Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Be My Guest - Susan Malone

Why We Write

I’ve just been doing the final edit of a provocative book about how the pursuit of happiness is folly, the book’s premise being that we are “sold” to be always pursuing  happiness, when being happy is within our inherent natures, providing we have sustenance and shelter. It got me thinking how this corresponds to writing. The writing itself is one beast, and the desire to “be published” quite another.

Almost all the writers who come to me want to be published, of course. It’s almost as if the words and people and places don’t exist until they garner some sort of audience—readers to fall in love with their characters and be transported by the story. And such is of course the case, to a large extent. We humans are pretty danged ego-driven, and artists of all sorts ask if another human isn’t there to appreciate their art does it actually exist?

But is this actually why we write? It helps when reevaluating one’s writing career to hone in on the truth of the matter. That truth is different for each one of us. Do you write because you want to be a rich and famous author? Or do you write because you have to, i.e., you go pretty wonkers when not writing?

Either is actually fine, and no right or wrong answer exists here. But you can save yourself a ton of heartache by getting to your own reason for doing this, while buffering yourself against Hamlet’s whips and scorns of time.

If your goal is to be published and become a bestseller, Lord knows that’s great motivation.  It’ll keep you studying and learning and your butt in front of the keyboard (which is a huge part of this battle!). But it will also lead you down a path of rejection and hurt and, often, writers completely stop after a time when their dreams don’t come true. Because for every million writers with that dream, one is published. (I’m talking traditionally published here; self-publishing brings with it the challenge of the flip side—actually selling your book to readers.)

In fact, the vast number of folks I’ve seen go in with fame as the only goal quit at some point. Publishing is an unforgiving business. It takes a backbone of steel to pursue, after a certain amount of time. “Becoming Rich and Famous” doesn’t usually hold up to the heartaches and sorrows that come. And trust me, they will come. So you have to dig deeper and find another core of motivation to keep plugging along.

If you write, on the other hand, because you must, because of a deep driving desire to let  your characters run free, your story be told, no matter the costs or the outcome, you’ll still face those same sorrows and heartaches. Sometimes the hurt is deeper, stronger, more aching as these are people and places in your stories that you, as the writer, have grown to love (and indeed, those are the best kinds!). Then you have to dig down deeper again, and find the fortitude to carry on in the face of said rejection and sadness.

Again, many people stop at this point, as their personal pain is too much to bear. As I’m fond  of saying, we’re not working with bread dough here, but, rather, the very heart and soul of you. The thing to remember at this juncture is truly that it’s not about becoming rich and famous; it’s simply about writing as beautifully as you can. At the end of the day, that is enough. Publishing will humble you to your knees. But that’s okay. Really. Because from your knees is a great place to look up and see clearly. As Rilke said, “Ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?”

The answer to that will help you design a much clearer road ahead!

Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has four traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to Traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

Posted by Maryann Miller, who found this blog topic to be quite inspiring.

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  1. That is a perrenial problem you pose, Susan. Perhaps it does help to know why one writes, but whatever the reason(s), only persistence pays off with much chance of success. Approaching a half century of writing professionally, I find that the answer has changed and changes still. Once I wrote because it was required, then I wrote because it paid off, and now I write because I want to leave a legacy.

    Perhaps the single common thread for all writers is that we write to be read, if not now, then ultimately. Even the soul-baring private diarist has some notion of the pages somewhen being perused.

    --Larry Constantine (author of The Rosen Singularity)

  2. I agree with Larry's comment about persistence. I've long been a believer that tenacity is as important as talent if one want to be published. I've seen many good writers quit because the success did not come quick enough or strong enough.

    As a good friend once pointed out, writing is not just something I do, a job that I can retire from someday and do something fun. I am a writer. That defines me and drives me.

  3. I do want readers to fall in love with my work and dream of fame and fortune but I know that's a long shot and I still want to keep telling my stories.
    Discouragement intrudes on many careers, not just writing. Hopefully each individual finds the career they love enough to keep going through thick and thin, hell and high water, rain, snow....

  4. When I first wrote, my goal was to get a book done. Then it was it published. Then it was to get a bestseller.

    I'm sure if I get a bestseller, then I'll want another and another!

    I'm afraid I'm always striving for more, which means I'll never be happy!

    Morgan Mandel

  5. Wow ... a deep subject for a such a shallow mind to contemplate. I don't write fiction because I 'must' (I might golf for that reason) ... but I don't write to become rich and famous either ... heck, I pretty much do it for free (my wife will testify to that) ... I guess it is because it's the only thing I do reasonably well ... it's also the only thing I can imagine doing forever ... well, 'til the end ... you know what I mean.

  6. Why do I write? I don't love it. I'm relieved to be away from it sometimes. But it's my go-to method to share ideas, communicate opinions, influence others, teach. It's much more direct than sculpture to make a statement, and more convenient than standing at a podium giving a speech. I also like reading what I've written sometimes. I've read some things I've written that made me think, "huh, well that wasn't half-bad. I should do it more often." ;)

  7. I do not write for fame or fortune. I write to persuade.

    --Jim Carson

  8. If I can stop one heart from breaking,
    I shall not live in vain;
    If I can ease one life the aching,
    Or cool one pain,
    Or help one fainting robin
    Unto his nest again,
    I shall not live in vain.
    Emily Dickinson

    She had it right, you know. We want not to live in vain. For some that means composing music, painting pictures, writing books, being a a good neighbor, being a loyal friend.

    Why do I write? I want to touch hearts.

  9. I love all of these comments! As Larry said, it really is all about persistence. And the longer you write, the more the answers (and indeed, the questions) change. And writing does drive us, Maryanne (hopefully not insane :)

    What a rich world we live in--this one of words!

    Kudos to you all.

  10. Oh this is a good post. I really enjoyed it and thinking about why I should write and what my purpose is. Excellent food for thought.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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