…if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited.” – Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, (Bantam Books, CA, 1992), page 4.
For a long time this has been one of my favorite quotes. Certainly, there are times when the writing is challenging, when I am not able to muster such zest and fun for the work that needs to be done — but when I step back and give myself a moment, I find that it is still there. The love, the gusto. It is there because writing is a part of my lifeblood.
I write because I have to. Simple (and complex) as that. It is a part of who I am. I want to say, “It is a part of who I am, as much as breathing and eating and sleeping.” But that’s not true. If I stopped breathing, or eating, or sleeping, I would die. If I stopped writing I’m sure I wouldn’t be as pleasant a person to be around (because my writing does improve my mood, I’m pretty sure). If I stopped writing I don’t know what would happen, but I would still love to do my research, I would still want to tell people about my thoughts, and those stories would still live in my mind (I just might spend a LOT more time staring off into space). But I wouldn’t die. So, perhaps more honest would be to say that writing is a part of me, like reading, like dancing, like music, like good friends, laughter, and the occasional good cry. It is something that I embrace, that enriches my being, and that I struggle to imagine what life would be like without it.
I know that, at the core of it, I write for myself. Sometimes this is obvious, like the journals and diaries that I’ve been keeping sporadically since I was a child — I’d be mortified if anyone ever read those. Just like some people think best when they are speaking out-loud, and others need complete silence, I find that I usually am able to best sort out my thoughts when I have a pen on the page. It can be cathartic, it can comfort, it can stir me to action, and it can help me ask questions in new ways that provide clarity.
And, ultimately, my fiction writing is for myself. I write because I have an urge to write. But, to be honest, I don’t think that it is honestly enough to say that I write for myself. I’d love to. Really. I’d love to fully embrace the idea that all I write is ultimately for me, and that I don’t care what might come of it. But that would be a lie. Because, when you get down to it, I do care. If I were writing simply for myself, then when the story stops cooperating, or I end up facing a blank page with absolutely no ideas, I would stop. I’m stubborn, but I’m not that stubborn. Why go through the heartache, headaches, and pain of trying to push a story that is stuck if it’s just for me?
And for that matter, if I am really writing just for myself, then why even put the stories on the page? There are plenty of plots, characters, situations, and complete multi-volume epic tales that have played through my mind but never gone any further than that. If the writing was completely for me, I would probably let even less of them pour to the page, because the moment I start to structure the story in pen and ink, or type on the computer, it is shifting the tale. There is an instant distance imposed, because in my mind the story is a part of me, and I am fully immersed, but on the page I am no longer the main character. I start to think about things like overarching plot structures, character consistency, continuity in locations, how others might relate to this main character, and asking the question, “Who is my audience?”
Because that question is important. Knowing the audience informs so much of what you do. The same is true for academic papers, of course — am I writing for a group of scholars in the field, am I writing for the casual “armchair academic” (who may know far more about a particular piece than anyone), am I writing for someone who potentially knows nothing about the topic, and so on.
The question of audience is the reason that I will never give the same sermon twice. I’ve tried, a few times — and even those were just taking the seed of what I was saying in one sermon and trying to restructure it to fit a different context, keeping some of the language. But every time I’ve done that, I’ve felt like it falls flat. Because each church I talk to, each group, and each moment, is different. So the message I’m trying to convey in one moment, to one group, is not going to hold up to another. It wont hold the same meaning, it wont speak to the reality of the moment, and it wont be authentic. There are, certainly, preachers that re-use sermons with minimal adjustment, and some of them are quite good. It’s just not my personal style. And I wonder if some of that isn’t because of being steeped in fiction writing for so long. Audience is so important.
For fiction I had always known that, even if I felt I was writing for myself, I had to keep in mind audience. Inside jokes would be hilarious for my friends, but a stranger reading it (or, say, a teacher), wouldn’t necessarily get it. If I want my work to be read by children, the language needs to be accessible to children. If I am aiming for a YA audience, I need to approach it in a certain way. If I am writing for readers of Fantasy stories, I need to have some fantasy elements — or have a clear reason that there are not (which, really, would make them present through absence).
So, yes, I write for myself. I write because I love it, because I feel good when I manage to put the words together in a way that I like, or that makes sense. I write because I have this enthusiasm for writing and reading, and want to contribute in some way. I write because it provides a legacy — it is something of myself that I am putting out into the world. So, yes, I write for myself.
But also, I write because I like the idea of others reading what I have to say. I write because I want to share my thoughts. I write in the hopes that maybe someone else will agree with me, or disagree and start a discussion. I write fiction because I feel the stories that make it out of my head and onto the page are worth sharing. I write sermons because I have something to say, and I want to connect with people at a deeper spiritual/religious/thoughtful level. I write because I want to provoke others to think, to reflect, to ask questions. I write because I find the topics I research amazingly interesting, and full of realities that stretch far beyond their historical context. I write because I am sorting my thoughts, and want to help move myself to deeper understandings — or at least more questions (I’m a fan of questions). I write because of love: love of the words, love of the everyday poetry of language, love of escaping reality for moments of adventure, love of dreaming. I write seeking out understanding, truths, and questions. I write to explore the mystery of us, this world we live in, and the ways that we interact.
Who do you write for? And, if you do other art, who is at the core of that? And why — I suppose that is more the real question here. Why do you practice your art. Because if you are writing, like Bradbury says, with love, and zest and gusto — if you are writing, or practicing your art, because you love it, and you can’t not do it — then I suppose the question of, “who” doesn’t matter so much. It’s something to consider, to keep in mind as far as audience, but the deeper reasons for the work are what really matter.