Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Writing for others, writing for yourself

with 6 comments

The author's desk

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.

Kurt Vonnegut

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.

Written by nevalalee

May 14, 2013 at 9:04 am

Posted in Writing

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6 Responses

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  1. Well said.

    The distinction between literary audiences and more mainstream is a key issue. I see the former as wanting the writing to have a certain quality, to be verbose and stylish, to explore deeper issues and have an intelligence.

    The latter tends to be accessible (and who doesn’t want accessible), easier to read, more focus on style over substance and often ‘plot driven’ in that the pace is quicker.

    I think if you consider Kurt and Slaughterhouse 5, he manages to deftly intermingle several genres and has a depth that belies it’s length, yet is very easy to read. That to me is the ideal.

    I like to think I write in that manner, but perhaps I neglect the commercial aspect. However any book which has real depth beyond the type on the page in terms of humanity is a winner.


    May 14, 2013 at 9:22 am

  2. I love to blog, But I do know this, Ill never make any money doing it, If I do I’d be so honored. I started blogging a few years ago and I’ve learned in my opinion to keep it short and sweet, oras my buddy would say the same thing he would get bored after so long??


    May 14, 2013 at 9:27 am

  3. @lionaroundwriting: It’s a tough distinction to draw, and it’s often a marketing decision. And I agree that the best books are often ones that straddle both categories.

    @kellyscott57: “Short and sweet” is a good rule to follow!


    May 14, 2013 at 9:44 am

  4. Wonderful post. I find myself writing what I enjoy reading. It took me a long time getting to this point. For years, I thought I had to write literary fiction (the consequence of graduate studies in literature) and then I came across NaNoWriMo. The only way I could write 50,000 words in 30 days was if I was having fun, and that meant writing a mystery. So that’s what I’ve been writing ever since. It’s quite freeing after years of thinking that the only legitimate path was literary fiction paired with an assistant professorship and lots of hobnobbing at academic conferences. That path works well for some, but not for me. As much as I still enjoy reading (and writing) the occasional literary essay, life is too short not to be writing in the manner I most enjoy, regardless of whether it nets me any fame or fortune.


    May 14, 2013 at 10:05 am

  5. As a fiction writer I enjoyed your post, and never felt a moment was wasted. Thank you….

    Jet Eliot

    May 14, 2013 at 6:36 pm

  6. @1WriteWay: Same here—I write the books I’d most like to read myself.

    @Jet Eliot: Thanks so much! That’s the nicest thing a writer can hear…


    May 14, 2013 at 9:58 pm

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