Writing Fiction: The Problem of Trying to Please

My college creative writing teacher said he had known a renowned writer who had written a terrible book.

It was so abominable, he said, that anyone in his entire class of beginners could have done much better. It was so bad that my teacher had avoided the writer at a party and refused to speak to him when the writer had offered a greeting. After this, whenever I wrote, I would often remember this story and ask myself, “Is my writing so bad someone would want to avoid me at a party?”

I had found a new way to torture myself. Any time I have ever been blocked, fear of criticism has been the cause – and its corollary: an obsession with pleasing authorities or any reader qualified to judge the worth of writing.

I would often imagine hosts of critics looking over my shoulder as I wrote; I would use my creativity to invent clever sounding phrases attacking my work: A pompous literary abomination; a shoddily constructed plot-line; a rambling, narcissistic manifesto.

   I had noticed, too, how my mood often went into a death spiral as I wrote, rewarding my productivity with pain instead of the creative endorphin buzz I wanted.
     I asked myself why – and discovered that certain thoughts, sneaky bastards, were causing this to happen. They struck quickly, and escaped words. I started trying to “catch” these thoughts in the act of sinking my mood. To trap them, I created a file on my computer; I named it “Therapy.”
   In this file I would write down any discouraging thoughts such as “You writing is trite and boring,” or “You sound pretentious.” Then I would write a counter-argument in my therapy file: This is the rough draft stage. Anything goes here – including pretentiousness and cliches.
     I also made a point to find something good to say about anything I wrote, even if I was unhappy with most of it. An apt metaphor in the second sentence. Great job! This technique significantly altered my writing experience; mood crashes became much less common.
     However, they still happened. I have bipolar disorder, which made them worse when they did occur. After publishing my first novel, I was manically euphoric; then I sank into a bottomless depression. Though I tried to write a new novel, I was severely blocked.
     On a particularly painful writing day, on the verge of giving up forever, I made a decision: I would let go of the idea of pleasing anyone; I would write whatever I wanted, however I wanted to write it; I would write cliches with reckless abandon if the mood struck; I would write absurd things if I wanted; I would write for myself.
     After this, my writing mood crashes stopped. I no longer had to convince myself to write. Because I was fully engaged in what I was doing – and doing it a lot – my writing was better. I even finished my second novel – and then I wrote an e-book about how I did it called A Trail of Crumbs to Creative Freedom, now being edited.
     Regardless of the benefits to me, the idea of writers writing for themselves is not universally accepted. Creative writing – as with most any art – suffers from a strange dynamic. On one hand, the excitement of an idea, the spark of interest, begins with the writer; and yet, the work ultimately exists to be read by others.
     In a sense, writing is not complete until someone reads it. It has a purpose: to inform, to entertain, to instruct, to move emotionally. Until someone reads the work, it can do none of those things. As a result, writers are pushed toward trying to please. They are dependent on validation for success. Writing rises or falls with opinion. The spark of excitement – and the push toward a vision – becomes secondary. Who the writer tries to please varies. Some say to only think of the reader.
     Other fiction writers are obsessed with pleasing publishers. They try to figure out what publishers like and cater to what they want.
     While doing internet research, I came across a writer who advised writing character driven, rather than plot driven, novels. His reason? “Publishers love those.” I strongly agreed with his advice – because character-driven novels usually do make better stories. However, writing one just to please a publisher seemed misguided.
     I cannot imagine writing a novel based on what I think a publisher would like. If I did that, I would return to being chronically blocked. However, it is hard to argue that catering to the reader is unimportant. Still, there is a problem: writers cannot always predict or control what readers will like. If I have written a 300 page novel and it does not sell, what am I left with if I have not at least enjoyed writing it?
     There has to be a touchstone, an obsession, a need to explore – something outside public opinion that drives me. Otherwise, I will either quit or go crazy.
     For me, it is love for the process, the rush of having made a vision real. If I am excited about my novel – if I feel like I own it – it will more likely be good. I will attempt to break new ground instead of clinging to what has already been done. And if it does not sell, at least I have enjoyed writing it.
     I will also be far more likely to write another. However, all of the external pressures push writers away from experimenting, making mistakes to learn, and challenging boundaries. Praise is reinforcing. Criticism hurts. No one wants to risk being “bad.”
      Especially when your prose might cause someone to snub you at a party.
      However, I have decided since my creative recovery that fear of writing a bad book is far worse than writing one, that it is not a valid reason to withhold a greeting. A writer is just someone who strings sentences together. The fate of the world does not usually pivot on a phrase. Writing for yourself rather than trying to please is not a moral crime.
     The final purpose of writing is to be read. However, if I am mainly writing for myself, if I am excited about and fully engaged in what I am doing, my work will be better. I will be more likely to takes risks and learn from mistakes.
      When I do my final revisions, I am thinking about the reader and how it will seem to him – how clear or interesting it is. Does the first sentence contain a hook? Is each paragraph cohesive? Does it flow?
      I am not only writing for myself – but that is where my focus has to be if I am to write well and often. At the end of the creative process, during the final revision, the writing is all about the reader.
      The rest of the time it belongs to me.

15 thoughts on “Writing Fiction: The Problem of Trying to Please

  1. Wow. I have looked over some of the comments on Reddit. I suspected this post might be controversial, but I had no idea that the arguments would take on such religious energy.
    It was fascinating to see what readers had to say.

  2. This is a tricky one, no doubt about it. You want to write a good book but who gets to decide what is good? As writers we want validation yet it can cripple our creative output. We want to be read yet our first audience is ourselves. Writing is full of contradictions. But it seems you've got the right idea. Write what you love. If you don't write from a place of love, of excitement then you won't be able to truly write. And besides, that's what second drafts are for! So write whatever you like and however you like it since you can always change it. I'm not saying being critical of yourself is bad but at a certain point, you just have to let it be.

    Brilliant post!

  3. Oh, I agree tenfold! I am happy you’ve gotten back to enjoying writing again; I have also been through this struggle. It’s so easy to become a people pleaser and therefore either hate or be frustrated with your work, but like you said, finding a balance is good. If we don’t like it, then why does it matter if anyone else does? Your art is your passion.

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