I just read a nice little article in the paper by Sam de Brito on the importance of writing for yourself.
I’m not sure that he puts enough weight on the compromises that need to be made between art and communication when you’re writing for publication – because what’s the point of expressing yourself to others if they don’t understand what you’re saying? But, to be fair, that’s not really the point of the article, and I’m totally onboard with his contention that, if you’re writing with aspirations of art, what you should be writing is what you need or want to write for yourself, and only that. Your writing should be its own reward.
(I also like his variation on the theme of polishing your turds: “Rewriting is where you turn shit into chocolate”.)
You’ll often hear people ask how long should a story be, or even what type or genre of story they should be writing to get published. Of course, there’s sweet spots in the market at any given time for all of these variables, but I think the best answer to any of those kinds of questions is “Write the story that you have, first. Let your story be what it needs to be. Then worry about what the hell you might do with it.”
I think you’ll write your best stuff (and therefore probably also have the best chance of getting it published) when it’s authentic to you – what you feel, what you enjoy, what you love. De Brito references Hemingway’s advice to “write one true thing”, then riffs on probably-not-Mark-Twain’s “Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching” to add “write like no-one will ever read what you’re doing”.
I think that’s fantastic advice (although I also like the version that I found from a Zachary Fizz at Snopes.com, “Work if somebody’s watching, dance like you’ve just been hurt, make love like you need the money”, which sounds a lot more cynically Twainish to me).
When I was at Clarion West, Paul Park, our first week teacher, said something along the lines of: when you’re writing good stories, when you’re creating good art, you’re exposing your inner self, so it’s a good sign if you’re uncomfortable showing your work to your loved ones.
Stories provide us with a safety net to show our inner selves to others. Some writers flaunt it, but it’s there, even in fiction that’s obviously close to the autobiographical bone, as in something like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Hemingway’s advice about truth is not to say that you should transplant literal accounts from your own experience into your stories – although you can – but, rather, that your stories should capture some underlying truth that is important to you.
It doesn’t have to be a big truth. For example, a lot of my work is about my kids and myself as a parent – most of the kids in my stories are my kids.
My story “Once a month, on a Sunday” is about a little girl wondering when and if her father is coming home. The underlying truth, for me, is the impact on my kids of me separating from their mum and leaving the family home. In the story, I have bunyips and magic to disguise the painfulness of that truth for me – to keep it “safe”.
I guess, really, the safety net is as important for the writer while they’re working through their shit – writing the damn story – as it is for later, when they’re showing it to their readers. Writing as art as self-therapy. That would explain why most horror writers I’ve met are among the nicest people I know.
Which brings us back to de Brito’s main point: write the story that you need to write.