So, in the comment trail of my last post, Sara noted:
"You've chosen a path where you put the validation of your work into someone else's hands. (Which is what I gather from your post--i.e. that writing this novel isn't worth it if it will not be published and read.) This is a difficult path because it's something that's basically out of your control. You can make your work the best it can possibly be, but you can't force people to love it or want to publish it."
She is absolutely right, of course. But that raises an interesting question about why we write. Why I write.
Which is--I write to be read.
Do I love writing for its own sake? Yes, though it's a complicated relationship, and sometimes it's more like a love/hate thing or a love/despair thing, or even a I-love-you-but-I can't-wait-till-you've-outgrown-this-annoying-phase thing. Rather like parenting a child, I suppose. Rewarding beyond measure, but also frustrating beyond measure. Yet I wouldn't trade it for anything.
I take fulfillment in crafting a story, in slaving over words, images, plot events, character growth, in shaping something intricate and complex out of the raw material of my experience and imagination.
But books are meant to be read. Writers--geeky, quiet, solitary, introverted, and bookish as many may be--are sneaky little exhibitionists on the page. And exhibitionists require an audience, or else there's no point to the exhibition. Writing is done in solitude, but ultimately it is a performance art.
Love of the process carries us through the dark times--I'd be crazy to do this if I didn't thrive on the act of story-telling--but the goal, to my mind, is having my creation read and enjoyed by as many people as possible. There is no greater high. For me, that's where true validation lies.
Sara is right in that I can't control the fate of my work--but I would argue that it's not entirely out of my hands either. It's my job--my challenge--to be good at what I do, to be better than good if possible. Like a competitive athlete, I have to hone my skills; like a professional (or would-be professional) singer, I have to learn how to connect with an audience. This art of telling stories and writing books is so deeply a part of who I am that I could never be content to just write for the joy of it. May as well tell an aspiring singer that she should be happy performing after hours to an empty hall.
Now, there are writers out there--Sara says she's one--who find enough validation in the process itself that they will have counted the time well spent even if they never achieve publication. I admire that, even envy it sometimes, but it's not me. The old adage says "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game," but to a highly competitive person like myself, the only point in playing the game at all is to win. Just ask any freshly defeated and disappointed Little-Leaguer. The game may have fun, but he wasn't playing just to play; he was playing to win.
Nor am I writing just to write. I am writing to be published and read. That's the goal, the prize, the winner's circle. Because without that, the act of writing is not complete. It is, after all, a form of communication and I see no point in spending my life just talking to myself.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
So, in the comment trail of my last post, Sara noted:
Posted by Beth at 11:24 AM
Thursday, March 01, 2007
I realized today that somewhere along the line, I had stopped believing I'd be successful.
We writers all start the process of writing with our hopes and dreams spread out like a pristine white handkerchief, ironed smooth, maybe with lace at the borders. Fresh and crisp and clean.
If we're persistent and optimistic--if we're smart--we'll protect that unsullied white expanse, because that flimsy piece of cloth is the magic carpet that will fly us over the abyss of discouragement. It's the sail that will power us through the storms of rejection. We must dream, and believe in those dreams, to prosper as writers. To survive as writers.
But I fell into a trap.
There's a story in the Gospels where the disciples are alone on a boat out in the Sea of Galilee, and a storm comes up and they fear they will sink. Then Jesus appears, walking across the sea. The disciples thought he was a ghost. (Well, what else would be walking on water?) Peter, an impulsive soul if ever there was one, decides to walk on the water, too, as a test. He does just fine until he notices how high the waves are and how hard the wind is blowing (the act of walking on water would have been just as astonishing, and impossible, if the water had been still as glass, but I don't think that occured to him just then) and his faith evaporates like so much mist. He trades one reality for another, and sinks beneath the waves.
When I started writing, I didn't know that what I was doing was impossible. Oh, not the actual writing; the impossibility was manifest in the fact I was writing what was turning out to be a huge book. As I began to educate myself on the publishing world and what does and does not sell, it became more and more clear that no agent or editor was going to take on a novel the size of mine. Friends and fellow writers told me to persevere, that the length didn't matter if a novel is good, but I began to doubt them. The more I read and heard--from blogs, conferences, and so forth--the more I became convinced, at some level, that I was going to fail. That I had spent years writing a book that would never see print. Like Peter, I initially stepped out on the strength of my hope and faith, but then got distracted by the storm. One reality replaced another, and I began to sink.
