This issue came into focus for me just last week, which, as I remarked on both my Facebook page and Twitter feed, was a red-letter day for a writer: I received my first ever royalty cheque from my publisher for copies of my novel sold during this year’s second quarter. Wow, I thought! I’m actually getting paid for my words. What writer doesn’t dream of that? (I ask seasoned pros reading my post to be gently tolerant/indulgent, to smile and think back nostalgically to their first time. No, no... I’m talking about their first royalty cheque. Get your mind out of the gutter.)
Now, admittedly, in my case, we’re not talking about bags of money. Given that my novel was only published part way through June and has not yet found a wide audience, the kindest thing that could be said about that royalty cheque is that the amount was extremely modest. But it was still exciting. So... there’s a natural question that follows, and I’ve actually been asked it: is it the money?
No, a thousand times no. It’s nice to get the cash, don’t get me wrong, but it’s got to become much larger before I could support myself on it. More importantly, what the cheque said was that some people were interested enough in my work to take a chance and, quite literally, put their money where their mouths are. But the money is, really, just a fringe benefit.
James Branch Cavell once wrote of a man desiring to be a writer, who cried out, “I am pregnant with words! And I must have lexicological parturition, or I die!” That’s a little pompous/self-absorbed… well, it’s actually a lot pompous/self-absorbed… but I think there’s more than a grain of truth in that cry.
So here it is in a nutshell, at least as far as I’m concerned: you write because you have to, and you write because you want to. You write for yourself, and you write for others.
In part, you have no choice. Some of us just have to tell stories. Or write them, anyway. It’s hard-wired into us. And once you’ve started a piece, it becomes an imperative to finish. Salman Rushdie has said that when he’s working on a book, if he’s away from it for too long, “the story sulks.” After only one book of my own, boy, do I understand what he’s saying.
You want to write, because it’s balm to the soul to see a story you’ve created unfold, to breathe life into people and places and events. (A junior act of Creation!) It’s a place of refuge when the vicissitudes of life become just a little too much to bear. And writing can be therapy. I’ve mentioned this before… it’s how and why I started my novel.
You write for yourself; particularly, as Stephen King says, during that first draft (he calls it writing with the door closed, a nice turn of phrase). You want to experience your world. You want that same feeling you got when you went through that beloved story that mattered to you, like The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) for me. Frodo (and later, Sam) left us at the end. They deked out at the Grey Havens, and like Pippin and Merry, we were left standing there mourning the end of all those great adventures. (I mentioned in my last post that our capacity as humans --- or hobbits --- to romanticize things, to forget the bad while only recalling the good, is absolutely phenomenal.) But we want more. We’re quite insatiable that way: when we like something, we really like it, and that means more. I think, for me, anyway, that’s how it started. I wanted more Middle Earth. I wanted more LOTR. And I’m sorry, but The Silmarillion and such just didn’t quite do it for me. It was interesting in a scholarly kind of way, but it lacked the “human” drama of LOTR. So I started writing for myself.
Now, to be clear, I didn’t want to write about hobbits and Middle Earth. Frankly, it never even occurred to me to do so: Middle Earth belonged exclusively to Professor Tolkien, and to complacently presume to add on to that world seemed blatantly derivative at best, arrogantly plagiaristic at worst. (I confess that I don’t really understand the motives behind fan fiction. And there’s such a lot of it out there. Why would you want to ride on someone else’s coattails? If you love something that much, go out and create something uniquely your own.) What I did want was to create my own rich world, like Professor Tolkien did, a world with magnificent and terrifying realities, attention to detail, riveting storyline and characters I could care as deeply about as if they were real. So I did. Well, tried to, anyway.
And finally, you write for others, at least if you’re trying to be published, which is the majority of us. I doubt there are many writers who don’t want to share their stories with anyone. As a writer, you’re looking for personal validation with your work. An audience. Someone who wants to read your work because they like it. And yeah, someone to tell you that they liked it. Ah ha! you say, writers are needy! Well, to a certain extent, I think so. Some more than others.
But then again, aren’t we all?