Why do we write? Seriously, what madness drives us to spend months working long, anguished hours away from society, to timidly emerge with something we desperately hope millions of people will want to share? It doesn’t stop there, mind you. We then take a deep breath, don our armor (completely useless and ineffective) and face the beast—the PUBLISHING INDUSTRY—a great big hairy, scary … there’s no other word for it … THING … who will just as soon grind our bones as roll over and purr. We convince ourselves that the monster is Sulley or Shrek, kind of ornery, but benevolent and well meaning, rather than the specter of Bluebeard or the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk.
The logical response to this nightmare is to turn and run. But no, like the girl in the movie who insists on finding the source of that strange noise ALONE and wanders into a dark hallway ALONE, we face the horror and take our punishment like any good starlet would.
Before you scatter for the hills or climb under the bed, let me reassure you, flip on a light or at the very least shine a torch.
Some of us write because we dream of becoming just like J.K. Rowling or E.L. James. For those delusional enough to chase the money, which is more elusive than fairy dust, I say, why not? Yank away at the slot machine and best of British luck to you. As dreams go, it’s not a bad one. But the speed at which you’ll run out of coins (self esteem, hope, a reason to live, a sense of humor) will be staggering.
Two authors couldn’t be more different, I’m sure you’ll agree, and if you take a close look at them both, you’ll find that one of the features distinguishing them is motivation. Their answers to why they write are most likely at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet they’ve both realized success of galactic proportions. One was a leader (you don’t get a fresher take on boarding school or lacrosse/rugby/polocrosse than Rowling’s Hogwarts and Quidditch), one a follower (James’s reinvented-Story-of-O fan fiction tribute to Twilight). But take a closer look. Each had to be a little bit of both: Rowling, inspired by the classics and initially following the same tormenting marketing conventions we all do, James hauling erotica out of the shadows into a blinding spotlight and paving the way for countless others to write about female bondage. They were both leaders and both followers in different ways, both forging ahead no matter what, doing whatever it took. They are both masters of conflict, in life and in fiction.
The act of writing is hard, and the art of writing demands a commitment to learning and craft that is always unfolding. Writing demands that we stand strong and resolved at the intersection of humility and arrogance, curiosity and assertiveness, getting lost and making maps. We must please the gatekeepers and demigods, but hide our desperate need to have them like us, or at the very least notice we exist. We must be eager, deferential but not hysterical or obsequious, grateful yet confident, because let’s face it, no one wants to go into business with a sissy.
We write because we must. That’s the only plausible, or essentially viable reason. We write because life without the stories we tell loses its luster. We have something to say, something to share, something that will change the world or a very little piece of it. We write because somewhere inside us we love words and the power they have to stir one or a million souls. We write because a small child needs a magical place to escape to; we write because a teenager can make no sense of a world that seems harsh and unforgiving; we write so that readers know they’re not alone.
One thing the Brits gave us (besides Harry Potter and um, Fifty Shades of Grey, not to mention Austen and Dickens and oh, just let me stop right there) is this glorious language: 26 spindly little letters that are all the fairy dust you will ever need.
Yes, yes, I know, and a buck or two…
Next week I’ll show you how challenging it can be for a writer to peel an orange. Or something along those lines…