I read every word that comes in my Atticus Review emails. Well, this time, it’s your turn.
I am in a quandary today and your email arrived, so guess what? You have become the vessel into which my angst will pour. (It’s lines like that that make me want to stop writing. I mean, really?) I’ve been at this for ten years now, going to workshops [with famous folks which were varying in their worthwhileness], but I can’t break through the submission barrier anywhere. Sure, there were a handful of flash pieces. But, no one wants my short stories or novellas or novels. Yet, I write. A lot.
Lest you think this is a lot of whining, read on.
I’m retired. I wrote professionally all my career for marketing and business. I graduated from art school, which though it gave me a fine career, it is worthless in terms of academic value. I’m only 65. I want to be a better writer. I want to go back to school. I want to start over. Did I mention I’m retired? Because you aren’t there yet, I’ll clarify: that means fixed income. (read: marginally getting by) While there are a handful of classes offered at colleges at discounted rates for people over 62, they aren’t classes with meat on the bone. I can’t afford a degree. But oh how I want one. I want to learn. I want to improve. I want to discover what gets all those MFA grads published.
Art for art’s sake. I’ve been an artist throughout my life. I illustrated magazine covers, sold enough paintings to support myself for a while. Even now, I commune with local writers and write with a workshop at a local university. Still: Art for art’s sake. Hogwash. Yeah, one can live a creative life, live each day with intent, create works of art. But I believe art needs an audience. I believe in being productive — toward an end. And that end these day means “finding readers.”
For all of us out there who missed the boat or just watched it plow by without stopping at our port — there I go again — how do we catch up? We all, everyone who strings words together to form fiction, want to be better, we want to be read. Failing that, we are little more than hobbyists. And oh what a dreadful word that is.
My quandary? How to move forward and remain somewhat sane, being an artist without an audience.
This is about as long as your typical text so I’ll leave you now.
Thanks for reading.
Thank you for writing! This is indeed a quandary, which I think we all struggle with — staying sane when it seems like your writing lacks an audience.
I’m not sure I have a great answer but several things come to mind:
1) I have a close friend who has a book manuscript she’s been shopping around for the last three years. I read it a few years ago (before she was a close friend) and I thought, This is really good. I figured it was just a matter of time before a publisher took it. I still think that’s true, but it’s yet to happen. In the meantime, my friend has stopped desiring for it to be published. I won’t say she no longer cares. I’ll just say that she has come to feel good about having written it. She has given the manuscript to several friends and acquaintances and has received good feedback from them. She tells me that when she really thinks about it everybody she’d want to read the book has read it now, and that in and of itself feels pretty good. I still think the book will be published someday, but even if it isn’t, she feels content with the audience it has found already.
And from my perspective, there is no confusion in my mind that she is a writer and not a “hobbyist.”
2) One thing I’ve found tremendously helpful with my writing over the years has been blogging. I first started blogging nearly twenty years ago. At that time, I had absolutely no audience. I just put things out there. There was no Facebook or Twitter to “publicize” stuff (i.e. send stuff to your friends). It just sat on the Internet and waited for readers, which mostly didn’t come. I still do that on my blog: I just put things out there with no expectation that they will be read. Somehow it feels good just knowing that they could be read. Sometimes it feels good just knowing that one or two people have read something. Sometimes I know a thing could probably be published by somebody other than myself if I really took the time to hone it and figure out who the right publisher might be. But whenever I think about where I might want to place that thing, nowhere seems right. Basically, I really just want it to be my own thing.
One thing that happened as a I kept blogging over the years is that my writing got better. It got better not because I got feedback from a bunch of people or workshopped by people in an MFA program. It got better (I think) simply because I was doing it. A lot of it. And in doing a lot of it, I got better at being able to tell what was good . The writing got better because the audience that was me wanted to be more entertained by it so I wouldn’t be bored.
3) I watched a great documentary a few years ago about the artist Ralph Steadman, who is perhaps best known for illustrating a lot of Hunter S. Thompson’s work in Rolling Stone. In the documentary he said that when he would go on a crazy assignment with Thompson, Steadman would ask Thompson, “Why are we doing this?” And Thompson’s reply was “For no good reason.” I love that. One of my goals in life is to embody that spirit. I am not usually successful at it, though. I often need a reason.
I’m not sure entirely where I’m going with this, but these things come to mind when I think about your letter. Whenever I’m confronted with the seeming futility of writing, I try to hold on to these ideas: 1) If you entertain yourself, you’ll eventually entertain an audience. You might be surprised on how small that audience actually needs to be in order to feel fulfilled. 2) You have to do and share work, sometimes for free, but more importantly, sometimes for no good reason. 3) Words matter and you’re only a hobbyist if you call yourself one.
Thanks again for writing.