It was a more gradual process than what happened to Peter, who went under like a lead brick and had to be fished out by the long-suffering Jesus. Myself, I just began to make my dreams smaller. I folded that beautiful white handkerchief of hope in half, then in quarters, smaller and smaller, and finally one day I just stuffed it deep in a pocket. Who needed it? Frilly old thing. Perhaps I owed it to myself to finish the behemoth novel, yes, but after that...well, I guess I'd just have to write something else. Something more publishable. I must be realistic, after all.
Being realistic got Peter a bellyful of seawater.
What it got me was the near-death of a potential writing career. Over before it had fairly begun. Because with the retirement of my aspirations for the novel came also the retirement of any motivation to finish it. What was the point?
Well, there's the finishing-what-you-start point. That kept me going, barely.
But it's not enough to float me over those chasms and sail me through those storms. I need my dreams back. I need to believe again. People with small dreams have small successes. People with no dreams...
It's not easy, second time around. The hankie's got pocket fuzz on it. It's creased. It's musty. But while I can't go back, I can go forward. I've (nearly) written a big book that will require a big miracle and that means big faith and big dreams. I have no choice but to ignore the nay-sayers, the pessimism inherent in the industry, the hard-and-fast facts that insist no agent will take a chance on me. If I'm going to get this book published, I have to walk on water. Even if everyone tells me I can't.
In fact, there are probably a few cynics out there reading this who are saying, "Well, but there's such a thing as statistical probability (and impossibility). " [I expect the other disciples, when they saw Peter climbing out of the boat, thought much the same thing.] "You can't beat the odds just because you say you will. Faith will not change the facts."
Oh, but it can. That's exactly how odds are beaten. That's how the impossible becomes possible. That's how Peter walked on water.
And I will, too.
Jona had lost interest in the beetle and was solemnly absorbed in her usual game of arranging little pebbles into obscure patterns in the dirt. But she looked up suddenly and asked, "Where are we going now, Mama?"
Miren did not answer immediately, because in truth she had no idea. It had been exhilarating to leave the Kesmu at last, and yet she felt oddly vulnerable, as if she'd wandered out half-clothed. She rose and looked about. They were alone except for a nearby trio of speckled goats—strays, no doubt—and a hawk wheeling in the opalescent sky. Low clouds lay over the broken lands to the east like shreds of gray silk, their undersides stained rose-gold.
Once she had asked her lover, What will I do with the power when it blooms? How will I use it?
He had smiled and leaned over her, his pale hair sweeping across her small, naked breasts. Come to me, he had said, and I will show you.
But how will I find you?
The magic will lead you, he had murmured and stopped her questions with his kisses.
But he had lied, or else the fault lay in her, because she had no magic to lead her, only love and desperation and memories that refused to fade.
"Mama?" Jona tugged at her hand.
Miren started, realizing she was flushed and trembling. "What is it, sweeting?"
"I said, where are we going?"
"There is someone we have to find."
"Shian?" asked Jona, brightening. She had been fond of him and had cried when he disappeared.
"No, someone else. He—" Miren hesitated. "You will like him, too, I promise."
"Does he live there?"
Miren looked where Jona pointed, past the combed rows of vines to a low rise of northern hills looped by a buff ribbon of road. Beyond the hills, the Temple buildings were clearly visible, as pristine and fragile as a scattering of eggshell in their nest of pine and spruce. Above the compound, the dark-skirted ramparts of the Urtz rose, range upon range folding into the mist of distance.
"No, sweeting, he doesn't live there." An idea took shape. "But Alazne does. You remember her?" She bent to swaddle Lusio in his blanket and snug him back into the sling. "We can ask her where to look for him."
Miren knew Alazne did not approve of her. But Alazne had not been thrust into the dust-and-brick warren of the Kesmu at the age of thirteen, forced to make her way alone with a baby and no skills except the carnal ones a faery lover had taught her. Miren had soon discovered that men would pay her money to perform the same union with her, though there was no longer any magic to it. But when she could find no other job, hunger warred with reluctance and won the inevitable victory. She lay down with one man after another and let them do what they would, as long as they paid.
These were things that Alazne, for all her intelligence and education, did not understand. But she had a kind heart and a sharp curiosity, and perhaps, with all her learning, she might know where Miren could find the faery people—the Tsuroi, she corrected herself. Kepa had called them Tsuroi. Real people, not faeries or spirits.
But magical, all the same.
Jona ran ahead, scattering the grazing goats among the vines in one of her abrupt shifts from gravity to child-like glee. Miren followed, while something new awakened in her heart, a frail seedling of hope thrusting through the snows of a long, cold winter.
(from The Knife-Giver, ch. 21 "Storm.")
Posted by Beth at 1:37 PM