Sunday, 20 September 2009

WHY DO I WRITE AT ALL?

Look, I know Emily Gale and I are both YA authors but does that mean she gets to read my mind?? She's just blogged in partial response to my blog post [below] about writing habits, which was in response to her blog post about writing locations, and her new post is about writing and not writing, and permission not to write, which is what I was going to blog about next.

The question of whether to write at all (which is not exactly what Emily is talking about) is something close to my heart at the moment as I've been thinking about why I write. One thing's for certain: it's often so damned painful that you'd think we'd only do it if there was a huge reward.

In a recession which is hitting all forms of written word, and in which it's harder and harder to make a living, the question of why we write becomes more crucial and more practical. Because it's sure as hell the case that the reward is most unlikely to be financial. It never was a safe route to financial stability but I hardly know an author who's already small writing income hasn't fallen. Mine has and it's really getting to me and leading to some soul-searching.

Why do we write?
A mixture of things, of course, and different motives for different people. Different at different times of our careers, too. Which brings me to myself. I tell you about myself not because I think I'm interesting but because I'm the only person I'm fully qualified to talk about. Maybe some of these things will resonate with you. If you're at a different career stage from me, maybe you can look ahead [or back] and see if you're on the same road.

When I was struggling for years and years to get published, writing for money was no part of my motivation. Not that I was going to rip a cheque up, you understand, but I'd have done it for nothing. In fact, when I did get my first [unagented] contract I wept for joy while they walked all over me in pointy shoes.

What did I want from my writing then? Why did I wreck my mental state just to pursue the dream?

It couldn't have been simply that I loved writing, needed it to feed my soul, though both those were true. I was already writing, a lot, and easily - if it was just about writing, publication wouldn't have mattered so much.

Or was it simply seeing my name in print? Not exactly, because I could have self-published or gone down the vanity route.

It was two** things. First, I wanted to be able to say those words, "I am an author." Second, since I thought I was a good enough writer to be published, I needed to be publicly affirmed as that. I suppose, on my dreamy days, I was also attracted to the idea of a little bit of "fame", [really just a little bit - so I could still be grumpy and poorly dressed in Sainsbury's]. You could also say that since I'd been a very shy child who hated performing, but that I'd loved it when someone else read my words and was moved by them, then being published was my way of performing.

(** or three, as I just realised this morning, and added at the end of the post.)

But now? I've got all that - I got published; I wouldn't call myself famous, but in my own genre I'm sufficiently known, I think; people recognise me for my shoes, which was beyond my wildest dreams; I even love performing in public now and am established enough that I get as many invitations as I want; and I am proud enough of what you might call my "body of work" - apologies for pomposity but I'm being honest here. I have probably done better than I had ever thought I could, though I don't think I thought much beyond the first dreamed-of contract.

I could give up now, couldn't I? Recently, I've considered it. Because, you know what? Writing, writing novels, is damned hard. Sometimes I think it's too hard. "But it's what you do. You can't afford to give up now, can you?"

Can't afford to give up? God, if I only earned from my fiction writing, I couldn't afford to continue! The money for my kind of novel-writing is seriously rubbish. I'd tell you how rubbish, except that I'm ashamed. Yep, I earn a reasonable amount altogether, but that's from speaking, not writing, or it's from writing other things, not fiction.

I moaned about this to my long-suffering agent the other day. "But money isn't the only reward, is it?" she said. "If you imagine yourself not writing, does that conjure up a picture of a creatively satisfying life?"

No, but not being valued for what I write doesn't conjure up that picture either. How much does "creatively satisfying" have to cost in time, effort and money [because I could be earning sensible money doing something else]. And, like it or not, when someone pays you for something, they attach a value to it. I know that by saying that I risk undermining the work that wonderful people do for charity - and I do some myself actually - but this is about my living, my career, my profession. It feels like a pathetic one if I can't earn from it.

So, now, I guess you'd say I am motivated by money. I may not have cared before but now I do. Maybe it's one of the differences between being unpublished and published. We think we write for the glory of writing, the pleasure of being heard, but when we've got that we want something else.

Greedy bastards who spend our lives looking at the grass on the other side, aren't we, we humans?

But you know something? We're back to the excuses for not writing, which was the point of my last post and which I was still struggling with when I started writing this post.


You see, I've worked out what's wrong with me at the moment.

My agent was right, as bloody usual: it's not about the money. The problem is that writing novels is damned difficult, no easier than it was when I started, possibly even harder, and I'm looking for an excuse not to do it. I want, in Emily's words, permission not to write novels. Because there are a load of other things I can write, like this blog, and non-fiction, and articles, and short stories. And I will write them, but if I run away from the difficult one then I'm letting myself down. How "creatively satisfying" would that be?


