I have often said I write for myself. What exactly do I mean by this? Is it realistic for me to write for myself, yet still hope others will enjoy it?
When I say I write for myself, I mean I write for enjoyment, catharsis, expression, and discovery, not just to deliver a product that is pleasing to others. Moreover, the spirit, the content, the emotions, and the style have to come from me even if critics oppose my work.
At times my policy of writing for myself is tested and I have to ask myself it I am serious. Whether the challenge comes from editors, trolls, or parents, my promise to myself is to remain uncompromising when I believe strongly in something I have written.
I do sometimes seek criticism for my writing in case I have blind spots due to being to close to my work, but seeking feedback is about seeing what may be unclear; it is not about relieving my insecurities by having others tell me what to fix. If I try to please everyone, I will ultimately please no one. What unifies my stories is me.
However, last week I learned that some people, without even having read your story or knowing its content, believe that if your mom disapproves of something you have written, you should change it. I had blogged that my mom had disapproved of a scene in my new novel Paw and to some readers that was reason enough to un-publish my book and take it before a critique group for trouble-shooting.
Changing writing I am happy with just because one or more person disapproves of it goes against my writing philosophy, which is that I only write prose that excites me and that I would want to read.
My write-what-you-love approach emerged from a personal experience. I have told this story again and again, and I never get tired of telling it because is was one of the few life-changing epiphanies I have ever had. If I ever have another one I will write about it again and again, too, but right now this is all I have.
I have to remind myself of it frequently, because I feel a constant tug in the opposite direction in a world that says to value the opinions of others before your own, to obey the writing authorities, to follow the rules, and to be careful not to offend your mom.
My experience happened years ago, a case of block that began right after a severe manic episode. A depression followed. My thoughts and feelings seemed to happen in slow motion. I slept twelve hours a day. I barely recognized my own mind
Numbed by bipolar medication, I thought I would never enjoy writing again, but writing was too important to me to surrender without a fight, so I tried writing anyway.
I would force myself to sit at a computer each day for a set number of hours, horrified by my seeming inability to conjure an original thought. As I wrote I imagined snarky critics looking over my shoulder They had annoyingly big vocabularies. “Mawkish, self-indulgent, and shoddily constructed,” they said. “Cloyingly sentimental. The literary equivalent of skim milk.”
These comments emerging from my own mind overwhelmed me. Drowning in them, I tried to remember the last time I had enjoyed writing.
I remembered how, when I used to write, my mind would sometimes scintillate with ideas. There would be a feeling of writing the masterpiece of all masterpieces, and even after I left my story, for the rest of the day, in the shower, on the elliptical cycle, or cleaning the house, I would write in my head, imagining all the exciting possibilities, every idea bursting with epic potential and raw passion.
Now there was no such reward. My medication had apparently drained me of all creative thoughts. Nothing seemed to exist except what was right in front of me. Look. A chair. Oh, I know. I’ll write, “she sat down in a chair.” Drat. Why isn’t this working?
The act of writing felt like placing my hand on a hot burner and seeing how long I could hold it there, knowing the smoky residue of despair would continue even long after I removed it.
Paralyzed by fears of ridicule I would sometimes wonder wistfully what I might be able to accomplish if my fear of failure and criticism fell away.
On one writing day, I could take no more. I stopped writing. I shut my laptop. I closed my eyes. At that moment it seemed ridiculous that I was subjecting myself to mental torture every day with so few results. For all my efforts, I was getting nowhere. For all the time I was using to torture myself, I could have been doing something I enjoyed like playing Banjo-Kazooie on my Nintendo 64.
In my mind, I gave up. At first came relief, a yielding, a bitter-sweet sigh of resignation. Maybe it is like that when you are dying and you have accepted that you are about to take your final breath, and you console yourself with reassurances: No more suffering, no more worrying.
But the equivalent of my final breath never came. It was arrested by a forgotten voice, an echo from my childhood. With it came a kind of puerile temper tantrum, a stubborn refusal to listen to any more authorities, a scorn of regimentation, and a disdain for critics. I sensed that because of them I had lost something priceless.
As a bullied kid, writing had been my refuge, the place I could go to be myself without risking ridicule, the one place where I had full control. Somehow that feeling of power and freedom had eroded over the years as I had learned that writing was a chore I did for teachers, and that if I were lucky, writing might someday become something I did for editors.
