When I was living in Los Angeles and working a full time job and trying to write seriously for the first time — on my monochrome screen with its giant CPU with a little locking clip over the 5-1/4″ floppy disk drive — I had a little note stuck on the top of the monitor that said:
Do it anyway.
It was my response to the usual litany of excuses that bubbled up from my fatigued brain: I’m tired, I don’t have any ideas, this is pointless, it’s not going anywhere, nobody cares and on and on and on. Even if you are not prone to depression, you are likely to need to struggle against the feeling of hopelessness in any creative pursuit.
Samuel Johnson’s famous assertion that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” has helped discourage many an artist. We live in a capitalist society: we measure success by money made in most cases. The exception is in ‘literary’ fiction which has a puritanical desire to prove its artistry by being ‘above’ filthy lucre, and instead measures success on a scale of economies of prestige (another commodity).
The truth is if you want money, writing is a bad way to go about getting it.
The Vonnegut Library shared a story about about writers helping writers (or not), which reprinted a wonderful letter from Kurt Vonnegut about the unlikeliness of success as a writer. In this age of wild claims about how to win success as a writer via social media or self-publishing or creating your own factory, it’s a good reminder:
“…the best books earn nothing, usually. There are supposedly, at any given time, no more than 300 people in this whole country who make their livings as self-employed writers. America has more admirals on active duty than that.”
Things may have changed since 1978, but they have not vastly improved (and may have gotten worse). And yet more people are writing all the time. It may be they are deluded about their skills or their chances of success (we know the term Dunning-Kruger effect, right?) but the truth is what William Goldman told us ages ago: “No one knows anything,” especially when it comes to creating. You may know you’re a genius, as William Blake did, but no one else may realise it until long after you are dead.
Publishers (and this includes self-publishers) think they know what will sell and proceed according to that belief. It’s as reliable as a belief in the fairies and as likely to pay off (hey, it’s worked for me!). That’s why bookstores have remainders tables. No one knows anything.
So why do it anyway? Because creating is what makes us live. Do it anyway because you need to create and writing is a wonderful way to know how you think and to understand your own life and to gain insight you didn’t even know you had. Writing is a process that releases the jangled thoughts that plague your worries. Better, it creates joy in the doing — yes, even in the struggle of the process there is joy. This is the god-like potential we have, to be creating — it’s also the child-like joy we need, to be creating. All of our commodified lives tell us it is not “worth” anything of value. Do it anyway; your soul/mind/spirit knows it is worth every moment.
There is no greater joy than that of feeling oneself a creator. The triumph of life is expressed by creation.
~ Henri Bergson