Recently someone asked me, “How’s the writing going? Have you published yet?” We won’t discuss my awkward handling of that conversation. Instead I’ll give you the answer I wish I’d given: “It’s going well, and no, but that’s not why I’m doing this.”
People assume things. “Don’t forget us when you’re a bestselling author!” said a relative I’d never met before, when I said I wanted to write books someday. “It’s not very practical. You need a good backup plan,” warned a former high school teacher when she heard I was a creative writing major. I was about to graduate, so it was a little late to change majors if I’d been so inclined—if by some miracle I hadn’t heard that writing wasn’t going to make me rich—and she hadn’t asked what my plan even was, but finding out was less important than dispensing advice. Folks want to be supportive, I guess—even if their support comes from a place of assumption rather than understanding. And I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t assumptions like theirs that had me thinking I was supposed to want a career in writing in the first place.
By the time I graduated, I was a better writer—and I wouldn’t trade that education for the world—but I could barely scrape together the ideas to complete my writing assignments. I had the skill, maybe even a little talent, but nothing I could apply them to. Maybe I just wasn’t creative enough to make a career of writing. What do you do with a pursuit that isn’t producing the results you’ve been taught to strive for? I’d been encouraged to apply to MFA programs, but taking on a mountain of debt for a few more years of mentoring seemed wildly impractical in the face of what I felt I was capable of. Writing degree in hand, I quit.
A couple years later an old story began to stir.
Okay, I told it after some confusion. I’ll write this novel, but just to get it out of my system. Then I can quit again, do something useful with my free time. I loved that I was writing again, but I still wasn’t good enough to do anything with it, so why let the experiment go on?
Maybe because writing doesn’t need to sell in order to have a purpose.
Writing is my joy and my refuge. When I stopped fretting about what more it had to be to justify the hours spent, it flourished. Halfway through this novel, new ideas are waiting in the wings where before I thought I’d never have another. Quitting again is out of the question. I’m proud of what I create and someday I’ll get to read the best possible version of what’s in my head. And it’s all for me. I may share with a select few now and then, but first and foremost, writing is a gift I give myself. I thought if I wasn’t good enough to be published, writing was an indulgence I didn’t deserve. But in what world does art belong only to the successful few? Making art enriches us, and everyone deserves that, no matter the form or the size of your audience.
And if you’re like me, if you love to write but are terrified of the attention, I want you to know that you don’t have to seek it out in order to feel like a real writer. If you share your work only with a loved one or a few friends, or if you write only for yourself, it’s still real and worthy and deserved. Writing makes you a writer, not publishing.
None of this is to say that publishing isn’t a worthy goal. Books are my first and truest love; if you write them and publish them, you’re keeping me alive. And if someday I write something that’s good enough . . . sure, I can see myself taking it beyond my small circle. But it’s not my dream anymore. My dream is to keep writing. That’s enough. Joy is enough. What a concept.
Why do you write? Who do you write for? What are your writing goals, ambitions, dreams? How do you reconcile your reasons for writing with others’ expectations? What pressures does your writing face? And how can we help you face those pressures and reach your goals?