I do have one more let-out though, one more thing that could legitimately stop me writing the bloody novel. See, yesterday I steeled myself to send my agent the first two chapters of the new WIP. And I'm seriously more than half hoping that she'll say they're rubbish and that I've come up with an unsellable idea. That would be a truly fabulous reason not to write it, wouldn't it? Absolute permission not to write. Then instead of spending all my days struggling to write a novel and earning sod all I could spend all my days blogging for you lot and earning sod all.

Unfortunately, she's already said she loves the title, which was not meant to happen ...

Aghhhh! Nooooo! I'd forgotten the real reason I keep writing. How could I have forgotten? The real reason I write is because every time I get a new contract I get a new pair of boots.

Elizabeth? Are you still there? It's OK, really - you're allowed to say the first two chapters are completely brilliant and compelling and definitely worth continuing. As long as the advance is enough to cover a decent pair of boots, that's fine. I'll write, I'll wear my fingers to the bone, I'll burn the candle at both ends [how does that work?], I'll do anything, anything, anything for boots.

Edited to include:
But, no, I've just remembered something. I've woken up this morning and remembered the real reason why I loved writing fiction in the first place and why I would hate to stop, even though sometimes, like now, it feels horribly difficult: power. The power to move people, the power to create worlds in other people's heads. How can I give that up? Compared to the power of creating worlds, changing minds and stirring hearts, boots, chocolate and sparkly wine are trivial.

Good God, did I just say that???

23 comments:

Sarah said...

Oh, it did my heart good to read this.

Loved hearing how your attitude towards money changed. It makes sense.

But mainly, it was good to hear that sometimes (often?) it's hard for you write, too.

Thanks.

catdownunder said...

If you had to choose between writing and something else you like to do a great deal (okay, we will forget eating chocolate - I understand that is an integral part of your creative process but some other activity you absolutely love)... Now, if you had to choose? Maybe I should say the chocolate?
Someone asked me that question the other day - I said writing without hesitation and I am probably too old to have serious thoughts about publication. It's an incurable disease....learn to live with it is my advice to myself.

DOT said...

I agree with most of what you say but have to draw a line at pointy shoes as motivation.

I love/hate writing. I love/hate any creative process. I am impelled to execute my ideas, be they drawing, painting, designing or writing, by the Dark Side.

That said, first time I saw my name under an article I'd written it gave me a buzz.

I always knew I'd end up writing novels, it's just taken me a long time to decide that now is the time.

debutnovelist said...

Nicola
Great post and very honest. As one of the 'great unpublished' being told my writing is good but that there is no place in current market for my latest effort, I obviously do it for love (don't I?)After all, I earn money doing other things. But the money thing matters. I have worked most of my life in academic libraries where measuring personal success is well nigh impossible except in subjective terms (that student went away happy, that teaching session went well, I think). I then worked for a short time selling stuff on comisssion, the more I sold the more money I made. My success was measured in LSD - it was great. I knew when I was doing the job well. As a novelist I think I feel the same. Selling what I do would be the only real way I can prove to myself that I'm 'doing it right.'
AliB

David J Griffin said...

I read somewhere that on the day a novel is launched, there are forty others launched on the same day (In the UK, USA, the world? Don't know...). Writing can be somewhat soul destroying – chip by chip – even for established writers, I'm sure.

I'd like to think that the majority of writers start with the love of writing, then the wanting to be read. When published and a certain track record is established, its perfectly natural to consider the money aspect. The more one writes and gets published, the more one is, or even has to be, committed to writing as a full time occupation. It's quite right that one should want a fair remuneration from the toil and heartache of writing novels.

So the main reasons we write, as you pointed out Nicola, is the love of writing, wanting to be read (with a little bit of fame thrown in), and wanting to be paid for writing.

For the majority of unpublished writers the last two fade eventually, leaving only the love of writing. and when it's realised that the love of writing is dependent on the love of readers reading your words, that fades away as well.

Oh dear, I'm feeling really despondent now.

If I may write concerning an aspect of debutnovelist's post:
I sincerely hope that your success was measured in l,s,d, not LSD!! ;)

SueG said...

What a terrific post! Thanks so much for this. It is exactly what I have been thinking and struggling with for the past two months as I finished my latest novel and prepare to send it out (unfortunately, my agent retired so I have to find a new one and it feels like I'm starting all over again). I had given myself permission to stop after I finished this WIP, and-- surprise -- I'm still not going to stop, even though I worked out that if I wanted to help my family financially, I definitely would stop. So, I guess it's not about the money for me either. Acknowledgement, power, creativity, yes.

