One of the really great things about being a novelist is having a writing group. I couldn't function without mine. Really. Oh, sure, I need absolute peace and quiet and solitude for the actual writing part, but if I'm not writing for someone to read, I just don't write. I need to have an audience in mind. Someone has to actually read this stuff other than me.
A member of my group recently posted a question to our top-secret page where we share tips, ideas, problems, and insight with each other. (No, I won't tell you where. Don't ask.) The question accompanied a long excerpt from another writer, and was essentially, what does this mean: Writing may start out as self-serving (kind of like an emotional eruption or first-time therapy session), but in order to achieve any level of greatness, a writer will have to detach from her personal interest and begin to look at the bigger picture.
Great question, and it relates to my second paragraph: literature of all kinds is a relationship between a reader and a writer. There has to be both, or else the writing isn't literature.
Do I hear some of you saying, huh? Isn't it possible to "just write for myself?"
You can, but not if you want to write well.
Some people say the difference between a writer and an author is publication (usually traditional). I disagree. I think the writer becomes an author when he opens the dynamic of his writing beyond himself to include the reader, regardless of his publishing status.
I'm wholly supportive of independent and small-press publishing, but I'm also the first to say, there's a lot of utter crap out there. Well-intentioned, earnest, eager crap. Yes, there are "novels" full of typos, historical anachronisms, unresearched "facts," wretched dialogue, and even more wretched plot - but those are all symptoms of the abrogation of the basic tenet: the reader is missing from the equation. The writer was writing for himself.
The self is a construction of limitations. When we human beings are babies, we have no concept of the self as a thing separate from other people. There is only ourselves; all people are aspects of our own consciousness. Have you ever listened to a young child scream in frustration because he expects you to understand exactly how he's feeling and what he wants, when you have no clue? If you're a parent, you'll know what I mean. Have you ever had a kid in another room say, "What's that?" and you have to reply, "I have no idea; I can't see what you're looking at?" That's the phenomenon I'm describing.
Over time, the child learns to separate, to make divisions, to construct the self by understanding its limitations ("Oh, I get it. Mommy can't see what I'm looking at). Those limitations come to define the self ("I'm good at singing;" "I'm bad at sports;" "I like toffee;" "I hate being touched;" and so on). By the time people feel the urge to write, they usually have a pretty well-contructed self - just in time to tear it all apart. Eek!
Writers who "write for themselves" are universally bad. Well, not good, at least. I'm sorry, but it's the truth. It's true because of inherent human selfishness: we really don't care very much about other people's problems and issues and loves and hates, at least not nearly as much as we care about our own. They're just not interesting. Now, if you engage my problems and issues and loves and hates… well, now we're talking. Or reading. Get it? I the reader am selfish, too. I want to be at the center of your book, not the sidelines. I want the story to be about me, not you.
In the same way, if the writer doesn't care that his work is full of typos, errors, inconsistencies, bad grammar, awkward phrasing, unnecessary dialogue, weak imagery, and cryptic references because "it's good enough for him," then he's doing the writer's equivalent of a toddler's hissy fit and screaming "I don't care, it's MIIIIINE!" Seriously, I the reader don't have time for that. Disrespect me and the accumulated education, knowledge, and experience I bring to our relationship, and I'll drop you like a dead cat. We're done here.
If the self is about separation from others, the writer must tear down those barriers, or transcend them. They must become invisible, permeable, transparent, or nonexistent. If the writer manages to drill down past self, and keep going, he will eventually encounter a deep vein of universality that he can tap into. And then he transforms himself into an author.
Not writing for yourself is completely apart from writing what you love. The first is selfish, ego-fed, and directed to an audience of one. The second is sharing something incredibly special to you with an audience of unknown size. Maybe hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe millions. And we all learned that sharing is good, right? It may not be easy - in fact, it's damned hard more often that not - but it's the right thing to do, in life and in literature. Both are about putting someone else's needs and desires first in a relationship. When the author shares his passions, his humor, his pet peeves, his intelligence and wit, he is reaching out, building connections. The more universality and accessibility he can employ, the more readers will cross over their own barriers and encounter him, come to trust him, come to love what he loves. Moral of the story: don't feed the ego, feed the audience.
Do you agree? Do you think I'm full of crap? I'd love to hear about it. Peace, y'all.