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Sunday, September 17, 2006


Just writing for ourselves

Have you noticed, it's quite common for a writer to say 'I just write for myself'? The trouble is, there are two completely different situations where this happens. First situation:

Interviewer: Oh, Dear Writer, how is it you write such wonderful books?
Writer (blushing prettily): Well, you know, I just write for myself. It's so lucky other people like them.

Second situation:

Endless reviewers and fans: I've had just about enough of this, Writer, your books are getting worse and worse.
Writer (crossly): Stick it. I just write for myself and I like my books. If you don't understand the very meaningful things I'm doing, then you can go jump because I don't like you anyway.

This has got me to wondering: is there a difference between those two positions? It's possible that Writer 1 was telling the truth and might degenerate into Writer 2 if the quality falls off, but it's also possible that there are different kinds of 'writing for myself'.

What might those be? I can think of a few possibilities, but I'd like to hear more if anyone has a view...

1. An obvious possibility: any kind of writing that's not directly commissioned is writing for yourself - after all, you're the first person who sees the stuff, so you're the first person you have to please - and hence 1 is simply trying to answer a difficult question without sounding stuck up and 2 is trying to find a reason not to listen to negative feedback. (And really, most variations of 'how did you write your book' are just about impossible to answer.)

2. Perhaps 1 and 2 have different relationships with their inner critics; 2 sees 'writing for myself' as switching off your inner critic and 1 sees it as trying to suck up to him. In that situation, they're both writing for themselves, but one 1 has invited the inner critic to the table.

3. Writer 2's definition of 'self' has changed. A writer whose work is falling off may have experienced a mental break with their audience; perhaps they've gotten very successful (which is likely if they're still getting published even if their books are declining in quality), and have simply stopped putting themselves in the same class as their readers. In this case, they began by considering themselves primarily as readers, so writing for themselves meant writing stuff that would be generally pleasing; as their success snowballed, they took to considering themselves primarily as writers, and felt obliged only to do what was personally gratifying.

4. Writer 1 has a more writing-friendly social life. Both were always writing for themselves, but 2 had a day job when they first started writing, and since then has gone over to writing full-time. All that time sitting at home alone staring at a notebook has turned their wits a little, or at least, they don't meet as many different people as they used to, and have to spend less time finding ways to rub along with companions they wouldn't have chosen, so their 'self' is getting more eccentric. 1, on the other hand, meets more people and has friends and family who are prepared to argue with them, so is more grounded in the world.

Any other possibilities?

For me, "writing for myself" means to shut out the possibility that the story will ever be read by anyone else. To just write a story that I would want to read. Being an audience of one.

I had agoraphobia for about 12 years, so I spent a lot of time closed off from other people (emotionally as well as physically). All of my characters could only be one dimensional because I was locked into fear.

Now that I'm (relatively) healthy, I have a day job. My world is full of amazing characters that I didn't even know existed, and can write about! I'm sort of the reverse of Writer #2 in the fourth scenario.
Good for you! Interesting that your characters get more complicated the more you meet people. Guess it makes sense; you're working on a lot more information.
I agree with Crystal. If you're writing with any sort of notion that someone else might read your work, it becomes more of a balancing act between writing for yourself and for your potential reader(s).

I've just finished Bareback, by the way. I was in France at the time and I ended up sitting in the flat to finish it rather than join my husband sightseeing.
Oh, thank you! That's a really nice thing to hear...

Agree with you both, but how about an alternative possibility, just to be contrary: have you ever read a book where you couldn't be bothered to finish it, because the writer hadn't bothered to make an effort to reward your attention with entertainment - that they had, in effect, forgotten that there should be an audience somewhere along the line? (Please don't say Bareback.)

I find a helpful thing is to write like there's no one else there, and then read like I wasn't there when I wrote it. Of course, from there, it's a short step to talking to myself, and then I'll just have to buy ten cats and go with it.

Old family story, apropos of your missed sightseeing: my mum was sitting at a cafe in Florence, when she overheard two middle-aged female tourists from the US discussing their plans for the afternoon.

'Shall we go and see Michelangelo's tomb this afternoon?' one of them asked.

The other one looked around and her comfortable surroundings. 'Let's just imagine it,' she said.

A useful phrase in many situations, I've found.
I don't know if I could be objective enough to read my stories like an audience. At a certain point, I just have to hand it over to mom, and hear where I went wrong...
I've started lots of book that I couldn't be bothered to finish. I don't know if it's a case of the author forgetting the audience or if I was just the wrong audience. The fact that a book is published suggests that someone apart from the author must have liked it. (One that jumps to mind is an enormous fantasy saga of goodness knows how many books. The first couple were quite good then it started reading like first draft material and I reckoned if the author couldn't be bothered to put the effort in, neither could I.)

I have great trouble being objective, too. I rely on my husband to spot early plot holes, and I've been working with another writer this year, which has been a fascinating, and challenging, experience. We both had very strong ideas of what 'should' go in, and it was often a wrench to admit that, however exciting a scene was, it didn't help the story and it had to go.
Ah, well, it sounds like in your fantasy series, Claire, we've got a case of 'I write for myself and so I don't need to edit.' Which, I hazard a guess, is a Bad form of writing for oneself. Case of the Overhead Projector, possibly? (In an earlier post - that annoying gadget that sits on top of your head and projects what you meant onto the page, obscuring what you actually wrote. Going in the Lexicon when it updates.) As in, the writer lost track of the fact that the Projector was there and so really is writing for him or herself, forgetting that not everyone can see the Projector's image?
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