Comedian Jim Carrey is alleged to have said “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” This message crossed my cosmic bow twice this week, and it got me thinking (again) about what I am seeking by being a writer.
There are many questionable reasons to write: for publication, money, fame, attention. When I was first exploring the true calling to a write twenty-some years ago the only discussions of fame and wealth had to do with the unlikelihood that it would ever happen. Back then writers needed a different reason to write than “worldly” success.
Today it seems everywhere you look the expectation writers have of themselves is nothing short of Harry Potter success. Agents, publishers, friends, and family all await the next break through, the paycheck, the movie deal. Agents and publishers wade through thousands of new manuscripts per week, encouraging writers to send, send, send! The upshot of this fervor is that the writer starts to believe that the end result of writing is some sort of celebrity award. Meanwhile agents and editors wade through a mountain of slough just to find the things they can make money off of, with the question of quality being secondary to marketability.
Along the way the average writer churns out pages upon pages, hoping something will “take,” fighting despair, loneliness, rejection – all the while overlooking the joy of writing, the subtle relief in a good day’s work that is really one of the few true rewards of the craft. By raging through the doubt and self-criticism, eyeing the volumes of publication opportunities, the dream of landing an agent, of getting a contract, of owning a yacht, the human being struggling to salve their inner need to write is stomping on the spirit of true creativity. By putting anything before the writing itself, the writer distracted by the need of other things is most likely destined to fail.
There are a number of reasons to write that align themselves more to the spirit of the craft and to which the serious writer should aspire if they are going to enjoy the process as it perhaps should be.
The first reason to write is because we have the freedom to do so. I once worked with a woman who was from China. She apparently had quite a talent for writing and began to get noticed as a young woman for the power of her prose. In short order she became a target of the State, however, ultimately having to leave her home country because the political structure of her homeland was not forgiving of her ideas. She was not afforded the freedom to express within the culture that gave her a voice, and she had to escape to survive. She has since dissolved into obscurity and is allowed to visit China to see family from time to time, but if she still writes she keeps her thoughts to herself.
Beyond political freedom the creative must also have their basic needs taken care of: food, shelter, good health. Creatives have a much harder time working at their craft when they are worried about eating. Imagine the millions of people around the world who do not have their needs sufficiently met. Who knows what we have lost as a species because of poverty.
The second reason to write is simply to answer the call. Creatives of all types are driven by the inner need to express themselves. All human beings have this trait, though for the artist the need is as intense as any emotion. Of course, the call can be suppressed, and for many people it is, but there is a price for cutting ourselves off from this desire to write – it leaves a dull ache in our spirit that at best becomes a disappointment which occasionally visits like a ghost, reminding us of our sin and chastising our neglect. By honoring the call we are satisfying the only thing that really matters – the act of writing.
Finally, writers have a desire to share. The adage that one must write for oneself is often misinterpreted. What is meant is that writers must be honest about the subjects they write about, must tell the truth and tell it in the most interesting way they can. Writers must stay true to their vision and say what matters to them most. This does not mean the writing should not be shared. Publication in itself is not a bad pursuit – if the purpose is to share. Whether one gets paid or not, or gains attention, even fame, is beside the point. Any monetary gain or recognition is simply a byproduct of an honest effort.
When I chanced across the words of Jim Carrey this week I paused and really considered why I spend so much time writing. There is no denying that I derive joy from an enthusiastic response to my work, a thrill from sending something off for publication. For a long time I thought I wanted fame and riches from writing, and I still desire to succeed enough that I can continue to write full time for a living – but because I love writing, and I’m fond of living – not to achieve the big nothing of fame and the headache of nasty riches. If I never make much money from writing I don’t mind. It’s a privilege just to have the time, the means, and the freedom to write. As long as I have those things I know I am also able to eat, to stay warm, and that I am hopefully healthy. After that the onus is on me to write as well as I know how, share it as I may, and to be at peace with the results as they come. The real reward, after all, comes long before anyone else reads the final product. The real reward comes in completing the thing in the first place, and in being satisfied with what has been done.