© 2002 by Katherine Derbyshire
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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
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"
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?
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.
can produce an adversarial, bitter relationship with the market, the audience,
and ultimately the writing itself. Determination to write at any cost can poison
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
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.
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.
it have to be that way?
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.
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.
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?"
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,
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.