A Writer Writes for Themselves: a Rant

There are few cliche things that authors hear a lot. People mean well and a lot of these phrases do hold some truths, but they’re also really annoying, especially when you’re stressing about meeting deadlines, depressed about rejections and feel like you’re gaining no ground, stressed about balancing time so you can get out some word count, irritable about promoting and trying to get people’s attention…

The one thing I’ve heard time and again is an oldie but a goodie: “Well, chin up, I know it’s frustrating but a writer writes for themselves, right?”

I hate this. I really, really hate this phrase or any variation of it. With a burning, vile passion.

Here’s the thing. Yes, yes it is true…to a point. You should absolutely write for yourself, because doing anything hoping to get famous/rich/laid/noticed isn’t going to work. People see that a mile away, or eventually get wise. Likewise, you need to be happy with what you’re doing or else it’s just going to make you miserable. Hell, it’ll make you miserable enough even if you’re happy with what you’re doing – any sort of love, even the artistic kind, isn’t perfect. I totally agree that you shouldn’t sit down just to please others or feel like you should turn your craft a certain way in the hopes to game the market or make an impact on certain people.

Part of the issue is “A writer writes for themselves” takes away whole chunks of an artist’s emotional background and what may have led them to write. Let’s face it, we all have our reasons beyond being inspired by books and stories. Maybe you were bullied. Maybe you want to prove something to that English teacher who said your essays were crap. Maybe thee was an early influence that you want to live up to or seek validation from. Maybe you have a lurking memory of a significant other or a family member who didn’t get why you wasted time on a hobby when you weren’t going to be JK Rowling any time soon. We all have those moments, and while you shouldn’t carry them with you all the time, let’s be real. They push us on and there’s probably always a tiny, tiny bit of us that keeps plunging ahead to show our entire past that we can do this, no matter what this is.

No, you shouldn’t write because of all those people, but they exist, just the same. Plus, I don’t know many people who are so completely comfortable with themselves that they never think about those people again or don’t have a slight stab of glee if they do get to prove themselves in the end. It’s human nature.

“A writer writes for themselves” also doesn’t take into account the nature of the market. Readers are looking for what they want to read, after all. I love that some of these head-patters are also the same people who will say “well, I’d read your book but it’s not really my thing…” A writer writers for themselves after all, so this shouldn’t be disappointing, even if you hear it twenty, fifty, a hundred plus times. And you will. There are so many choices these days, that while I don’t agree with trying to write to the market (because it often changes too fast to game and attempting to do so produces shoddy work), I get why people try to write to certain genres or certain tastes. Believe me, I get it. It’s hard putting your heart out there and waiting for someone to show up, trusting that it’ll happen eventually.

“A writer writes for themselves” also devalues the whole artistic experience. It’s not enough to just put something out there, there has to be someone reading it for it to mean something. Sure, I could write down all my stories in a notebook and put them away, but I want to do this for a living. I want to share with people…and that sharing has been part of storytelling from the beginning of time. You don’t hear people saying “well a doctor heals for themselves” or “A chef cooks for themselves” or “a teacher teaches for themselves” because that’s stupid. That makes no sense and with some professions would be considered selfish. Yet somehow, in the artistic fields, we’re supposed to be so secure that we do this for no reason and definitely don’t have the gall to expect anything from it. The worst thing in the world would be for no one to ever experience the ideas in my head, that would negate what I feel is part of my purpose for even being here.

I applaud those people who say they don’t care if people read their work or if it doesn’t make them a zillion dollars…I understand the latter more than the former. Why would you even publish your work if you’re that apathetic about people reading it? I don’t get it. Writers write for readers to read. What’s so hard to understand here?

While I get that the phrase is supposed to empower authors to do their own thing, it’s turned into this “there, there” excuse any time an author complains about the market, or how hard it is to balance promotion and writing, or how frustrating it is to have their work ignored. Somehow these well-meaning people never think to take the next step and offer to read their work or tell their friends or post reviews or whatever…it comes down to platitudes that don’t fit the situation. “It’ll all be okay,” “Well, you know how the market is,” “There’s only so many best-sellers,” “Why don’t you write something like this other author/do what this other person did?”

There’s no magic formula. It all takes a ton of hard work, and for some reason people don’t like to see that. They like the magical feel of someone making it, but they don’t necessarily want to comprehend how much it takes or how much they could be helping. I don’t want consolation or head pats or shrugs or platitudes. I want help, I want chatter, I want people to notice, I want people to love my writing. I don’t want my hard work to be brushed aside with “well, you just have to remember that a writer writes for themselves” and have the conversation turned back to whatever it is normal people feel comfortable talking about.

I do write for myself, by the way. I love my worlds and the characters that inhabit them. I adore the plots that rattle around in my twisted little noggin.  This isn’t me being bitter or creatively worn out or anything of the sort – I simply feel like the phrase is overused and used in the wrong context.

