Monday Motivation: Filthy lucre and perhaps a touch of glory
I found myself embroiled in a conversation the other day about that most intractable of writers’ problems: getting published. It’s a fraught subject. Behind the question of publication, though, lies a motivational minefield. Let’s tiptoe in…
Do we write because we feel compelled to write, to conjure on the page a world full of characters that we’ve imagined into existence for the sheer exhilaration of the thing?
Or do we write for the projected satisfaction of seeing a book on our shelf with our name emblazoned on its spine?
The first is by way of being a transcendent experience, yes? It’s as close as we’ll ever get to possessing god-like properties, able to command entire worlds into being, to direct the destinies of proudly autonomous characters, capable of engineering love affairs, deaths and births.
The second is simply an ego-driven impulse…
Even worse, of course, is a crass commercial motive, right? Those writers whose eyes are fixed not on the opening stanzas of their creations, but on the bottom line, are motivated not by dreams of creation, or even of tawdry self-glorification – but by the promise of a cheque in the post, or, much more likely in our paperless age, a bank transfer.
Thing is, the greatest writers of every age wrote for both glory, and cold hard cash. Dostoyevsky famously wrote all his novels, including his masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov, to feed his gambling addiction.
But the desire to be published is an essential element of any writing project*. We write in order to be read. We possess a perhaps unfounded belief that our constructions and inventions will in some way help – or inform, or amuse, or entertain – others. And behind that assumption lies the belief that the way we see the world is worth sharing. (The fact that this is an unprovable assumption accounts for our frequent bouts of imposters’ syndrome.)
Would I be willing to spend months of mental toil without the carrot of possible publication? Possibly not – although perhaps I’d take a leaf from Emily Dickinson’s book. She published only ten of the 1800 poems she wrote. On the other hand, she shared much of her work with her large community of epistolary friends. She might not have sought publication, but she definitely needed readers.
That sense of being read, though, is critical, isn’t it? It’s the touch in the darkness, the voice in the void, the reassurance that we’re not alone, that our concerns, however apparently idiosyncratic, are shared.
Which brings me on to a final point, and one which was made with great force by a number of writers, at this year’s London Book Fair. Traditional publication is not the only way of attracting readers. What’s increasingly being called “independent publishing”, what used to be called self-publishing, can, if you’re willing to acquire a fresh set of skills, and are happy to devote some of your time to marketing, generate not only an enthusiastic congregation of readers – but also a little filthy lucre.
Happy (and lucrative) writing,
* There are some notable exceptions to this generalisation. J.D. Salinger, whose case I’ve quoted before, burned his literary output every day on a bonfire at the bottom of his garden. Still, he’d already reaped fame and fortune with Catcher in the Rye and a handful of other works. Perhaps he felt that his subsequent writing simply wasn’t up to the standard he’d set for himself? Silly man.