and pretend to be writing because a machine is watching you.

What would I write?

Maybe something angry. Something I’d love to write if only I didn’t have to think about offending people or alienating readers. Something therapeutic, soul cleansing.

Then again, I write about those things, anyway.

So I’d probably write about baseball…..

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