Some of you are probably like me.
No, not in that way. I’m told this condition is one of a kind and that surgery will correct it enough so that small children and pets no longer tumble into catatonic states upon seeing me.
No, I mean in the way that you sometimes struggle with what to write. Writing is a craft and storytelling is an art so the one part of you wants to just unbuckle all the straps affixing you to this mundane world so that you can leap into the chasm of madness that is creation. You and the Muse will art-fuck until the world explodes into pure narrative.
And yet, this thing we do is also a business. Which means you should proabably be writing Stories That Will Earn You Respect And Also, Sweet Cash Money.
Let’s talk about me.
(HA HA HA because that’s probably all I do here, isn’t it? Sorry about that.)
I am presently the author of a handful of published novels.
But, if you will gaze behind me, in my wake you will see a muddy rut filled with the sun-bloated corpses of many other books. Dozens of unfinished ones. At least five finished ones. Some interesting. Most not. All of them lacking in execution and any kind of writerly pizzazz.
I wrote a lot of books that sucked, a lot of books that just plain weren’t “me.” These were books I did not love, that didn’t come from any particular place inside this funky stump I call a heart, that failed to speak to me or speak about me in any meaningful way. They were books I wrote because I was chasing someone else’s ideas of what I should write. I tried writing fiction that seemed respectable and literary. I tried writing novels that would speak to the market, that would sell to some invented segment of the population who likes That Sort Of Thing. I wrote books that were desperate grabs at legitimacy (money, respect, fame, tweed suits with elbow patches, dignity). I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I apparently thought the way to do that was to stop writing the things I wanted to write (which somewhat sullied the idea of being a writer in the first place) and start writing the kinds of things that Other Writers Wrote.
You know: marketable works.
(Translation: derivative works.)
I was walking away from myself.
I was leaving the things I liked, or loved, or that interested me.
Which meant I was leaving my strengths behind.
Which meant I was abandoning my reasons for being a writer in the first place.
So, I’ll exhort you right now:
You should write what you love.
You should write the things that look like your heart, pulled open with prying fingers.
You should walk towards yourself as a writer, not away.
OH DON’T YOU WORRY, I HAVE REASONS.
Reason One: Because The Market Is An Unknowable Entity
I’m pretty sure that when Lovecraft wrote about gibbering entities outside time and space that, when gazed upon too closely, ruined man’s sanity the way a rock ruins a mirror, he was really writing a metaphor for the publishing industry and the book market. Nobody knows what the fuck is going on with the market. Publishers like to pretend they do, because that’s their job — but they’re still a bunch of old ladies passing around one eyeball between them.
You’ll hear, “Oh, vampires aren’t hot right now,” and then next thing you know, vampires are hot again. They didn’t get that way because the market was manipulated into being that way. The market didn’t randomly countermand itself and spontaneously grow a spate of new vampire novels. This happens because someone, some author, hears vampires aren’t hot right now and says, well, whatever, I’m going to write a vampire book anyway because I think vampires are cool as fucking shit, and then they write it and it hits the market and it does well. And then publishers are like YEAH, WE TOTALLY KNEW THAT VAMPIRES WERE GONNA BE SUPER-HOT RIGHT NOW and then another 100 derivative reiterations (and maybe 10 original iterations) hit the market and punch it so hard that two years later you hear the familiar refrain: vampires aren’t hot right now.
A lot of the truly amazing books are not ones an industry could’ve predicted. Like I said yesterday, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is… fuck, I don’t even know how to describe them. Invasive… alternate Earth-punk? No, that’s not right. But it doesn’t feel like a trilogy that chased any market. It feels like a series that stands all by itself in a room of its own devising and design. It’s not following anything. It’s a leader: original, weird, amazing, and (if you’ve read Jeff’s work before) most certainly a product of his voice. (The third book, Acceptance, is also out today. Do your favor and go and read them all right now it’s okay I’ll wait here.)
The work that prevails rarely feels like it chases the market.
The work that gets its claws and teeth into you says, “Fuck you, market. I’m the market now. What? You don’t like that? Too bad.” Then it hits you in the face with a toaster oven and says, “YOUR MOM SAYS HI.”
Okay, I think I took that metaphor too far.
Point is: don’t chase the market.
You’re not a dog running after a car.
Be the car, not the dog.
Reason Two: Because It’s What You’re Good At
In school, teachers make you read books, and if you’re anything like me, you hated that. Because nobody likes art to be some kind of obligation. Art is a thing that calls to you — it’s got gravity and it grabs you by the root and pulls you toward it. The books I loved are the books that I found on my own — admittedly, sometimes by the urgings of others (sometimes, even the urgings of teachers and professors), but almost always with the offering of choice on the table.
