It's different to be on the other side of those opinions. It's been a strange life since I began writing professionally, and if I said the wonder and joy of creating wasn't fraught with danger and pitfalls, I'd be lying. There is a strange sense of being not-quite-real when you write about imaginary people. As Scott Fitzgerald put it, "Writers aren't people exactly. Or, if they're any good, they're a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person." The severe self-examinations that lead to examining the lives of characters to make them more real can be, in its most dangerous incarnation, a form of creative self-harm. Why did I do that? What was I hoping to achieve? What happened to me to make me react in such a way to that event? These are all good questions which humans can use to better themselves, but when you find yourself asking yourself what your motivations are for choosing chicken instead of fish, you know you've gone a bit too far down your own rabbit hole.
The hard part of any sort of public life, of course, is to weigh carefully the things that we must hold dear, and to reject that which is harmful. The things about writing that I keep close are the beauty of creation, the satisfaction in bringing people to life who did not exist before, the joy of carving into the pure prose of a rough draft and coming out with something gorgeous and very much its own entity. Admittedly, there is a bit of the holy in any kind of writing, and we all revel a bit in our chance to play God. Creation, destruction, rebuilding, these are the tools of the trade. So when you think a writer is being a bit obtuse, a little out-of-the-real-world, try to remember that we do not live in the real world by design. Forgive us our trespasses and acts of doltish pride, we know not what we do. And when we know what we do, we are usually wrong.
But I digress.
Now on to the things to reject, for they are many. Here, I only speak for myself, but perhaps it may strike a note that many will recognize, and even better, more may see and understand. Writers are essentially artists, and as such, we are sensitive to things which may seem mundane and silly to others. We must see the world as children, in order to be able to describe absolutely ordinary things with succinct precision and enthusiasm. Something I've learned to avoid are reviews of my work (though they are always immensely appreciated). It is none of my business if someone did not like a book, and writers should stay well enough out of the conversation. It's difficult enough to write a story, and when you bring debate over the color of curtains into the mix, it is absolutely none of our business whether someone finds symbolism in that. We make the art, we do not get to dictate what readers get from it.
This could be a blog post purely on the things in the world we would do well to reject. But to avoid that sort of negative laundry list style of writing, I will only say this: WRITING IS HARD WORK. That's all you need to know. It is hard enough to craft a novel, to feel a story blooming in your chest and eyes and belly and to pull it out thread by shining thread. It is hard enough to spend your days banging away on a keyboard or scratching away on paper for no other reason than to develop your writing voice. It is hard enough to plot out a story that didn't exist before, to spend weeks, months, years sketching a barely passable rough draft, to spend weeks, months, years revising said words until something like a book emerges. One can spend their entire life on simply thinking about one story, and yet most of us who try to eke out a living at it are lucky enough and hardworking enough to grant themselves multiple stories, dozens sometimes. Hundreds, even. It is hard enough to do all of this. And what I mean by this, my long-awaited point that I'm trying to make, is this: It is enough. It is enough to write, to make stories, to fill the world with something that didn't exist before.
It is enough, and you are enough for doing it.
I spent years feeling inadequate, years beating myself up for all the things I tried to do but failed. For all the things I was ill-equipped to learn, that I did not have the time or energy or capacity to do. I should be many more things, I thought. I should be able to successfully market my books, I should be successful at proofreading and editing and artistic representations of the stories. I should be able to do this or that, I shouldn't be only one thing. And yet, none of it was true or valid. It's great if you can be everything, but in truth, it sounds exhausting. Ever since I was a child, I knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be good at. And do you think at any point I dreamed of advertising or catchphrases or ROIs? Good Lord, no. I wanted to write, and so that is what I set out to do. By all rights, I've already achieved my childhood dream, and yet, even now, I beat myself up for what I cannot do. It's hurtful and without merit, and it has nothing to do with me, just as someone's criticism of my body of work has nothing to do with me. If we as writers focused half as much on craft as we do on our desperate clutching at algorithms and promotions, can you imagine the beauty we'd bring to the world? If we didn't care about agents or sales and clutched as desperately at our art instead of our pockets, the world would become infinitely brighter, exponentially more gratifying and full of exquisite, eloquent words.
Yes, writers are poorly paid and widely taken for granted. I do not offer a solution to that problem. Perhaps what is needed is an entirely new system. The readers are there. The readers want more. But if we are only writing what we believe they can handle, we are doing them a terrible disservice. Perhaps what is needed is a revolution of the soul, perhaps we should boycott rehashed plots and two-dimensional character, eschew the old in favor of the new, reject the tired tropes for the shining threads that burn in our hearts and brand themselves in our minds. And, at last, perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. After all, instead of asking "Why don't we write the fire in our hearts until it burns the very paper it's printed on?" it is far more democratic to make a statement. "I will write the fire in my heart until it burns the very paper it's printed on."
In the name of our craft and our art, I urge you to do the same in the coming year, in this brave new world, in the living dystopia where beauty, truth and wisdom are so, so terribly needed. Do not practice creative self-harm. You are enough, we are enough. Being gifted at one thing is not a failure, it is absolutely rare. We cannot be everything, and we cannot bear to be required to account for the revolutionary act of feeling pride for our art, for our calling. Because no one sets out to be a writer, rather writing finds you. It calls to you with its siren song, and if the calling is real, you won't want to hear any other songs. You will sway and dance to that song until the end of your days, and feel privileged to so. Being called to a purpose has never been an easy life. Indeed, writing is a bit like becoming a monk as we reject the outside world for what we know shines within us. So too, there is a reverence that must be adapted, a respect for the words and whatever forces that leave the stories lying around, to be picked up by those who can see them, polished, and turned into something tangible.
You are a writer. You are not a writer. You are already many things, so loving only one thing, knowing only one thing is almost overkill. Being gifted is enough, and so are you. I would even argue that you are more than enough. You are the light that the world needs most right now, and all you have to do is shine.
J.L. Murray is the author of thirteen novels, including Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Blood of the Stars, and Monstrous. She lives in Eugene, Oregon with her family and a growing menagerie of pets. She can be reached through her website at JLMurrayWriter.com, her Facebook page, and on Twitter.