“I Write Only For Myself” – A Wise Philosophy? by Paul Saevig

We’ve all heard this sentiment, or its close relatives. “I write for myself. I am my only audience. I write to please myself only. I am my only critic and consumer. If anyone else enjoys what I write, that’s a happy coincidence.”

I heard or read an author say this the other day. It might have been Sarah Vowell, or Carrie Fisher or Alice Sebold. No matter. It’s a popular idea. Yet I’ve never known a published writer in any field except poetry who actually writes this way. That includes novelists and short story writers, essayists and critics in all genres and forms, screenwriters, teleplay writers, radio writers, speech writers, medical writers, pharmacology writers, marketing writers, public relations writers, and technical writers.

The reason is simple. We don’t pay ourselves for writing. Other people do. Therefore, we have to serve and please them. We want to communicate with readers, too. That’s simple enough, isn’t it? Communicating only with oneself must be tiresome, or even autistic. Nevertheless, the idea lingers among many writers of fiction that perhaps the best way to go is forget everyone else and write something that pleases an individual, you, only.

After all, many writes claim to do it this way. One of them is a successful science fiction and fantasy writer I’ve known for almost forty years. Another is a literary novelist whose novels are now published in twenty-eight languages. A third is a historical novelist who recently published her ninth novel. By the end of the 1920s, William Faulkner had such spotty luck getting his work published, with weak sales, that he decided to write one more novel exactly as he wanted, for his own pleasure. It became Absalom, Absalom, generally regarded as his masterpiece.

I think he told the truth, too. But let’s break it down. Along the continuum of doing what you want, we find anarchic abandon and complete solipsism at one end. That is, a writer may be so narcissistic that her work is readily intelligible only to herself. We’ve seen some experiments at this extreme, and some would cite James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake as an example. When he was alive, though, it was commonly known that Joyce wrote that book and maybe some of his others for consumption by a dozen or fewer intellectuals. That’s probably about as close to writing only for yourself that you can do successfully. Of course, the book is canonical now, even though few readers get all the way through it. Indeed, in a sense of narrative, maybe no one can get through it, and that may not be the primary point of it.

On the other end of our continuum, we see writers who are so conformist and derivative as to be bland, colorless, tasteless, and practically invisible. I’m loath to cite examples, but suffice it to say, this is hardly good writing. We often find it, for example, among “novelizations” quickly cobbled together as “based” on popular movies or television programs. Such a writing represents nothing at all of the author’s intentions, except execution of what she perceives that “readers want”.

I believe it’s always dangerous to assume readers want something highly specific that can be formatted and executed in the manner of a biscuit or an ironing board. In the same way, it’s virtually impossible to lasso a current event and explore public inter3est in it through a novel. Only an extraordinary gifted writer, or a team of writers, can do that, even one tenth of the time.

As proof, I offer the exceptionally high rate of failure in American television networks that spend millions on programming departments, focus groups, surveys, polls, and other means to determine what viewers will watch in the greatest numbers and with greatest regularity. Approximately four out of five new shows, at the very most, survive their first months and turn a profit with advertisers. The same is true of movies and books, and the truer number might be one out of ten, or fifteen. In fact, for the last thirty years, since “The Godfather”, “American Graffiti”, “The Exorcist”, “Jaws”, “Towering Inferno”, “Star Wars”, “Close Encounters”and “Animal House”, American studios and producers have almost all relied on hugely successful movies – called “home runs” – to pay for the lesser movies that attract smaller audiences. This phenomenon occurs in publishing and music as well.

Good writing, I submit, occupies our continuum between these extremes. We all have somewhat different concepts of what good writing is, but most of us would agree it involves a high level of interest, a strong availability of identification for the reader, a subject of importance, enjoyable characterization, compelling human stories, fineness of writing, a reader perception of significance to his life, verisimilitude, lifelike dialogue, a strong degree of compactness, and in some way, an investigation of truth, whatever the writer may believe it to be and therefore convinces us.

That doesn’t sound like an order any writer would likely undertake simply to please himself, does it? Although it is common for writers to learn about themselves and life from the process of writing, probably more in journals and biography, the learning probably does not justify the exquisite agony and difficulty of writing a good novel, from conception of an idea through to hearing how readers react to it, whether one or many years later. It’s not an enterprise someone is likely to complete without a desire to communicate beyond oneself.

I’m sure Faulkner and my writer friends knew this. By saying they wrote for themselves, they meant choosing stories, characters, themes, settings, and scenes of strong interest to them. That they are trying to appeal to readers – that is, find a market or a readership – is implicit in what they do. In Faulkner’s case, he had a complex vision of humanity and an unusual way of expressing it, which he elected to persevere with, despite his previous marginal success, because it was worth the effort to him and he wanted to communicate it. He did not write novels to remain on the shelves of his home, unread by anyone else. Who does?

Every unpublished writer should understand the continuum described above, and why the wise course is almost invariably somewhere in the middle. When I described all the best qualities of a good novel. certainly not every kind of novel or short story was included. Escapism or as it was formerly called, pulp fiction, is obviously legitimate, too, as something people read for pleasure primarily, and possibly for no other purpose. Books in this category had better be entertaining to someone beyond the writer, hadn’t they?

If a writer is motivated to reach as far as she can in the direction of the acknowledged greatest writers – from Richardson or Defoe to Rushdie, Murakami and Kingsolver, let’s say, in our current era – she must deliver writing with all these virtues, as best she can. In other words, her writing must please people who require that specific values of excellence be met.

There is no escaping it, finally. Write only to please yourself if you please, but if you’d like to see your books published and read as widely as possible, craft them to please, entertain, and fulfill reader interests. It’s not easy at all, but trying one’s best is the fun of it. Unless a writer enjoys writing to a spectacular degree, he’s in the wrong profession, even if his books sell by the millions. As Dorothy Parker once said, “Writing is easy. You put a blank piece of paper into your typewriter and wait until drops of blood pop out of your forehead.”

Copyright Paul Saevig 2002

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