My ideas and my stories are my own and are born out of an intense love of ideas and what if’s. I don’t pull many punches and I definitely have a sideways view of things that end up influencing my plots and characters.  However, I also write for you, because I want you to think and feel outside of your comfort zone. I write for the person who wants to escape for a little bit, for the horror addict who wants to be chilled, for the vampire fan who wants something different, for the faerie tale fan who wants something new, for all of those who want something a little sideways than the other things on their shelves. I write for me, but I also write for the world, for everyone, and for anyone who is willing to take a look.

Who do you write for, besides yourself? What’s a typical platitude that you’re tired of hearing in regard to your work?

2 thoughts on “A Writer Writes for Themselves: a Rant

  1. Hallo, Hallo Ms Janel,

    I stopped reading for a bit when I reached this phrase as you hit bang-on the nail of why we ALL find joy in writing stories:

    Writers write for readers to read.

    If the pursuit of the written word isn’t to find a reader to appreciate the stories we’re creating out of our imaginations combined with our life experiences – then we would be journal & diary keepers, not writers who are walking a path towards publication. Therein you had me – because I admit, I do write for myself, as far as the sake of finding immeasurable joy in the art of writing, but like you, I’m writing stories I one day want to seek an audience to enjoy reading for their own joy in finding a story that resonates with them as much as it did with me as I penned it.

    There is a circle which enfolds between writers and readers; a circle broached on my blog in author interviews, (esp in regards to this one) several different times. It’s a special connection writers and readers share – where the writer starts the circle, the reader completes it. Writers breathe life into their stories but without readers, the story is only half complete – it requires readers to pick up where the writer left off. We leave behind a legacy of words and worlds – characters and lives as real as our composite counterparts in our living realm. We seek readers who understand our style of story-telling but also the suspension of reality in order to soak inside the world we’ve created for a respite and reprieve where their visit becomes a memory rather than a short jaunt in a fictional world.

    — now I’ll finish your essay.

    Love the second half of this — because instead of a rant, you turnt introspective and shared a part of yourself — a part of why your passionate about your own writing and letting go of the chatter that surrounds us all. For me? I’m constantly bombarded by questions of ‘when’ am I publishing, ‘how’ am I publishing, ‘why’ am I not joining a ‘writer’s union’, and ‘why’ exactly am I not attending critique groups, writerly conferences, etc. I’m a NanoWrimo graduate from 2008, and I learnt a heap about my own process vs fitting in with writerly groups – I’m an out of the box writer, who organically writes her muse and her heart out onto the page where the ink is spilt and the ideas percolate. NanoWrimo is an experience unto itself for a writer who lost her creative spunk and exited a 10 year writer’s block! 🙂

    My best comeback is “I’m in the season of being a book blogger; my season of publishing hasn’t arrived yet.” It’s truly the best answer I can give – there is a complexity to publishing and if your not yet arriving at the hour in which that path is going to pursued, I wish (in general) people would accept that. To be honest, I became a book blogger without the intent of building a platform nor a presence pre-publication as a writer. I became a book blogger to be a book cheerleader for authors & their stories. Simple. No agenda. How many people do you know will believe that after I publish?

    We all have things to overcome – but one thing I’ve noticed is how if you don’t ‘define’ yourself — if you do not place yourself in a pre-packaged box as a writer, no one ‘gets you’. Here’s a wonder — I write outside genres and switch genres as oft as I switch hats. I just learnt recently Issac Asimov wrote across genres and styles of stories — who knew?! I wish I had found that out sooner! My genre of preference originally was science fiction because I’m a long-term science geek — who devours (relationship-based) Romance novels and Historical Fiction; little does anyone suspect I’m writing in the vein of SFF moreso than HistFic! I’m also an Indie girl through and through (winks).

    None of what I’ve shared will surprise anyone who reads my blog – truly reads my book reviews and guest author features; because I share a lot of myself on my blog. It’s how I roll so to speak. I share memories and share antidotes within my reviews; I respond personally to interviews or guest posts where I feel a connection to the author. My tweets are as personal as my blog. I speak a heap about my own journey – though I’m quite sure that goes unnoticed more times than naught. My favourite writer correspondences arrive with books I am reviewing; where writers ‘read’ what I hoped they might see as they visit my blog before they mail their books.

    At the end of the day, we create our own happiness and curate our own joys. We happily share a piece of that with others; and let go of what we cannot change, whilst seeking a path towards readers and writers who share our passion for stories. Stories are the lifeblood of art – across mediums and artistic inclinations, there is a story waiting to be told, seen, shared, and enjoyed. Artists might walk a harder road, but we have a heap of light in our days by the art which enriches our souls.

    PS: From now on, if someone broaches the Q to me ‘why are you writing in more than one genre’? I’m going to tell them to look up Issac Asimov’s bibliography because I’m walking a path similar to his own whilst remaining true to my own muse.

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