Inkygirl said...

What a wonderful post. It really captured the love/hate relationship most writers have with their writing. :-)

Douglas Bruton said...

I'd do it just to be published and read. I have a full-time job as a high school teacher, but I commit all my other time to writing. It means I am not dependent on writing for my income and so my first book, just published, has half the royalties going to a charity to help abandoned children on the streets of Peru.

I do it because when I was eleven and I read my first real book ('Stig of the Dump') I was transported and wanted to be part of that process. I thought that just meant reading a lot, but then it meant writing. I do it for me sometimes and for no one else. I do it because I am impressed that I can. I do it because it feels like magic when I do it. I do it because in doing it I get in touch with a part of myself that otherwise would be hidden from me.

It is painful some days. It is hard work often. I rip up a lot more these days, more than I ripped up when I was first starting out. I am, like you, riddled with all sorts of doubts and they assail me every time I sit down to write. But when it is 'flowing', when the creative spirit is moving through us in some kind of zen-like way, there is no feeling like it... well maybe one... (and I wouldn't easily give that up either!)

We don't give up easily once we have experienced 'flow'. Every writing experience after that is about trying to achieve that feeling again. We may be increasingly frustrated at aspects of the business and at the enormous energy it takes to 'start all over again', but in the end it is what we do and what we cannot stop doing.

But sometimes we DO need a rest and so you have permission not to write - for a wee while, at least.

D

Patience-please said...

How timely.

I came downstairs for lunch and said to my husband, "I don't know why I'm doing this."

By habit I refreshed my dashboard on the laptop island and there you were: Why Do I Write At All?

I can't understand. You've been published. You have an agent. A shot at an advance? Good Lord, woman!

And then I thought well if it's still hard after all those significant achievements, then it should be hard as I struggle through my first novel. This writing that makes natural childbirth seem like a sunny barefoot stroll. That makes me long for a dental extraction, which would be so much more fun.

It's not just me. It's hard.

Thank you.

Seymour said...

I'm at the stage of having 2 agents interested in my book and although exciting it's still painful because the rewrites are difficult...and even if I get an agent, it doesn't mean I'll get a publisher etc. It's sobering to hear from you that the whole darn thing never gets any easier!

I often tell my friends that my writing is a hobby but I'm lying because it's way more than a hobby, it's an obsession.

Donna Gambale said...

That was some beautiful honesty.
You hit the nail on the head for the main reasons I write. Sometimes writing is so challenging that I wonder why I do it at all. But then I go a week or so without it and I get CRANKY. Masochistic? Maybe. But I get a thrill from creating a world and characters and just nailing a tough scene.
I'm sure getting paid for it would be awfully nice, though. (Hopefully that's not too far in my future!) There's nothing like a great pair of boots.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, all, for your comments - glad it chimed with so many of you. It's hard, isn't it? But if it wasn't, it wouldn't be worth doing.

You all hit nails on heads but I'm picking SueG's phrase: "Acknowledgement, power, creativity, yes." Sums it up, I think.

Good luck to those who are looking for agents/publishers at the moment - it IS worth it, trust me! And congrats to those who've had a book published (Douglas, where was my launch invitation??! I am a Floris usual suspect but you must have had a small and select launch ...).

Hang around this week, everyone, because I'm planning a blog coffee morning on Friday to coincide with the Macmillan cancer charity's "Biggest coffee morning in the world". Details later.

Douglas Bruton said...

Dear Nicola

Sorry if Floris have not invited you. I supplied them with a list of my friends and family and they did the rest. I have no idea who they have chosen and who not. It is this Thursday coming and if you really do want to come just send me your e-mail address and I will send you an e-mail copy of the invitation.

Best

Douglas

Nicola Morgan said...

Douglas - ah, for some reason, I thought it was last Thurs, otherwise I wouldn't have mentioned it. Didn't mean to put you on the spot!

Douglas Bruton said...

Nicola

Not put on the spot at all. I'd be honoured by your being there. Really. But equally I would understand if you were already booked up - it is short notice. Just let me know.

best

D

Catherine Hughes said...

Hey Nicola - great post as usual.

I have a fairly unusual reason for continuing to write, even though I now earn nothing from it at all (the last dregs of my freelance work dry up this month - http://dailyimprovements.blogspot.com/2009/09/reason.html).