I remembered it now, my boundless childhood curiosity, my exuberant horror stories, my point-of-view studies of animals, the festive feeling of beginning a new tale, the fun of dreaming on the page, the wild experimentation, and the magnificent power – the ability to create a world and have full control over it.
Where had all of that gone? Years of school had instilled the common belief that writing was about pleasing others, that it was a game with rules which had already been written and which I was obligated to obey. Creativity had withered after I had been taught that I owed deference to teachers, publishers, editors, and critics, and that I must be careful never to offend or disturb them.
Back in the present, my feeling was, hell no, this ends now. I wanted to go back to writing the way I had as a child before fears of ridicule and offending had paralyzed me. I was not in school anymore. I was not writing for a boss. I had absolutely nothing to lose by writing however and whatever I chose, whether it was trite, silly, sentimental, or self-indulgent.
I promised myself that from then on I would write what I liked. I would write for myself. I wrote on a sheet of paper “the freedom to write without fear of criticism, the freedom to make mistakes, the freedom to explore the way I did when I was twelve.” I put the sheet of paper in a box and adorned it in colorful wrapping paper, my gift to myself. I did not know if I would ever make money writing, or if I would ever write anything others would enjoy.
But at the time none of that mattered. I gave the stifled ten-year-old in me the permission to have fun writing whatever she wanted, no matter how silly, self-indulgent, offensive, or trite. Even “flat” writing was allowed; I would no longer beat myself up over it.
Little by little I began to enjoy writing again. My imaginary critics stood back and gave me space. Creating felt magical.
I went from being completely blocked to being fairly prolific. Since then I have written a 600 page novel, three story anthologies, a book on creative recovery, and hundreds of blog posts.
After beginning my blog, I began to receive a lot of praise for my writing; as a general rule, when I wrote what I loved, there were others who loved it too. Most recently I published my novel Paw, which contained the scene my mom had disliked.
Usually writing what I love moves readers too, but not always. When applause fails to come, when shaming blindsides me, am I still serious when I say I write for myself? Would I continue to write for myself if no one approved, ever?
The answer I always come back to is, yes. I would miss praise if I had to let it go, but for me writing is an end in itself. Feeling hopelessly blocked was the worst experience of my life.
To dig myself out of it I had to sacrifice the approach that passes for common sense, one that mandates writing to please others. This “common sense” makes no sense, however. Because writing is subjective, changing my writing to please one person may ruin it for another.
As an artist, I cannot afford to become a slave to anyone with a strong opinion; otherwise, there is no artist, no self at the center of my work; the product ends up being design by committee.
I did not go back to search for something wrong with my novel Paw as one commenter had suggested. I made no changes. I had already revised and edited it painstakingly. I had only published it when I was happy with it.
Instead, I wrote something new to remind myself of why I write, something fun; I lost myself in creative exploration, got caught up the rhythms of words., remembering the advice of Ray Bradbury: “Write what you love and love what you write.”
A week after my decision to keep my offending scene, my brother called and said he had finished my book.
I tensed. My brother has been critical of my writing in the past, and even though I write for myself, criticism still feels like an electric shock sometimes. I hesitated to1 ask what he thought.
But he volunteered. “I loved it,” he said.
I released the breath I had been holding. But I had to ask about the scene my mom had disliked. “It didn’t ruin the book for you?” I asked
“Not at all,” he said. “I was amazed at how well-written it was. I was completely immersed and I had trouble putting it down. I got a little mad at you though. I was seeing all the action through the eyes of your character, identifying with her so much, and suddenly she was doing something I would never do, yet I felt just as sad as if I was doing it myself, and the reason is that your writing was so good, I was totally caught up in it. I was really, really impressed.”
Beaning despite myself, I asked, “How do you think it compared to my first novel?”
“It’s been so long. I remember really liking and enjoying that one. But I don’t remember if I loved it. This one I kind of did.”
While I am committed to writing for myself regardless of the response, the compliment made my mood soar. Apparently I have not entirely freed myself from the dread of criticism or the honeyed shackles of praise, and perhaps I never will.
But for as long as I live, I will never stop striving to write what I love, whether anyone approves of it or not.
If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my story collection “Remembering the Future” is available for purchase on Amazon.