Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Writing is Giving

By Katherine Derbyshire
© 2002 by Katherine Derbyshire


Storytelling is a survival skill. It allows members of a group to learn from each other's experiences and from previous generations. It allows individuals and societies to explain the inexplicable. It appears in all societies, from the cave painters of Lascaux to the street children of modern Miami. (See story at http://www.miaminewtimes.com/issues/1997-06-05/feature.html ) Humans are instinctively good at storytelling. Just about anyone can learn to construct a coherent paragraph, explain how something works, or relate a personal (or fictional) anecdote. The writer's craft lies in part in stringing those individual chunks together to form something greater.

Most people start writing because it’s fun. If you tell your own stories, you get to decide how they end. You can create your own myth and modify it to suit your own experience. Many writers report that they began telling stories between about age six and age twelve. At that age, parents are usually encouraging (though not always). They sincerely want to encourage their children to be creative, and writing seems harmless enough.

As young writers get older and more serious about their writing, something happens. Vague musings about “What do you want to do when you grow up?” become concrete questions about "What college do you want to attend?" How are you going to pay for college? What do you want to major in? It better be something useful, not that silly writing stuff. Don’t you know writers can’t make any money?

Artists are often portrayed as unhappy people who live in dire poverty, have toxic relationships, and die young from either suicide or substance abuse. Though these stereotypes are not true of most writers, happy writers don't make headlines. Spectacular suicides do. Few parents want their children to meet such grim fates.

In many cultures, writers also struggle against a perception that their work is frivolous or even sinful. Suffering and toil are humanity's lot, this subtext reads. Hard work in this life is the only way to achieve salvation in the next. Anything fun is probably sinful, and takes time away from work.  Writing promises few earthly rewards, encourages the writer to question everything, and involves escaping mundane reality on flights of fancy.

Often, this baggage appears in the form of people who say things like, “Writing is a fine hobby, but what are you going to do for a living? Do you really think you should be wasting all your time like that?”

Chances are, a new writer hearing such discouraging words will do one of three things. Either they’ll quit writing, they’ll write twice as much out of sheer stubbornness, or they’ll dutifully try to squeeze writing in between the "important" things they "should" be doing.

When writers quit, or try to, the absence is a relentless irritant, like a scab they can’t stop picking at. The desire to write is still there, so there’s a big hole where writing should be.

The second attitude is defiance. Writers write to prove that they can, to prove their independence, to prove that they can too earn a living with their stories. Defiance and determination are good. The market can be a cruel, uncaring place, and it takes stubbornness to keep mailing out submissions letters as they keep bouncing back.

Eventually, though, determination isn’t enough. There's a limit to how much rejection anyone can take. Other people may actually achieve market success, only to discover that it doesn’t bring the affirmation they thought it would. All the critics still sneer because the advance for the first novel barely covers a junk car, and the novel got bad reviews and vanished into the remainder bin. Even financial successes like Tom Clancy and Stephen King still have to deal with literary snobs who sneer and look down their noses at "popular" fiction.

There’s a more subtle trap, too. What happens when you prove whatever it is you wanted to prove? Is that enough? Do you keep writing? In order to keep writing, do you keep raising the bar of success so that you can never reach it?

Determination relies on a scarcity mentality, a belief that no amount of fame or fortune is ever enough.  If you're driven by the need for validation, even success won’t force people to validate you. If you’re driven by money, you can fall into an obsession with sales trends and what the market wants.

Determination can produce an adversarial, bitter relationship with the market, the audience, and ultimately the writing itself. Determination to write at any cost can poison personal relationships.

It's easy to say, "Well, if they won't support me, I don't care what they think." But is that actually true? Who are "they?" They're parents, who just want their children to be happy and healthy. They're kids, who need attention and shoes. They're significant others, who need to feel like they matter. Most writers end up surrounded by people who have their own needs and their own demands, and who are as supportive as they can be within those constraints.

Trying to write while accommodating other people's needs summons the other side of the stern Calvinist outlook, which is guilt. Time "wasted" on writing is time away from the things that are "really important," like family or the day job that pays the bills. Writing takes time away from helping the community, from working to reduce the pain and suffering in the world. If every moment spent on writing is stolen from more important things, then writers come across as a pretty selfish lot.

Anger and narcissism, guilt and selfishness. Or the emptiness that comes from not writing at all. That's a pretty ugly set of choices, isn't it? No wonder so many writers (so the stereotype goes) are bitter, frustrated people who hide their twisted misery in drugs and alcohol. No wonder non-writers think we're such a sick bunch. No wonder some writers are almost afraid to pursue their talent, for fear it leads to pathology.

Does it have to be that way?

Think about how you feel when you're with someone you love in a beautiful place. Say you're walking along a mountain stream, and a strange butterfly that you've never seen before lands on a nearby branch. It's magical, like an animated flower, sparkling in the clear sunlight. It takes your breath away. You catch your lover's hand, or your child's, or your best friend's, or whoever is in that magical place with you, and you point out the butterfly so they don't miss it.

This is not a narcissistic act. It is not a selfish act. The butterfly has nothing to do with you. You simply want to show it to someone else and share the magic.

That's the place I'm writing from now. I write because I can see things that no one else can. I build connections, show how disparate elements fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and I hold the result up to my audience and say, "Look. Can you see?"

The return that I write for isn't the money.  Yes, it's nice to get paid, but I could be paid as well or better doing other things that I also enjoy. I haven't found a good correlation between the amount of the payment and the clarity of the vision, anyway. I write for that sharp intake of breath when I amaze myself. I write to share the magic that I find in the world with others, in the hope that I will make their lives a little more magical, too.

Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying that all writing has to be sweetness and light. There are dark magics out there, demons that I hope to help slay before they cause more suffering. There are subtle, arcane magics, too, involving the symphonic interplay of industrial processes that only a few hundred thousand people in the world understand or care to understand. There is magic in the structure of a crystal, or in the spiraling networks that bring people together, or in a dew-covered spiderweb. My gift, if I have one, is to help people see the magic around them a little more clearly.

I write about things that make me angry or afraid, joyful or awestruck. Always, the idea is the same: to place my hand on the reader's shoulder and ask, "There. Do you see?"

Generosity is a virtue. Even the Calvinists agree. I've found it to be tremendously liberating as an attitude for writing. It is its own reward, it replenishes its source, I won't ever run out. There's no need to feel guilty about doing something generous for other people, even if it is also something that I enjoy.

The funny thing is, all my projects--fiction and non-fiction, paid and unpaid--draw on those same sources. All satisfy the same wish to give. I'm able to balance the time I spend on different projects without being trapped by guilt, without being drained of joy.

Best of all, I'm happy. What I have now is enough. I have goals, I have more to accomplish, but the joy is in the striving, and that I know I can do.