Was thinking about that question that comes up every so often and touches off debate, sometimes heatedly so: write for yourself, or write for others?
Wasn’t thinking about this question because I take it all that seriously. I don’t. Never did. Truth is, I find it silly and even misleading because the assumption behind it seems to be that if you are writing ‘for yourself’ you are being ‘self-indulgent’ and thus inaccessible to the hapless helpless reader, and if you are writing ‘for others’ you are a soulless commercial hack. I think this is way too reductive, simplistic, and plays into the tired idea that popular can’t ever be good and good can’t ever be popular.
My own experience was an inverse of sorts: I was writing literary fiction until I finally sat down and decided to write something for myself, which turned out to be the kind of mass-market genre novel that would make some people accuse me of turning into a soulless commercial hack — when really it was my literary fiction that lacked soul and originality, because I was too busy imitating other writers as well as this vision in my head of what I should be and what I should be writing.
So screw that.
At the same time, I remember getting into a long drawn-out online argument (gotta love those, and I think writer-types are especially vulnerable to them for the simple reason that writing is the most comfortable mode of expression for us, and also because we’re determined and obsessive to begin with and have this fanatical need to get ourselves understood, and probably put too much faith in language itself — we think that “what we have here is a failure to communicate” even when all signs point to the failure of a properly functioning personality*…but I digress–)
…so I got into this argument with a guy who was a smart and talented writer but just as unpublished as I was at the time, and he was very frank and open about his determination to be a soulless commercial hack who made lots of money. So he had broken it all down, he said; and the way to be ‘commercial’ was to write this kind of plain, pedestrian prose**, assuming that any word over three syllables would have your reader running for the hills because (I can only assume) he just ain’t up for them fancy books with fancy words in ’em.
And my counterpoint was this: writing? Is hard. There’s no reason to believe someone like Dan Brown isn’t writing to the absolute best of his ability; his mega-success doesn’t negate the simple fact that these are the stories he genuinely wants to tell, and this is how he knows how to tell them. But what works for Dan Brown doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you, especially since — he got there first. He staked out the whole Dan Brown thing, and he’s a better Dan Brown than you will ever be, so you’ll have to be someone else. Plus, he got lucky. There’s always some luck and timing involved in these instances, some magic coming-together of your work and the marketplace and the zeitgeist. Trying to write for the marketplace is absurd, because the market will change before you’re halfway through your first draft, assuming you even ‘understood’ it to begin with, which is doubtful; and the only way you can write for the zeitgeist is through your own honest and unforced response to it: so that you’re writing out of your own place and time, and the thoughts and philosophies and fantasies your moment in time has formed in you (and in the readers who will relate to you and what you’re writing).
Call me fatalistic, but I do think that some writers just end up being more commercial — or more literary — than others, and a lot of this is beyond our control. Who you are as a writer is part and parcel of who you are as a person: you have to come to terms with your own nature, and make peace with it, and learn to do the best work you can within the specific artistic framework that nature and nurture both gave you. Which has nothing to do with writing for yourself or for others so much as the process itself. You can aim for the biggest audience possible for you, which strikes me as a noble and sensible goal, but there probably is an element of predestination involved in just how big that audience can be — a highly troubling thought within a culture that leads us to believe we are the captains of our own ships, masters of our destinies, or what is the American Dream anyway?
And so I guess here I am still trying to figure out my own writing self — which is why I’m given to these entries and essays that aren’t ‘about’ writing or ‘how to write’ (which I don’t even begin to assume I have the authority to do in any case) so much as my own relationship to writing, and how it both shaped itself and was shaped by external forces, ever since I wrote my first ‘novel’ (I use the term loosely) when I was twelve.
In any case, I’m heading into the big finale sequence of my BLOODANGEL sequel and found myself hesitating a bit, putting off the writing in a way that signals I’m still mentally working something out. (Sometimes my procrastination turns out to have a deeper purpose — my undermind throws up a temporary roadblock of sorts because it’s still developing or fixing something — and then, like magic, the writing moves forward with all systems go. And sometimes my procrastination just means I am a lazy wench who would rather watch HELL’S KITCHEN.)
And I began sifting through the sequence of events as I see them unfolding in my head — asking myself, What are the moments here I really want to write, what are the elements of these conflicts — both overarching and moment-to-moment — that interest me the most? So is the fact that I’m asking myself these questions, instead of just going straight for the most cinematic, shoot-em-up, balls-to-the-wall action writing***, a sign of someone writing for herself, being ‘self-indulgent’? And yet I honestly believe that what fascinates the storyteller makes for a more fascinating story overall (not for everyone, of course, but no one can write for everyone and you’ll only cripple yourself by trying, so screw it). The way to write for others is to write right through yourself, which, for me, bases the whole ‘yourself or others’ question in a false dichotomy…Perhaps the real question is, do you have the insight or craft or art to take the intensely personal and make it mean something to others? Because this shit is harder than it looks.
And I’m off to watch HELL’S KITCHEN.
* Not our personalities, of course. Our personalities are bloody perfect. It’s the other guy who’s severely fucked up…
** He wrote a commercial novel that, as far as I know, still remains unagented and unpublished, although he clearly does have the talent and drive to get there someday…certain theories of his notwithstanding.
*** Don’t get me wrong. Plan on doing that too.