It's part of my post-surgery pain management programme! Seriously, writing takes me out of myself, into a (much more interesting) world of my own making and means that I have gone from taking lots of very high dose opiod painkillers to just boring old paracetemol and voltarol!

My second reason takes the form of four rtaher irritating young people aged between 7 and 16 who are my inspiration as well as my reason. I want to leave a part of myself behind for my kids, and their kids, and their kids too. Even if I am never published, I have already and will continue to do this. The lessons that have learned are all contained in my fiction and I hope that my kids will know where to look should they need them.

And yes, I want vindication - to be able to demonstrably state that 'I did this' or maybe 'I can do this'. So publication would be grand, even if it isn't paid.

But finally, I wish I were still making a living from my writing, but only because my poor hubby is working himself into the ground, trying in vain to compensate for my lost full time income.

With all these factors in the 'for' column, there is little that could be said to persuade me not to write, or for me to allow myself not to write (and I did try for a while!). And yet, I do strggle with the 'What's the point' question, too.

In the end, my kids have such faith in me - "When you get your book published, Mummy..." is a familiar refrain - that I simply couldn't bear not to try.

Lexi said...

Many years ago I was sitting by my jewellery stall in Covent Garden, and a nice American got chatting.

He'd been to a craft fair, and paused to admire some work. He said to the craftsman, 'It must be marvellous to be able to earn your living making beautiful things like this.'

'Yes,' said the craftsman, 'It must be...'

Jo Franklin said...

I find it interesting, Nicola, that you said you wanted to be published so that you could call yourself an author. When people ask me am I working (as opposed to a lady that lunches) I tell them that I am writing. When someone asks my daughter (aged 7)what I 'do' she says I am an author. I think she doesn't distinguish between published and unpublished. If I was published and my books were in the shop (oh happy dream!) or she could google me, then she would think I was famous. She would love that. Fame I'm not interested in. Recognition is what I want.
I write because I have a creative urge inside of me that needs to be satisfied. I spent 10 years not writing and pretending that it didn't matter because I was so busy being the dutiful girlfriend, then wife, then mother. Now I need to write.
And yes I need to be published to justify my time spent at home writing rather than going back to being miserable in the rat race but having money paid into the joint account every month.
(By the way loved Deathwatch. I ordered it especially from my local independent children's bookshop so hope that means a few more pence towards your advance, haven't had the chance to tell you before.)

Marshall Buckley said...

I write because a brilliant idea was handed to me, and then it became a challenge to write the book.

Then it became a challenge to get an agent.

Now the challenge is to find a publisher.

And... writing the second book in the series, and the third, and fourth...

As long as the ideas keep coming, I'm going to keep writing.

Because, it seems, I like the challenge.

Rebecca Knight said...

Nicola--what a wonderful blog this is :). I love that the commenters provide a fascinating discussion even after the post is done!

I'd have to agree with the recognition part. If my novel were read and loved by one person who is not an immediate family member, that would be a dream. Validation, galore!

However, the money thing would let me live in that dream without having to go to a day job, so yes, that's definitely a factor.

Also, I don't think anyone has mentioned that we write books we aren't seeing in the stores but still want to read. Purely selfish. But hey, weren't we all readers first?

Nicola Morgan said...

Rebecca - i quite agree: the comments make it a discussion instead of a lecture. That's why, much as I'd love to turn this blog into a book, I feel it works very nicely as a blog.

Marshal - well, that's good because I don't think the challenge ever goes away!

Jo - that's a good attitude to have and probably keeps you grounded and sane. I just felt I had to be published before i could feel I was an author.

Catherine - yay for the power of writing!

Douglas - I'd love to come. It will depend on how everything goes that day. Is it Sandeman House? What time? And I already have a copy of the book so I will have something for you to sign! But if I'm not there, don't be offended. I have loads of "stuff" going on and it will slightly depend on timing. But thanks and good luck.

Douglas Bruton said...

Nicola - that would be great. No worries either way. It is happening at the 'Out of The Blue Drill Hall' (30-36 Dalmeny Street, Leith, EH6 9DB)... 6.30pm onwards.

I cannot believe that you already have a copy... that's so weird... I first read you three or more years ago...more I think... with my youngest (now 17!)... and now you have a book of mine... yep, really weird. Thank you so much.

Best
D

Nicola Morgan said...

Douglas - I hope you get this message, as I don't have your email address. (Maybe will put a comment on your blog in case). I am very sorry I didn't make it to the launch - I ran out of time as I suspected I would. It has been a manic week because I'm away most of the next two weeks doing talks, plus my daugher was needing nursed, plus I've taken on a load of new work. I hope it went well.