For Whom Do We Write?

This piece, by Aidan Moher, originally appeared on his A Dribble of Ink blog on 3/23/09.

David B. Coe, author of the Winds of the Foreland series, wrote an interesting piece for SF Novelists about the motivations of a writer and who they truly write for.

So my question is this: For whom do we write? And before you answer that you write for yourself, and that you’d write even if you knew you could never sell anything, think long and hard about whether that’s really true. It’s my knee-jerk response; it’s certainly the answer I want to give and want to believe. The truth is a bit more complicated. I write for myself because thus far I’ve been able to make something of a living at it.

There are easier ways to make a buck (at least there were; they seem to be disappearing) and I would never deny that I have chosen this career path because I love it, and because I have to write to be happy. But again reality rears its ugly head: If I couldn’t sell books I’m not sure that I could afford to write them. Oh, I’d write in my spare time, but I used to be an academic; my wife still is. I have friends who are lawyers and doctors and business people. I’ve seen how hectic their lives are. Once they’re done with work and family, they don’t have a whole lot of spare time or energy for creating worlds and writing novels.

I write for me because I can afford to, because I’m fortunate enough to do for a living what I love to do anyway. But if I’m to be completely honest, I write for myself and also for a whole host of other people. I write for my agent, because she has to believe in my books to sell them. I write for my editor, because he has to contract the book before it can be published. I write for my readers, because their purchases of my current novel make the next contract possible.

I’m pretty sure that my fellow professionals would join me in admitting that they don’t — can’t — write solely for themselves. And what about those of you who aren’t professionals? I’m sure that you take great pride in your creative accomplishments — as you should — and that you write to satisfy your passion for storytelling. But don’t you also write because you want to see your stories in print? I’m an amateur photographer, and I’m also a musician. I do these things “for myself.” Still, I was thrilled when I was able to display my photography in a gallery. I used to perform music in bars and restaurants and to this day I occasionally fantasize about doing so again.

I am a writer, which should come as no surprise. I expect almost every other blogger out there would consider call themselves writers and I also expect that many of my readers would consider themselves writers (or artists of another medium). I think it’s also safe to say that the vast majority of us are at a point where we practice our craft solely for ourselves, with little professional or monetary gain. I know I do.

As a blogger, I do this for free. I make no money off of it, in fact, it costs me money (in hosting fees, domain, etc…). I suppose one could consider the amount of free novels I get as a sort of reward for the work done, but in the end, A Dribble of Ink, like the majority of non-professional blogs, is a labour of love. The reward for me is to have a place where I can articulate my passion for Speculative Fiction and help spread that passion to other like-minded people.

Of course, like most writers, I have ambitions. I dream of the day when my Work-in-Progress (a contemporary Fantasy called Through Bended Grass) is a full fledged novel, lining the shelves of bookstores and climbing the charts on Amazon. Still, I know that I am just a drop in an ocean of aspiring writers, and my novel, no matter how good, will be one among many when it hits the slush piles. Does this discourage me from devoting endless hours to finishing it? Not at all. There’s always that burning desire to get the story out on paper, a feeling any artist can attest to, and the fun, the challenge and the reward is in the writing of it.

Coe touches on this honeymoon period, when aspiring writers can write for the sake of the craft and the pride they take in it:

What’s my point? Simply this: Nearly all of us who love art begin with that passion to create. We start by saying that we’re going to do it for ourselves, for the sheer pleasure of creating and celebrating that accomplishment. And we mean it. But I would argue that all art is inherently a performance. Painting, taking pictures, singing, acting, dancing, and yes, even writing — especially writing — it’s all done for an audience. When a child creates something that she thinks is beautiful her first thought is to show it to someone else — Mom, Dad, a teacher, a friend, a complete stranger if no one else is around. And I don’t think that impulse ever really goes away. Nor should it. Because art is inherently interactive. Art is about creation and appreciation, passion harnessed and passion evoked.

What’s most interesting to me is how the paradigm of being a writer shifts once it becomes a profession and how it’s not always so peachy keen as us wannabes think it is. A little Twitter conversation between Matt Staggs (Twitter: @deepeight) and Jay Lake (Twitter: @jay_lake) got me thinking about this:

‘Turns out I’m way too busy to run a D&D game. Part of going from fan to working pro, I guess. Sad in some ways.’

‘@deepeight Dude, writing has really interfered with my reading career’

‘@jay_lake Yeah, kind of sucks, huh? There are some good things about just being a fan.’

As a hobbyist/wannabe novelist, I’m perfectly happy to write with no other reward than the writing itself. It’s liberating and keeps my mind from gathering cobwebs. But is this what I have to look forward to, if Through Bended Grass does make it to store shelves? To join those downtrodden professional writers chained to their typewriters, forced to ignore all the great things that led to my original love affair with Speculative Fiction in the first place?

By Coe’s own admission, artists begin with a passion and curiousity for a medium, about what would happen if they applied their own touch to it. As soon as one becomes a professional, though, other factors enter the picture that determine the course of the artist and a modicum of freedom is stolen.

Tobias Buckell has been struggling with this, and recently wrote an article about how he is shelving his current Xenowealth series and trying shifting his focus to a new novel called Arctic Rising, in an attempt to broaden his audience.

Read the rest of the post on the A Dribble of Ink blog.