It takes drive and dedication to write and publish a novel. That much everyone knows. If you’re going to reach for the brass ring and write something that people will want to buy, that they will want to tell their friends to buy, you’re going to have to put in some serious hours. You’re going to have to learn the craft, figure out the mysteries of grammar and punctuation. You’re going to have to put in the time to get the entire story plotted, whether you do it in advance or as you write. And you’re going to have to be painstakingly honest as you carry your novel through the revision process to make it the best work it can be. And that’s all long before you start to market it and yourself.
But lately I’ve been thinking about one other aspect of what it takes to be a writer. Did I say thinking? More like I’ve been wallowing in guilt over it. Because as painful as it feels, as much as it goes against all of the things we’re taught about being a good person, to be a successful writer you have to spend a huge amount of time being selfish.
Yeah, I know! It came as something to a surprise to me when the epiphany hit. I was driving to work one day, feeling guilty about all of the emails I haven’t had the time to respond to. I’ve made so many great friends through my writing, fellow writers and readers alike. They’re awesome people. Everything fun and friendly inside of me wants to respond instantly to their emails, write all of the short stories and blog posts that they’ve requested I write, and keep in touch on a daily basis with these people. But my energy only goes so far.
The problem with being a writer is that in order to be successful at it you have to write things. Stories may pop into our heads fully formed – or not – but in order them to take on life and be shared with other people, at some point we have to sit our butts down at our computers and write the damn things. Trouble is, that’s a really time-consuming prospect.
Maybe I shouldn’t look at it this way, but I see each of the books I am writing or that I have immanent plans to write (I’ve got four of them right now – and those are only the immediate ones) as plates spinning. Have you ever tried to spin plates? It takes hard-core concentration. Just like writing. The problem is that my nature is one that likes to stop and chat with people, to make friends and exchange ideas. It’s difficult to do that while spinning plates.
And so I write. I write and I feel guilty. Because there is a very large part of me that things, that knows that I should be networking. I should be supporting my fellow writers to the full extent of my capabilities. I should be supporting my fans and connecting with them. But there I am, sitting at my computer, listening to Yoga Radio on Pandora and writing.
It’s selfish. It’s uniquely selfish. Selfishness means focusing on yourself, turning inward and putting your own concerns above the concerns of others. It’s also necessary. Writers exist in a distinctive space of needing to close off to the outside world in order to plumb the depths of our inner lives and record it on paper. We have to tell people that we’re very sorry, but we can’t hang out with them or respond right away to their email or return their phone call. What we do depends on being selfish.
At the same time, not all selfishness is a bad thing. Time and again we tell people that they have to take care of themselves before they can be fit to take care of others. That kind of selfishness is a healthy thing. It keeps us from falling apart and taking people down with us. Sometimes it’s all that stands between us and the cliff of insanity.
That’s the kind of selfishness writers need to develop. Yes, we need to turn off the phone and make our relatives wonder what happened to us sometimes, but we’re so turned inward because we’re creating. We need that time in our heads so that we can produce something beautiful to share with the rest of the world.
It reminds me of pottery, actually. I have a cousin who makes the most beautiful ceramics you’ve ever seen, bowls, mugs, plates, you name it. Not surprisingly, her studio is separate from the area where she (and her kids) live most of their lives and she has to make time to work. Not only that, you can only do so much with clay out in the open, in public, as it were. Eventually you need to pack it all into the kiln, close the lid, and walk away. What happens to that clay when it’s alone, when it’s deeply immersed in itself and the creative process, is magic. But it can only happen in that high-heat, isolated environment. The results are stunning.
So should I be feeling so guilty as I run through the list of people I need to email or call back or the pieces I’ve been asked to write that I haven’t gotten to yet while sitting at a red light? Probably not. I do the best I can. But I also dream of the day when I can hire an assistant to keep me on top of those sorts of things.