by Alec Nevala-Lee
Writers are often asked if they write for themselves or for others. In some ways, it’s a meaningless question: most authors wouldn’t have chosen such an uncertain profession if they didn’t obtain personal satisfaction from the process itself, and it’s impossible for a published author to completely ignore the problem of what other people will think. (This can range from writing with a large popular audience in mind to trying to please a particular agent or editor.)
Still, you can tell a lot about a writer from where he or she claims to fall on the spectrum. I’ve noted before that some authors write largely to express their own inner thoughts, while others, like me, use it as an excuse to explore the world and experience lives other than their own. And although one category shades imperceptibly into the other, I’d argue that these classifications are still meaningful, if only because they influence the small, specific, daily choices that an author makes about structuring the writing life.
In my case, I learned long ago that to the extent I write for myself, it’s because I enjoy the act of writing enough to want to do it every day. My reasons for being a writer are as selfish as they come: it’s the best use of my time I’ve ever found, and I’ve done everything I can to ensure that I do it as much as possible. Paradoxically, this has led me to focus on a kind of fiction that’s specifically geared toward the pleasure of other readers.
It’s never a simple matter to make a living as a novelist, but I’ve concluded, rightly or wrongly, that it’s marginally easier when you’re writing for the mainstream than for a more literary audience: there’s a reason why most literary novelists also teach, which is a way of life that I’ve never found particularly appealing. I’ve also found that I enjoy myself more as a writer when I’m working on an interesting story problem than when I’m engaging in agonized self-exploration. As a result, after a few years when I wasn’t sure which course I wanted to take, I’ve found myself essentially working as a suspense novelist, which I still think was the right choice.
In other words, I write books I hope other readers will enjoy, but only because that’s the mode of writing that makes me happiest. (It’s also possible that my skills are better suited for popular fiction than for literary fiction, which demands reserves of patience, verging on masochism, that I’m not sure I possess.) And although I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience firsthand, I suspect that many of the choices of emphasis a writer makes—of style, plot, subject matter—arise less from purely artistic considerations than from the subjective experience of the writing life.
When you devote six or more hours of each day to writing, not to mention much of your time when you’re away from your desk, you start to think very carefully about what kinds of thoughts you want to carry around in your head. Some writers get enormous satisfaction from obsessively polishing the same handful of sentences; others from cracking tough characters and making them live on the page; and still others from capturing inexpressible elements of their own experience. These are the ones who often seem to be writing for themselves, but no more so, I’d argue, than those who appear to write primarily for others.
I should note that I’m not talking about writing exclusively with an eye to the market, which is an approach that rarely pays off: in a profession in which a writer has little control over anything except how he spends his time, it’s unwise to waste that freedom in pursuing something so elusive as commercial success, which in any case is out of our hands. It’s more a question of getting more pleasure in standing temporarily outside one’s own head than in plunging into it more deeply.
When done with the proper diligence and care, writing for others becomes a particularly satisfying way of writing for yourself: it gives you something like a pure confrontation with craft, as well as a way of becoming someone else—a character, an idea, an ideal reader—for a short time.
Kurt Vonnegut, in his eight rules for writing fiction, says to aspiring writers: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” That’s a good rule for writers of all kinds to follow, and it’s all the more useful when you realize that the first stranger you need to please is yourself.
Guest post contributed by Alec Nevala-Lee. Alec is a novelist, blogger, and freelance writer whose work includes the thrillers The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and Eternal Empire, all published by Penguin Books. Check out his website for more of his work.