Dear Dr. Sue,
It's a tough world out there in publishing. I know, because my agent tells me every time we speak. We recently had a particularly sobering conversation about the market. He pointed out that my current editor, who had rejected a couple of recent proposals, mentioned that I was writing things that I wanted to write about, not that I thought my market would want to read about.
I've been moderately successful using that modus operandi over the last five years, with four published books under my belt. But fewer books will be published in this economic climate, and those that will have to be sure bets. I know what I have to do, the kinds of books I have to write--and will certainly enjoy writing on one level. But for me this begs a deeper question of why I am writing at all. I definitely want to keep being published and have no problem playing the game to a certain degree, but I am already grieving for the books that are in my soul and may never see the light of day. In different circumstances it might be more possible to continue to do both, but my writing time is limited by my full-time day job.
How can I find some balance, and feel good about myself? Am I selling out? Can I have a writing career and still write the things that got me going in the first place?
Bummed in Brooklyn
A friend recently pointed out in another context that while compromise is necessary to get along in life, a point is reached at which one becomes a compromised person. That point is different for each of us. I don’t know what yours is, so I can’t give you practical advice. What I can offer, instead, are some thoughts that your letter sparked.
First, it might be helpful to remove the idea of “selling out” from the equation. Unless you are writing outright lies or propaganda for causes you disagree with, this does not seem to be a moral issue. You don’t owe anything to your agent, your editor, your reading public, or some hypothetical goddess of pure Art. Your only obligation is to yourself, to achieve clarity about why you want to write and what you hope to gain from continued publication.
Some writers are sheepish about the intensity of their desire to be published. They fear that this ambition disqualifies them from the classification of “artist” and plunks them down in the realm of “crass commercial hack.” But most of us turned to literature in the first place because of some element of dissatisfaction with our lives or our environments. We may have been lonely, “odd” children who had trouble relating to our families or peers, and who sought support and solace in books; or we may simply have felt hunger to learn about the wider world. In any case, we took the next step, and began writing, as a way to join this exciting conversation. We are not content to be spectators and consumers; we need to be participants and contributors.
For this reason, nearly everyone compromises in their work to one degree or another. Even when we write the books that our hearts dictate, we shape them so that potential readers will at least understand the superficial meaning of the sentences and the ways they connect. (Yes, I know, Finnegans Wake, but if you had Joyce’s ego you wouldn’t be writing to an advice columnist.) We know that we need to open with a “hook,” to lay out the conflict early on, and to maintain narrative tension to hold the reader’s interest. These techniques usually represent deviation from the original vision, or the book we would write if we were interested in pleasing only ourselves. And all of this takes place before even before agents, editors, and marketing people get involved and start changing things to make the book more commercially viable.
So, again, the question is not whether your efforts are worthy, but whether you are reaching the point at which they are no longer rewarding. Joining the conversation by forcing yourself to say things you don’t mean can be more demoralizing than sitting in silence. It may be that the experience of writing the four published books has broadened your scope and deepened your understanding in a way that makes it hard to keep squeezing your work into the same mold.
Remember that this does not have to be an either-or proposition. Even with the limited time at your disposal, you may be able to squeeze in a book—or even a short story—that you want to write between books others want to read. You may be able to find creative ways to present the ideas that inspire you in ways that are attractive to your market. Or, you may wish to seek out a new editor, perhaps at a smaller, less commercially oriented house, who is more sympathetic to your vision.
Your feelings about compromise may fluctuate with time, as well. Right now a book may be pushing itself into your consciousness that demands to be written whether or not anyone else wants to read it. At another time, you might have a great idea for a best-seller and the impulse to see it through. Don’t burn any bridges, and don’t foreclose on yourself. Remember, this is not your day job; you’re doing this for your own fulfillment, and only you can decide what that means.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.