Choice. Consent. Compelled by, not forced to.
Writing is the same way, at least for me.
The things you write — that you choose to write, because you want to jolly well fucking write them — are likely things you’re better at writing because you chose to move in that direction. Writing things that don’t really speak to you? I can often feel it. It feels stilted, awkward, a story forced into an uncomfortable shape by an author wearing someone else’s skin. It’s itchy and weird.
That’s not to say you can’t — say, as a freelance writer — take an assignment and own it. You can make work you don’t automatically love into work that you love by pressing your fingerprints into its clay. But even there the message remains the same: in that work, you’re finding what you enjoy and what you’re good at, and putting that into play. Can you go beyond that? Can you play outside your comfort zone? You can and should. But you have to start somewhere, and the core of the work is often taking our strengths and building off of them. Further, improving in less comfortable directions means improving in a way that is desirable to you, not desirable to a market.
Reason Three: Because I Want To Read It
You know what I don’t want to read?
A book you didn’t want to write.
You know what I do want to read?
A book you couldn’t help but write.
I wanna read the book that pops out of your goddamn chest like a goddamn baby Xenomorph. No matter how many Tums you have taken. No matter how many guests you have at your dinner table. You cannot contain it. It’s just — oops, splurch, sorry, that book just kicked open my breastbone like a set of saloon doors and oh, shit, here it is, flinging itself into the room.
A book you loved writing will likely have that love translate over to the page. Don’t get me wrong — love isn’t enough. It also has to be, ohh, you know, not shitty, which means a full-scale editing assault — and trust me, editing is not always a process you’ll love. (That’s the thing about this thing: by writing what you love, I don’t mean, making sure every day of writing is a bliss-fueled romp around the bounce house of your imagination. No matter how much you love the material, some days are going to feel like chewing on a brick. And some days you’ll hate what you’re writing no matter what — the point is to begin with work that speaks to you, calls to you, grabs you by your genital configuration and demands to be written.)
Reason Four: Because This Gig Knows No Guarantees
The saying often goes that one does not become a writer to get rich, which is perhaps a toxic meme further continuing the idea that art isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a way to get paid. (I got into being an author to both Make Up Stories and Make Money For Making Up Those Stories because I happen to enjoy the intersection of art and commerce because in that intersection I can do things like pay bills and buy dinners and hire assassins to garrote my enemies with typewriter ribbon.) Regardless, despite it being a goal, making money or having success as a writer is in no way guaranteed. You don’t get a salary. You don’t hit ‘save’ on the document and get a publishing contract. This is a land where promise is a dry creek.
And so, if you’re planning on stepping into this arena knowing that you may die once your foot hits the dirt, you might as well step forward with a weapon that fits your hand, not the weapon some other asshole told you to carry.
If you’re gonna take your shot, do it with work you care about. Work that says something.
Do it with work you love.
You’re not guaranteed an agent. You’re not guaranteed to find a publisher. You’re not guaranteed sales if you’re a self-publisher, or an audience, or good reviews, or awards, or dignity, or cake.
Not any of it.
So? Go ahead and make it count.
Write what you want to write.
Might as well write what you love.
Reason Five: Because Life Ends In Death
You’re gonna die.
But it’s true.
Dead. Fuuuuuuucking dead.
Some part of the animated meat that comprises you will one day fail. The bone puppet that lives inside you can’t dance forever. You’ll get hit by a car or get soul cancer or a frozen hunk of shit will fall off an Airbus 380 and land on you while you stop to pick up a lucky penny in a parking lot.
Now, maybe some part of you lives on past Bodily Death. Maybe there’s a heaven or a happy hunting ground or some 1-Up Extra Life re-try. I have no idea. Doesn’t matter.
What matters is, knowing that your time on this Hurtling Space Sphere is limited, you should make an effort to live your life — and your art — the way you damn well want to. Do you really want someone to chisel the words MADE MEDIOCRE ART SHE DIDN’T MUCH LIKE BECAUSE SHE THOUGHT THAT’S WHAT SOMEONE ELSE WANTED HER TO DO on your gravestone? Or would you rather them carve in the words: ROCKED IT LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER, WROTE WHAT SHE DAMN WELL WANTED, BOO-YAH, MIC-DROP –?
On second thought, that’s probably too much for a headstone.
ARTED THE HARDEST, MOTHERFUCKER.
Get out there. Write big and bold. Embrace the moments you have.
Write what you love.
Because otherwise: why bother?
* * *
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