Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why Write?

By Beth Terrell

A few years ago, I went to a small conference in North Carolina. In the drawing room of a lovely old hotel, several authors spoke about the process and business of writing. I talked about editing and the multiple drafts it takes to get a book to the polished level professional authors strive to achieve. (Granted, a privileged few get it perfect the first time, every time, but they are mutant geniuses who must be course, I mean "honored.")

Anyway, I spoke about editing and gave out a handout with a number of steps toward, one hopes, scintillating writing. Then another talked about the process of finding an agent or publisher and getting your book accepted. Still another spoke on marketing and what it takes to make a living as a novelist.

One woman in the audience finally raised her hand, and said in a voice of quiet desperation, "But what if I don't want to do all that? What if I just want to write?"

At another conference, a would-be novelist said to me, "Our critique leader said I needed to read a lot if I want to write. But I hate to read. Do you think she's right?" Over the years, I've heard multiple variations on this theme. I love to write, but it seems so hard. Do I really have to do all this?

My answer is always, "It depends on what you want from your writing."

Yes, if you want to be successfully published, you have to read, you have to write, you have to edit and polish and edit again. You have to pursue a writing contract (or publish your book on your own), and once the book is out there, you have to market the heck out of it. It's a lot of work, and if you want to be the next Dennis Lehane or Janet Evanovitch, you have to make a real commitment to do it. Jim Rollins was accepted by the fiftieth agent he submitted to. J.K. Rowling submitted the first Harry Potter novel over 100 times. If your goal is to be a professional writer, you must do what it takes to make your work as good as it can be, and then never give up.

But if what you want is to put ideas down on paper for your own enjoyment, for catharsis, or so your children and grandchildren will someday read your words and know who you are, then all you have to do is put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and let fly. Writing is fun, and it's for everybody. There's no sign on the door that says "AMATEURS KEEP OUT."

That word, amateur, is sometimes used in a pejorative way, but it is not a pejorative term. My dictionary defines "amateur" as "a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons." That sounds like a great reason for writing--or doing any other form of art, for that matter. Oil painting, for example. I suspect there are millions of amateur painters out there, some of whom paint well, some of whom paint poorly, some of whom create exquisite works of art, but all of whom paint only for themselves or a few friends. No one thinks they should give up painting just because their work will never hang in a museum. The process of painting brings them joy, and that's enough.

But with writing, for some reason, there's a sense that, if you aren't writing for publication, you might as well hang up your laptop. Want proof? Every year, thousands of people join in a joyful frenzy of writing called NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month), in which the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. And every year, like clockwork, the "I-Hate-NaNoWriMo" blogs spring up like mushrooms. "These people have no business writing," they say. And, "The flood of horrible books makes it harder for us real writers to get published."

You never read rants by fine artists about how the millions of people for whom painting is a hobby are screwing it up for the real artists. So why do some writers think putting words on a page is the sole purview of the professionals?

There are a million reasons to write: creating characters that come to life on the page, building a world that once only existed in your mind, setting down a history of family stories that will otherwise be lost, getting an email that says, "I was reading snatches of your book at stoplights; I couldn't put it down." Of course, we mustn't forget the accolades and the six million dollar movie deal.

Me, I want the whole shebang--to be a full-time, published author, making a living doing the thing I love the most. The woman in my North Carolina audience wanted something different, and that's okay too.

That's the great thing about writing. Amateur or professional, we are richer for having done it.


Mark W. Danielson said...

Nice article, Beth. I totally agree. Whether one's writing is published or not, there is always satisfaction in its completion.

OpenJoe said...

Great thoughts Beth. Written just for me. Thanks.

Beth Terrell said...

Many thanks, both of you.

And welcome to the bog, Joe!

Beth Terrell said...

Oops. I meant blog. (Nothing Freudian about that slip, I assure you, except when I'm wracking my brain for a topic.)