Monday, February 8, 2010

Only Connect (?)

In a recent email exchange with my good friend Aaron about the topic of writing, I expressed a loss of joy with the writing process and suggested that I needed to go back to my roots as a writer, the desire to entertain and delight myself (as well as exorcise certain creative impulses that plagued me with daydreams and other distractions until I set them to paper).

Aaron asked, quite reasonably, if the idea of writing for myself wasn't a bit disingenuous. Isn't the goal of writing to communicate?

That got me to thinking. I've always had a knack for communicating factual information and broad ideas. That skill carried me through school and has paid my bills (with varying degrees of success) in various nonfiction writing fields (technical writing, academic writing, educational writing) for many years now. My goal when I write such things is clearly to communicate, as well as earn a paycheck. Moreover, I tend to work fairly well with the restraints imposed upon me by my bosses and clients.

At the same time, in that form of writing I'm almost always one step removed from the actual audience for the writing. I deal with the editors and the clients and their guidelines, but I don't see the end-users or the teachers or the students and their reactions to the documentation, lesson plans, or textbooks. So I communicate, but I don't really concern myself so much with how well I connect, because the potential audience is so vast and diverse that it's inevitable that some will like it and some will not. It's all hypothetical in the end; I'm writing to the best of my ability to get paid. My satisfaction comes from doing the work on time and as well as I can.

There's another kind of writing that I do quite frequently that has no real audience other than myself. I get significant satisfaction out of writing for myself just to develop my thoughts on a given topic with greater clarity. It scratches an itch, so to speak, whether anybody else reads those ideas or not. This essay is an example of that sort of writing, which I don't expect to be read.

Stories are different. They're more personal and subjective. In my case, at least, I can't see writing stories as any sort of practical avenue toward making money. So the motivation for writing them has to come from within, from some desire to express a personal vision.

Because of this personal and somewhat intimate investment, when stories are rejected it is more confusing and painful. What began in my childhood as an effort to shield myself through imagination from a larger world that so often frightened, mocked, or rejected me becomes instead a gateway that so often leads those very same emotions right to my heart. And everything and everyone I consult tells me that the writing world is full of far more rejections than acceptance. I think the idea is that you do care, but you just expect to keep getting beaten up and turned down and learn to accept that as part of the process.

To make that equation work, the value I attach to any appreciation has to outweigh the negatives of confronting regular reminders of the reality that in fact, other people don't understand me, either through my own inability to express myself or through a simple lack of interest or empathy. I think I also have to believe that an audience exists of reasonable size, say a thousand or more people, that will appreciate my efforts. I just have no rational evidence or personal experience to base such a belief on.

The idea of being published just for the sake of being published used to drive me, but over time it has lost appeal. I'm already a published writer, just an obscure one.

Why would publishing a story and not caring deeply about its reception be any different than ghostwriting a chapter of a history book and never knowing what students think of it? The mental and emotional effort required to do the former, at least for me, is much greater than what it takes for the latter.

At this point I need to figure out if I have enough faith in my ability to connect and enough belief that those connections will be worth the effort involved to pursue writing and storytelling for other people.


Becky said...

"This essay is an example of that sort of writing, which I don't expect to be read."

um, what? You post it on a public blog, and you don't expect it to be read? That's disingenuous.

I'd say it's fine if you don't want to write to be published (not that you need my absolution or opinion to make that decision; *I* think you are publishable, for what that's worth).

At the risk of double-teaming you, I would maintain that writing *is* about communicating, even if it's the writer communicating with herself / the unconscious.

Writing may also be about the challenge and pleasure of the process itself, but from what I've seen of your work, for you it's not *just* about the pleasure, because you don't write Mary Sue stories! Something is always being communicated--a mood, an idea, a setting.

Once words have been put down--in a file or on paper--the writer *is* imagining there's an audience, at least himself but also potentially others.

But that's just my two cents.

Doug said...

Hah! I am going to have to adopt disingenuous as my blog handle at this rate.

To clarify, what I meant is that I have no EXPECTATION of being read, and more explicitly, of anybody commenting on what I've written. Aaron is more familiar with this, but I have an amazing track record of commenting on forums, for example, and being completely ignored. And then having someone make the same points I was making a few posts later. In those cases I have no idea if anyone has read what I've written or not.

So I've learned through experience not to assume that anyone will read what I've written. I guess it's just in my nature that I don't write more crazy rants as a result. Writing tends to calm me or at least focus my mind.

But I don't MIND being read, hence the public forum. :-)

And yes, I am certainly trying to communicate with myself, though I don't think that's what Aaron was getting at when he called me disingenuous.

I appreciate your two cents; the only reason to post this stuff (other than blogging habit) is to offer at least the opportunity for someone to challenge or expand upon the ideas in a thoughtful manner.

Aaron DaMommio said...

Something that is driving me right now, is that writing a decent story is such a challenge. I can't consistently pull it off yet. (And some authors say they never manage that consistency with short stories, and the large number of published stories that leave me cold supports that.)

New prose always leads to good stuff for me. I'm in a bit of a funk this week. I believe if I sit down and generate some new prose, it'll pass. I'm having trouble setting on one next project.

Doug said...

You know I am the master of being unable to settle on one project! Monday I rewrote the first 1,000 words of the Dahvo chapter in what felt like a pretty productive manner. I just have no strong urge to continue that story at this stage, so it's mostly an exercise. I'm also caught up mentally in an alternate history with superheroes setting that I've toyed with for awhile. I wish I could think of a decent sci-fi plot and get back my confidence in that genre, because that's the sort of thing I've been thinking of lately.