Write Like Nobody’s Watching

Spooky image, right?

I’m on a bit of a jag recently in which I’m thinking about the perhaps too big and too pompous question of why I write.

There are writers I know who primarily seem to write in order to be read. Being read—being published—is certainly in the mix for me, or at least I find myself thinking that way because it’s the goal I’m focused on for so much of the time I’m putting on my “publisher” hat. Or as I’m busy submitting short work to traditional markets.

I mean, of course I want people to read what I write.

But is that why I write?

No. Not really.

It’s a topic that’s come up for me in a couple different forums lately, including a great conversation I had with my friend Lisa Silverthorne at a local independent bookstore and a bit of an email exchange with my friend Amy Sterling Casil. Lisa and I started from the viewpoint of, “if no one reads what I write, what’s the point?” and riffed on that for some time before eventually coming to the obvious conclusion—that both of us have been doing this writing gig for more years than I’m wanting to admit, and that (while both of us have been successfully publishing through most of that time) neither of our careers has seen non-stop demand for our work.

There have been good times, of course. Story sales. Book sales. Good reviews. But, speaking for myself at least, there have also been some barren times. And, yet, here I am, still creating worlds, still writing stories. So, it’s fair to say that while I want people to read what I write I don’t write simply to be read.

This is a really tangled mess of a web, though. In the moment—any particular moment, really—it’s extremely hard to untangle the act of being read from the term “writer.”

I mean, the act of untangling those two things is always problematic.

That said, I think it must be done.

Because, whether you are a traditionally published writer or a self-published, independent writer, it’s quite helpful for you to understand business, and business is about selling, and selling is about establishing readers. One will, after all, have a hard time creating a career that feeds yourself without focusing to some extent on being read, so as a businessperson it’s valuable if not imperative do so.

Yet, as an artist (he says pretentiously), it’s equally as important to exercise that muscle that lets us separate the concept of why we write from the desire to be read. That’s my view, anyway.

Let me segway here to put it another way: the desire to be read is about ego more than it is about the art or craft of storytelling. The desire to be read does not drive me to be any better at my art. In fact, the desire to be read (at a time when that is not happening) is far more likely to gunk up my art than it is to help me make it better. The desire to be read is critical. If I don’t shut it down, the desire to be read whispers to me in horrible little tones: The readers are going to want a gizmo here, that whisper will say. Pixies are particularly hot now. Or, yeah, do that paranormal thing everyone else is so good at.

Maybe you can be happy working like that. But I cannot. At least not for very long.

For me, focusing on what a reader might want is a death knell to the work itself. At best it makes me lazy and leads me to think along the lines of “just add this trope and you’ll be good to go!” At worse it makes my work feel plastic, like the full me can’t get my feet to the pedals at all.

Which is terrifying, really.

Here’s a thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer. It’s the one thing that, I believe, is the reason I’m still here doing it, despite the downtimes.

I write because creating stories makes me feel good, and because it’s either really hard or really easy to do it well—“well” meaning to my own standards. I write because I find it’s something I enjoy striving to get better at. I like the feeling I get as words flow. I like that I don’t have to be great in first draft. I like that I get to say when something is done. It is true, of course, that a writer is often their own worst judge of quality, but regardless of whether a reader/editor thinks I’ve done something well (and regardless of whether anyone eventually reads it), I get to know when I’m proud of something I’ve done.

I know when something I wrote made me feel good.

That thing about striving to get better struck me a few days back, too, when I came across this video titled “Why No One Has to See Your Photography.” It winds up focusing on a street photographer named Vivian Maier, who “worked” as a photographer for her entire lifetime without ever displaying her work. Meaning she simply did her art and went about her life. She took pictures like nobody was watching, because it was true.

It’s worth a watch.

And it’s worth thinking about.

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