Saturday, October 15, 2011

In the Pudding

This morning I went to the library to look for a book about writing. I have been struggling a little lately with the idea of conflict, and how big or small it can be, and whether it is the engine driving the story or just another structural element. I thought surely someone had written a book about conflict in fiction writing and that I could find it at the Bowie library.

There were quite a few shelves of books about writing, but no books devoted to conflict. I did find and take home a few books that looked worthy, including a book called The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass, a prominent literary agent. I read the introduction this afternoon while procrastinating, and I found this:
The more I see, the more I feel that novelists fall into two broad categories: those whose desire is to be published, and those whose passion is to spin stories. I think of these as status seekers and storytellers
Three pages follow that elaborate on this concept, and I started to feel smaller and smaller as I read on. I wish I could quote it all.
Storytellers look not to publishers to make them successful, but to themselves. ...Which type of fiction writer are you? Really? I believe you, but the proof is in your passion and whether or not it gets on the page. 
This leads me to some uncomfortable thoughts. I had always thought that the reason I was obsessed with getting published was so I could write in comfort; once I proved myself, once I made enough of a profit on my words to be able to devote myself to words full-time, I figured, I would be able to do writing that I loved without worry that it wouldn't be published. Yet so many writers advise that being published isn't the satisfactory conclusion that you think it'll be. They say that you then worry about sales, about promotion, about reviews. That you feel just as precarious as before, if not more so, because whether or not you can even write, much less sell, your next book is now the overriding concern.

So now I wonder if perhaps you never write in comfort (unless you're Stephen King). If instead you continue to work and suffer and get rejected and stumble into the unknown room, sentence by sentence, and you have to just keep working and worrying and stumbling. If you do, if that's your fate as a writer, then why obsess so hard over publishing, as if it's the answer? Why am I doing that?

My mother tried to tell me a few weeks ago that I should write because I love it, instead of writing with an end in mind. I thought that it was easy for her to say, because a) she is quite brilliant and successful at her brand of writing and b) if I don't publish, I can't do this thing for a living. Doing this thing for a living is my goal, and I thought perhaps she doesn't realize that and was telling me to write for the love of it because that was all I could expect to get out of it.

But Donald Maass, who is writing to the audience wanting to do this thing for a living, is advising essentially the same thing: be a storyteller. If you tell stories you love, you will find success; if you build it, they will come. It is so hard for me to buy this, because there's so much about publishing that seems left to wild chance, so much that seems to require you to game the system even while you're putting expert and deeply felt words onto the page. It's a world that seems both authentic - just send us good writing, we really don't care about anything else - and highly suspect - but if you know somebody who's somebody's uncle, eh, we'll put your crummy book in print, whatever. Where's the truth of it?

I want to tell good stories, stories from my deepest self, that I know will be successful. Does that make me a status-seeker, a storyteller, or some hybrid of both? I believe in the book I'm writing now, I'm tickled by the premise and I like working with the characters. But when it's finished I intend to shop it to genre markets because I think that's the area with greatest potential for profit for this book. Am I a mercenary? I also want to publish, slightly, for the "I'll show 'em all" reason, all the people who rejected me or bullied me or did damage to my psyche over the years. I know this is a petty and stupid reason, but I won't deny it; nor do I believe it really influences the way I'm telling the stories I'm telling. Does this nevertheless put me in the status seeker column?

I guess worrying too much about my motivations keeps me from putting words on the page, which is really the most important thing. I just can't figure out where the limit of this problem might be, if that's the reason that I haven't gotten a foothold yet, or if it's just the gap:

The difference between the quality of my work the last time I was writing regularly, and the quality of my work now, is so staggering that I'm pretty sure it's the gap. I'm pretty sure that I need to keep writing and keep submitting and that the years lived in between will not have been wasted effort. All the silly blogging and all the dreaming and all the finding out I've done, all these things will show in the work on the page. But I can't help feeling it's all for nothing if I can't find success that enables me to do more writing, and Maass's perspective has given me serious pause.

No comments: