An old obviousness: If you want to succeed as a writer, you have to write.
Okay, fair enough.
But what about the underlying question? What about the part that says ‘Do you want to succeed as a writer?’
There’s the nub of it. And it has a couple of nubs itself. What does ‘succeed as a writer mean’? And what does ‘want to succeed’ mean?
My newspaper days fixed in my head that I’d be a writer, that I was a writer, that I’d write for a living. And then I left the newspaper world and never found my way into any other world. And never found my way in the writing world either.
I’ve never had an ambition that amounted to anything worth the name ‘ambition’. If you’re ambitious that means you stick your head up, and if you stick your head up you get whacked. That’s what the various worlds I lived in taught me about ambition.
Ambition isn’t just wanting to do something particular. It involves also doing the work that gets you to the culmination of the ambition. And as far as writing goes, I haven’t done that. Writing has been merely a sideline to the playground that is my mind. Not a barren playground, certainly: I’ve written two novels, one for practice, one for real; a number of stories; a bunch of humor; and tons of stuff just for me, like this bit, that sometimes make it into the world.
But here, let’s look at what it takes to write. In the first place you have to write. In the second place you have to write. In the third place you have to write. It’s write all the way down. Pencil to paper. Fingers to keys. Ass to chair. Doesn’t matter if you want to. You have to. The act is all, the act is everything.
I don’t do that. I write in fits and starts.
But now, how about looking at what it takes to ‘succeed’ in writing. How do we define success? How do I define success, more to the point.
The world defines writing success as publication and sales of substantial numbers of books or stories or articles. By publication the world means ‘publishing house’. McGraw-Hill. Random House. And the like. By sales, the world means a lot of sales, a lot of money, enough to merit a lot of recognition and a degree of fame. The world doesn’t mean just making a living writing. A mid-list author isn’t ‘successful’ under the world’s definition. Not a failure, but not successful. That path requires submitting your work to the opinion, and sometimes educated judgment, of a lot of publishing professionals, in competition with infinite tons and tons of writers. Perhaps there is something to be said for the process; perhaps back in the day when writers were fewer and publishing was a different game something could have been said for the process. Today, I think, not so much.
But the world’s definition of success may have to change now that e-publishing is a reality. Although, perhaps not, as epublished authors don’t have the fame aspect of success no matter how much money they make. They don’t get into the newspapers, they don’t get interviewed by the bubbleheads anchoring news programs, they don’t get into the gossip columns. The best may get some moments of Internet fame, or possibly transit over to paper publishing. But e-publishing does change the game. Bad writer, good writer, it doesn’t matter – you can publish. The only sieve is the market. And thus publishing no longer marks minimal writing success. Sales are the mark now.
But I can’t say I’m happy with any of those definitions of success. I need to decide what success is, means, to me. How do I define success, and what do I have to do to consider myself successful as a writer?
Well, I have to write. So far I’m failing that qualification. By ‘write’ I mean not these notes or little blurbs at Facebook (been away a week today). At a minimum I mean blog posts, but not just any blog post. I mean something considered, something organized in language to make a point or create an effect. Broadly, by ‘write’ I mean attempting consciously to organize thoughts into words, sentences, and paragraphs that communicate specific thoughts, emotions, ideas, to a reader somewhere out there in the vast.
In practical terms, I mean sitting at a desk with a keyboard or a pad and pencil and putting words on paper with the aim of creating, at the finish, perhaps in the first draft, perhaps after several drafts, an organized set of words, sentences, and paragraphs that create an effect in a reader.
But there’s more to it. I encompass in the meaning of ‘write’ the act of writing regularly. Every day. As if at a job. Writing every day is how skyscrapers get built, how cities get built, how civilizations get built. It must be a habit, an organized habit.
In fact, I might go so far as to define success as a writer as simply doing that, as simply writing every day in an organized way, at such and such a time and at such and such a place, or at different times and different places as suits one’s personality, but in any event every day, seeking to create an organized piece of writing that creates an effect in a reader.
The real battle, the real conquest, the real success, is the battle against oneself, the conquest of oneself: win that war and you can consider yourself a success.
So where does that leave me?
I am left feeling unarmed and out of shape. And stuck with the question, ‘Why write?’
That’s a personal question. It is always a personal question. Some claim they have to write, that it is an obsession, if you will. Some claim they write for money, period. Some claim to write to give the world their message. Some claim to write simply to entertain, their readers or themselves. Some claim to write to excise old wounds or exorcise old ghosts. Likely there exist nearly as many reasons to write as there are writers.
So, what’s mine?
I could run over the usual reasons people give. Some would more or less fit, maybe some times and not other times, and to other degrees of more or less.
But the root of it all, down deep in the dirt of my self, comes to this: I like to move people. I like to batter a reader’s emotions. If my reader is not emotionally involved in a range of feeling from intense concentration to prolonged, outright bawling or laughter, I’ve done something amiss. And I know exactly why I’m that kind of writer. And no, I won’t tell you. That’s my little secret, all the more so because the only ones who were there at the time are dead.
In the end writing is not complicated. Write, or write not. There is nothing in the middle. Aristotle, 1: Yoda, 0. Or vice-versa. But there’s nothing relative about it, no matter which universe you are. Write or write not. One means success, the other means not not success. I’m the only one who cares what I do, and I think that is the hardest part about writing.