Why do you write? (by Stephen Parolini–sort of)

If you consider yourself a writer–and if you’re reading this post, chances are pretty good that you do–you’ve probably asked and (hopefully) answered this question and given yourself a satisfactory answer.

As I’m assuming you’re a writer because you’re still reading this (you are still reading this, right?), then I will also assume you have hopes of having your work published. If you’re already published, kudos to you. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Still on my assumuptions bandwagon, I’m going to assume you know that good editors are the unsung heroes of the literary world. If you haven’t read his blog already, I’d like to introduce to someone I consider one of those good editors. And I’m not just saying that, I know that he is…you’re just going to have to trust me on that one. Someday I’ll tell you I told you so, and you’ll say, “Dang! She’s always right.” (Oh, I’m kidding. Mostly.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah…

I said this post was by Stephen Parolini–sort of because it’s not actually a guest post. It was a thoughtful answer to a question I posed on his blog, The Novel Doctor which I threatened to cut and paste and call a blog post. And that’s what I’m doing. The original post was A Compelling Reason, and he posed the same question: Why do you write? Read it. It’s excellent–as are all of his posts. Did I mention he’s also a fantastic writer? To understand the entirity of his answer, I invite you to go back to the post and read it and the comments. Some excellent, writerly conversation there. But on to my question:

My comment/question was:
I know you’re right. Writers write because they want to matter. But that’s assuming they don’t already matter. And at what point do you know you matter? After your first book? Your second? Does it need to be a critical and commercial success?

To quote the late John Candy from the movie “Cool Runnings”, “If you’re not enough without it, you’re never going to be enough with it.”

…or something like that…

To which Stephen replied:
Here’s the surprise (and it’s not really a surprise): we already DO matter. Every one of us. But we don’t always feel like we do. So we write. Or we draw. Or we sing. Or we tell really bad jokes in a really loud voice in a room full of strangers. We want that validation Kristin refers to above.

But you’re asking a slightly different question: When do you know you matter as a writer? The short answer? When you’ve written.


Of course, being a culture of comparison, we want a better answer than that. We want to quantify our “mattering,” fully aware that even a huge success doesn’t really change our intrinsic value – just others’ perception of it. (And in some cases, our own perception of it – which explains why some successful authors appear to be full of themselves.)

Okay, so let’s quantify it. Let’s put aside the psychological (and spiritual, because it really is a spiritual question, too) and look for a moment at the practical.

Probably the best measure of whether or not you “matter” as a writer (ie: are someone others might consider a success), is if you sell enough copies of your current book to keep publishing houses interested in investing in the next one. According to this measure, as long as you’re getting published, your writing matters. This is true whether your books are consistently on the bestseller list or practically unheard of except to your loyal fans.

Of course, there are exceptions. Here’s one: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Did Harper Lee’s writing matter less because she published just one novel? Do I even need to ask that question?

In summary: you already matter. You just don’t feel it. So you write. And you seek validation for what you write – because it’s validation of you. And you know you shouldn’t seek validation for yourself this way, so you try to deny the belief that “more sales” means “mattering more.” But you have a hard time denying this because you’re human and broken and you’ve been taught that success is measured in numbers, not intangibles. Is it any wonder why the writer’s life is such an emotional roller coaster?

Okay. That’s enough meandering on this topic for now. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts five minutes from now. Maybe even contradictory thoughts. But hey, that’s just how I roll.

One last thing, though. It’s another mathematical formula, but I think it’s an important one for writers to consider, no matter how many books they sell:

A writer really only matters to readers one at a time.

To read more from Stephen Parolini, read his blog The Novel Doctor and follow him on the twitter at @noveldoctor

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