Why? Why do you want to be published?
No, really. I’m serious. Just humour me as I go out on a limb here.
During a brief Google search to see what the internet community’s collective wisdom on this question might be, I was surprised to find that the question doesn’t seem to have been aired much. One of the very few posts I found on the subject came from a writer who—as well as saying they ‘want to be read’ (fair enough)—said, ‘I’m trying to raise money to get an editor to read my work.’ Uh-oh.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the desire for publication assumes geas-like proportions. Beginning writers (I was one, and can attest to this) are absolutely desperate to be published—so much so that they’ll ignore all the advice and red flags posted everywhere on the internet and on writing sites and get suckered into parting with thousands of dollars by scam-artist editors and publishers. The hunger to be published seems at times like one of those biological imperatives, on a par maybe with the need for food, shelter, and sex.
In the spirit of questioning assumptions and examining our own motives—which I’ve always believed are healthy things to do—let’s take a step back and try another question: “Why do you write?” Since writing is, for a vast proportion of us, difficult, lonely, and very time-consuming work, this is a reasonable question. And given the very low hit rate among aspirant authors, and the slim chance of ever being able to make a living it, we could arguably be doing more rewarding and enjoyable things with our time.
On the positive side, the desire to write and be published is the same as that which fuels any creative pursuit. Writers are motivated by the same desires that drive musicians, painters, and other artists: an earnest need to self-expression, to creation. But whereas I don’t think anyone learning their first chords on a guitar really thinks they’re ready to go out on a stage before an audience, the new writer has no such inhibitions. They somehow lack the objective measures, the yardstick necessary for self-assessment (which is why a critique group of the best writers you can find is so terribly important).
But on the cynical side of the scale, I’d wager that a good number of those who set out to be writers are motivated by dreams of wealth and fame, of bestseller stardom, complete with adoring librarian groupies and appearances on ‘Fresh Air.’ Somehow, society does nothing to dispel this fantasy, and maybe it shouldn’t. Why, after all, should anyone question dreams and puncture aspirations, however misguided, when the world will likely do so far more decisively? And it’s quite possible that the aspiring writer driven by illusions (or delusions) of wealth and fame may transmute, in the course of practice, into the honest artist seeking self-expression.
So is the answer, “I write because I want to be read,” good enough? I don’t think so. To me, it indicates that the person hasn’t looked deeply enough into their motivations. I’d even hazard that such a person isn’t really suited to the task, since all good writers are, in my experience, people possessed of powerful and searching intellects who ask the deep questions and don’t flinch from them. If there’s one quality that defines a writer I’d say that it’s curiosity, and most especially curiosity about people, about what makes them tick, act, and react in a given situation.
I’d posit that the most—and perhaps the only—valid answers to the question, “why do you want to write?” are, and have always been, that there are stories you want to read which nobody else has written. That there are characters and ideas you want to explore. That you have to write, because if you don’t, something inside you will hurt, sicken, even die. It’s a need, a compulsion, entirely unrelated to public success.
What about publication, then? Why are we so desperate for it, like children who just have to have that puppy so badly they can’t think about anything else? Where does that compulsion come from?
Validation is the first thing that comes to mind. Okay, but let’s be realistic. I’ll confess right away that in my first year or so as a writer I—like almost every other new writer wannabe—sent stories to The New Yorker and other equally stratospheric markets. This is very like taking an evening class in CPR and expecting to pass your certification exam and become an M.D. the next day. Now this doesn’t mean that validation—or, more properly, a benchmark by which to gauge your progress—isn’t necessary, but it should be sought at an appropriate level.
Publication is also about income. All of us driven fools who choose to be writers would love to quit our day jobs and make a living at it. I mean, damn! who wouldn’t want to make a living inventing stuff and making made-up people have adventures? It’s like being paid to be a kid again (except, of course, for the hard work, self-doubt, and grim loneliness of the task). And yet, I think money should be the last thing on the writer’s mind while they’re about their business, because trying to write with the express desire to make a killing is only going to kill one thing—your story.
Where does all this leave us? Once we’ve asked and honestly answered these deep, uncomfortable questions, and decided that the reasons we write are because some strange force is driving us to do it, and we’ll do it even if the work is hard, lonely, and peculiar, and we might never make a penny at it, and it may be our fate to simply labour on in obscurity, with nobody ever taking an interest in our work, and we do it, in the end, like a child lost in play with their toys, humming distractedly to themselves while creating elaborate adventures for people only they can see… then, just then, I believe something great might emerge.