Compulsion, Determination, and Other Mental Disorders

Stumbled across this picture on Facebook the other day and hoisted it up on my wall:


I had intended it as a gentle political jab to some of the more intractable ideologues in my feed. I like these kind of subtle jabs mostly because they are unlikely to start arguments, since everybody assumes everybody else is the one who is wrong and, therefore, they totally agree with me (while, secretly, I am snickering to myself because I’m totally talking about them).

However, a friend of mine took it in quite a different way entirely, and posted this comment:

Honest question: Have you ever wondered this about your writing career?

For a second I was taken aback, just because that wasn’t how I was thinking about this at all. It was a very good question, though, so I thought about it for a few minutes and decided that no, I never had (at least not in earnest – sure, everybody probably stops once in a while and idly wonders if they’re fooling themselves). However, I can totally see how somebody would. And this brings us to the discussion of what it takes to be a writer. The answer is, I think, kinda simple and also wildly complicated, but it starts like this:

Stage 1: You Decide To Be a Writer

There are a couple stages to this and a couple ways to come at it. Some people want something like this from when they’re a little kid (me) and some people stumble onto the desire much later in life, but once you boil it all down, you get the point where everybody makes a decision to be a writer. And I don’t mean they decide, on a lark, that novels are going to be for them and they throw themselves a party. I mean that they sit their asses down at a computer (or possibly a notebook or something), roll up their sleeves, and decide to treat writing a book with the kind of dedication and hard work that it requires. They say to themselves this is a serious endeavor which I am going to take seriously and work at consistently until I succeed.

Stage 2: You Discover That Writing is Hard

After Stage 1, you pretty rapidly get to Stage 2 which is “holy crap, this is way harder than I thought it would be!” Novels, oddly enough, do not pop out of your head fully formed and perfect. Stories are damnably intractable objects. Coming up with a good title seems essentially impossible. You get eyeball deep in your first novel and you realize, to your horror, that this damned thing is going to take years to write, probably, and that you hate it.

This is the point where Determination comes in. You swore that you’d do this and, dammit, you’re going to do it! You pour yourself another cup of coffee, turn off your phone, and knuckle down. You work late at night. You stop hanging out with friends. You bang and chip and batter that lousy novel into workable shape like Hephaestus at his forge. Then, with long ages of effort, you finally pull it off.

Stage 3: You Discover That Publishing is Fickle and Unprofitable

Here’s a not-so-well-kept secret about the publishing industry, both Indie and Traditional: it ain’t fair. Some chump of a celebrity vomits into a hardcover binding (with or without ghost writer) and makes millions while untold thousands of new talents languish in obscurity. And then, even if you score that Holy Grail of a book deal (or self-publish in the most favorable of circumstances), you then discover that the majority of books don’t sell that well and often flop. Even the ones that do “sell well” don’t make their authors a hell of a lot of money. Certainly not more money than you could make otherwise with much less effort.

At this stage, a hell of a lot of people just throw in the towel – and why not? You’re probably not going to be making real money at this and writing is super difficult and painful and time-consuming, so why bother?

This is the point where Compulsion becomes a very useful thing to have. Ever since I learned the realities of Stages 2 and 3, I have asked myself one question: If I weren’t going to try and get published, would I write anyway?

The answer to that question is, and always has been, yes.

But then there are follow-up questions:

  • If you are going to write anyway, will you still seek to improve your craft?
  • If you are going to try and improve your craft, are you willing seek other opinions on your work besides your own?
  • If you are soliciting the opinions of others, are you able to listen to those opinions honestly and without anger towards someone who is critical, as you recognize criticism as an opportunity to improve or assess your own work?

My answers to all those things are all “yes.” I think that a “yes” answer to all those things are required to be a true professional author or writer (and is all that is required, by the way). Furthermore, if you answer yes to all those questions, you may as well seek publication. It seems odd that you would put in all that work and then stuff your writing in a drawer somewhere. Send it out! Yes, you will get rejected, but so what? You are already determined and compelled to write regardless of success, and so what does it matter if some agent or publisher doesn’t like it? Hell, you can publish yourself these days! And, yes, it often won’t sell many copies or make much money, but so what? You were going to write it anyway!

So, to come back to that original sign and its message, the sign presumes that your writing career can be a mistake and I’m here to tell you that the only way that becomes true is if you don’t love writing in the first place. It can’t be a mistake if you find it fulfilling, regardless of publishing success or failure. Write! Revise! Submit! Enjoy!

Publicity News

There’s a profile of me and my work up on File 770, courtesy of Carl Slaughter, so go check it out!

Also, we are about a month away from the release of NO GOOD DEED! Pre-orders are available anywhere fine e-books are sold! It releases on June 21st, 2016!

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on May 16, 2016, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. david korabell

    I prefer to call compulsion, passion. I believe passion trumps talent. You are more likely to succeed
    when you passion but not talent than when you have talent but not passion. You can acquire talent
    (practice,practice, practice) but passion is more difficult to find.

    • I would agree that passion is more important than talent, yes.

      I used the word “compulsion” because sometimes you just don’t feel passionate about your own writing, but you sit down and do it anyway. I worry about “passion” being confused with nonsense about “the muse speaking to you” and such. I think successful writers write because, well, they just do. It might not always be fun or good, but they do it anyway because they are fulfilled by doing so.

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