“Maybe you’re just supposed to write for yourself.”
Every time a well-meaning friend says this to me, something deep inside of me wants either to shake them violently until they understand why I hate that statement or to curl up into a fetal position and give up altogether. Because that’s what it always feels like they’re saying: “Just give up on being published. It’s not going to happen.” I don’t think that’s what they mean, but that’s always the message I get. Granted, the people who say it have never actually read my writing, and they’re certainly not writers themselves.
But here’s why it rankles. Most of the time, art is meant to be shared. Sure, there are deeply personal works of art that are only for the creator. But if an artist paints a masterpiece, does anyone ever tell them to go hide it under their bed? Every time a writer has to shelve a book, it feels like we’re shoving our art under a bed. No one is going to read it now, except the handful of beta readers and critique partners who’ve already read it.
It would be different if writing were a quick and painless process. Yes, writing brings me joy. I love those moments when I get sucked into my story and reach a flow state where words are pouring out of my subconscious, and when I finish, I feel like I’ve just woken up from the most relaxing sleep. I love those times when I figure out the perfect solution to a plot problem or find the ideal symbolism for a theme. But for every time that happens, there’s plenty of times when I have to force the writing. When I sacrifice reading a good book or watching a movie with my family or doing a hundred other valuable things, and the writing feels like drudgery. Those times when I’m stuck and can’t figure out what happens next or how to fix something that’s not working or I just feel guilty for not writing… Those times are hard. They’re work. And sometimes it feels like the work outweighs the joy.
So every time someone tells me maybe I’m meant to write for my own enjoyment, I want to scream that writing is hard, and it requires sacrifice, and to do all of that for my own edification seems pointless at best and incredibly selfish at worst. I honestly don’t care if I ever hit a best-seller list or if my books are ever picked up by a big publisher. But I do want my stories to be read, especially by the young adults I write for. I want my words and stories to make an impact in the world, even if it’s just for a handful of people who read them and feel seen or who learn to see the world from a slightly different viewpoint. That’s the whole point of writing for me: for my stories to make a difference. And that can’t happen if my stories never make it out into the world–if they’re shoved under my bed.
Now, there are certainly times when I’ve been too focused on publishing. After I signed with an agent and had two books fail on sub, I reached a point where I was so focused on trying to write something marketable and perfect that I couldn’t write at all. Every word was painful. I had to rediscover my love of writing in order for the stories to flow again. I had to stop worrying about what publishing professionals would think and focus on my personal joy. This is healthy. We all know there aren’t any guarantees in publishing. I parted ways with my agent two years ago and haven’t found a new one. In spite of writing my best work, I’m receiving fewer requests than when I queried in 2016. So I do need to find joy in my writing and try not to stress about the precariousness of the publishing industry.
But in the end, I don’t think I would keep writing–at least not in the way I write now–if I knew for sure that my books would never be published. I keep going because I believe my stories are important, and they’re meant to be shared. Some of my stories have been shoved under a bed, but I hope one day I’ll be able to bring them back out so they can bring hope and joy to others.
Because the truth is, and always will be, that I don’t write for myself.