Sometimes, we write what we most need to hear. And this is one of those moments. So pull up a chair and a cup of coffee, because I have something I want to tell you that I need to hear:
A friend was publishing a new story in a new fandom. The fact that she was not getting the readership and the number of comments she wanted was causing her great distress. Her predicament got me thinking.
So often as artists, we base our self-esteem, our value of our own work, on what other people think. The family who surround me, for example, do not view me as a ‘proper’ writer because my work does not come neatly packaged between two cardboard rectangles with the name of a reputable publisher stamped on the back. I do not make money from my work. Therefore I do not ‘work’, and I am not a ‘proper’ writer. I am not a stranger to the humiliation of being told at a family dinner to move over because: ‘There’s a writer at the table’, when another relative, a talented journalist (whose work I greatly admire and whose success I happily delight in, I should point out) arrives to sit down.
At our recent writing retreat, my fellow writers and I had a long and animated discussion about the ever-present problem of how other people react when we tell them what we do. One friend told the horrible anecdote of an acquaintance’s response to the news that she was a writer – ‘Never mind, I’m sure you can get a job at Tesco!’
(I know, right?)
I suspect that writers are second only to actors in the low opinion the public has of our earning power. Either you’re Benedict Cumberbatch or you’re unemployed. This completely ignores the thousands of jobbing actors who make a reasonable, if somewhat precarious, living doing low profile but necessary jobs in voice-overs, radio, small TV parts and rep. Indeed, Benedict Cumberbatch has spent a substantial proportion of his career doing exactly that. (If you watch and listen carefully, you’ll see and hear him pop up all over the place!)
The point I am trying to make is that creative people don’t do it for the money. And if you think that, you have missed the whole point.
Modern society, where success in any endeavour is measured in filthy lucre and TV appearances, clearly has failed to read the memo.
Another friend, who has been a visual artist as well as a writer all her working life, which I suspect helps, responds to the dreaded question about earnings thus: “I don’t do it for the money. I do it because it keeps me sane.”
And that is the point.
Writing is not a performance art.
At least, fiction is not. (Journalism obviously is, and I’m still on the fence about poetry!)
Writing is not about the number of comments or reviews you get. Its not about the number of ‘shares’ on Tumblr. Its not about the number of hits you get in a day. Its not about being published by Harper and Collins, or getting an agent from a top agency, or being on an arts programme on BBC4, or giving author readings, or getting your picture in the paper, or winning the Booker Prize, or making the bestseller lists on Amazon or the Sunday Times, or getting a three book deal, or selling your script to Warners and getting a theme park made out of your book, or making £100k a year.
Writing is not about how many people like you. Its not about applause.
Writing is about making stories.
We do it because we have to. Because we have a compulsion to tell our stories.
I am delighted to tell you that my fanfiction friend soldiered on against the tide with writing and publishing her new fanwork. Over time she accumulated a substantial following, but more importantly has rejoiced in an explosion of creativity, producing more works and excelling in other art forms as a result. And I’m thrilled for her. She is going through a renaissance of creativity because she refused to give up.
“How people receive your gifts is none of your business. You were given a unique set of gifts, life experiences, and passions. Your only job is to share them.”
Rebecca Campbell, ‘Light is the New Black’
When it comes down to it, it does not matter whether family notice that I get over 100 readers a day, a tally that most conventionally published writers could only dream of. (I’m the only person who is hung up about that, after all!) It does not matter whether they read my work. (Actually, I’m quite glad they don’t!) It does not matter whether they like it. It does not matter whether they think I am an idiot not to charge for it. It does not matter how much I earn or don’t earn, or what other people think of that sum. It really doesn’t matter what people I meet at dinner parties think when I tell them what I do.
And really, it doesn’t matter what my audience thinks either.
The point is to make the art.
And to keep making the art.
To keep on speaking my truth.
Because the people who need to hear that truth will find me. And the rest don’t matter.
Or, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it so beautifully:
“If people don’t like what you’re creating, just smile at them sweetly and tell them to GO MAKE THEIR OWN FUCKING ART!”