I am a writer. There, I said it. I can’t call myself a professional because I don’t truly make a living at it, but, to borrow a sports metaphor, I’m solidly in the minor leagues.
I may spend my entire career there.
Every month or so, I find myself asking the same old questions: why am I doing this? Why would anyone in their right mind want to do this? I’m talking about being a writer, of course, particularly a writer of fiction, my particular avocation. Or curse, depending on your point of view.
Think about it. Writing is not an easy gig.
First of all, it is a lonely occupation. Writing, by its very nature, is solitary. Despite the icon of the famous author holding court at a crowded Parisian cafe, when it’s time to actually write, every writer is alone in a room with a pen and paper. It’s the way it works. When you’re writing (and if you’re really a writer, you’re writing all the time) you’re alone with your thoughts and that blank piece of paper or computer screen.
A decent musician can pull out her guitar on a city street and receive immediate feedback from the crowd (and sometimes money). An artist can often do the same with some colored chalk and a sidewalk. A writer can’t really open his laptop and scratch out a story or poem to rounds of applause.
Apparently, re-writing the opening sentence twenty times before it’s right doesn’t quality as mass entertainment.
And then there’s the whole fame and fortune thing. When we’re young we all have dreams of writing that fantastic novel, selling millions of copies, appearing on all the TV talk shows, hobnobbing with movie stars and living in luxury the rest of our life. It happens all the time. Look at Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Stephanie Meyer.
Then we grow up.
In the real world, those who grow rich and famous through their writing are very, very rare. For every Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer, there are a thousand Dennis Lehane’s and David Baldacci’s, authors who make a good living, but are hardly household names. And for every Dennis Lehane, there are thousands of published authors you’ve never heard of and probably never will. Most writers have to have a day job to pay their bills.
The problem is the math.
In 2012, about 20 million adult fiction and non-fiction titles were sold in the U.S. Wow, you say, that’s a lot of books. Yes it is. The problem is that same year about 400,000 titles were published in the U.S. That works out to 50 sales per published title. Throw a Stephen King or James Patterson novel into the mix and the rest of us are lucky to sell those fifty copies. Many of us won’t.
Writing is a tough gig.
There is also the discouraging fact that we are rapidly becoming a society that doesn’t, as a whole, read anymore. A recent study found that half of all American adults had not read a book since high school unless it was required for work or school. The market is shrinking.
Yep, writing is a tough gig. Writing novels is very tough.
So why do I do it? Why do any of us do it?
The answer is simple and can be summed up in one word.
I love to read. I loved to read as a child; I love to read now. I read anything I can: fiction, history, essays, poetry. In their hearts, all writers—especially the great ones—are also devoted readers. The two go hand in hand.
I love the way the language works; I love the magic. I love it when a master strings together words and phrases into sentences and paragraphs that are able to transport me into different worlds. I love the way words, when they’re put together well, can make me laugh, cry, or shiver with fear. I love it when a good novel can make me believe I’m a pirate, a homicide detective, or falling in love. I love the fact that a good writer can talk to me across hundreds of years and thousands of miles and beyond death itself. I simply love it. Good writing is magical, powerful.
I love the panorama of literature, from Beowulf to The Twilight Saga, from Homer to Stephen King. It is my humble wish to someday, through study and practice, make a place for myself in the grand sweep of literature.
That is why I write. That is why I call myself a novelist.
Fame and fortune would be great, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t turn either down, but it isn’t why I write.
I write because I love it. I think we all do.