The Need For Approval
For many of us, the quest for approval is one of the reasons to keep writing. I imagine once you’ve a horde of adoring fans hanging on your every word, and swathes of bookstore real estate burgeoning with your work – if you’re Neil Gaiman or Stephen King – you don’t worry about approval. You have it.
But the need for approval is real for the rest of us. And however brave a face we may put on it, we writers care about it. We crave it.
I assume it’s not just me.
There are three kinds of approval available to writers:
• an offer of representation from an agent or a contract from a publisher
• book sales and royalty checks
• positive reviews and emails from readers
For a writer pursuing the “traditional route” to publication, all three should come in series. If you’re independent, you have to skip the first and go it alone. Even if your book sales are dismal, as a traditionally published author you have a professional shoulder to cry on and an encouraging voice urging you to complete the next book. If you’re an indie and your book doesn’t sell – the chances are it won’t, because most books never do – you’re alone in the dark silence.
Keep Calm and Carry On
And yet somehow, you find reasons to keep writing, and you carry on.
Maybe you chew your fingernails to the raw; maybe you polish off a bottle of wine and weep yourself to sleep; maybe you don’t write for a week; maybe you kick and curse and rage against the night sky.
But eventually you stop biting your finger nails; you sober up and dowse yourself under a cold shower; you reboot your word processor; you take a deep breath and steel your nerve.
And you write.
It doesn’t take much to reignite a true writer’s passion and send her back, eyes glittering with hope, to the keyboard. A word of encouragement from a friend can do it. A good review is better. A single, solitary sale is more than enough. In a TV interview way back when, Ray Bradbury, talking about his early struggles, said,
“Even one sale a year is enough to keep your spirits up.”
But wait. This means there’s another motive; something that keeps us writing that has nothing to do with approval. And that leads us on to a more fundamental question: why write at all?
Why Do Writers Write?
Why do so many of us keep writing, even as we balance our hopes and word processors on the unstable foundation of a mountain of rejection slips? Or when another week passes and not a single book sells? What drives a writer to get up every day and cast her words into the void: the dark chamber from which, often, not even the faintest of echoes return?
William Faulkner, answering questions after a lecture to students at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, said,
“I think that no writer is ever quite satisfied with the book — that’s why he writes another one; that he is trying to put on paper something that is going to be a little better.”
I don’t doubt that’s true.
But is it one of the main reasons to keep writing, to carry on? Are we driven by dissatisfaction? If so, we’re all condemned to the same fate as the mythical Sisyphus, toiling at an impossible task: the quest for the perfect book.
For my part, I feel compelled to write. I don’t mean to romanticize or glorify that compulsion. I see it as an illness. It goes against all reason to persist in this futile comedy of errors played to an audience of mirrors. Most of the time I feel like the ghost of a crazed clown turning tricks in an abandoned circus.
But I play on. I can’t stop.
I claim no great literary merit for my fictional output. I write about talking monkeys, flying to the moon in air balloons, kids who travel back in time, sword-wielding teens descended from dragons, stuff like that; pure flights of fancy. I feel a much greater kindred with the old-time storyteller improvising by the hearth fire, than the Mistress of Letters with her Muse and quill.
And I say that without a word of shame. I’m not a snob about art, music, or literature. I prefer the rough-cut of the popular to the fine polish of the Academy. Or at least, I see no sense in which a Booker Prize-winning story is any more a story than anything published in Amazing Stories or The Beano.
All that interests me is telling stories. That’s it. I am compelled to tell stories.
I can echo the words of Italo Calvino, one of my literary heroes, who wrote in a letter to a friend,
“I’m a regular guy, I like well-defined outlines… My stories are full of facts; they have a beginning and an end. For that reason they will never be able to find success with the critics, nor occupy a place in contemporary literature.”
My writing may not have great literary merit, but the stories I tell are worth telling. Is there a story that isn’t worth telling?
I can’t imagine life without writing.
If I was on the proverbial desert island with no laptop, no pen, no paper; I would write stories in the sand. Imprison me in solitary confinement; I will scratch stories on the walls, in my own blood if I must. Cut out my tongue, chop off my hands. I will write. I will find a way.
Everything that writing involves – from the welling-up of an idea, to developing a structure to support and express it, to crafting the words which will communicate it, to punching out the letters which form those words – it’s all integral to my life, to my identity. It’s what I am.
It’s dangerous, that. Do you see?
I’ll write without approval. But I still want it. And I suffer without it. I’m compelled to keep on anyway, with or without approval. Approval doesn’t determine whether I write or not, but it plays a part in my happiness as a writer.
There Are Several Reasons to Keep Writing
I very much want people to read my stories, to connect to them, to enjoy them, to feel that life is richer, at least a little, for reading them. Storytelling is about sharing, connecting, finding the common treasures we all hold. The difference between living without telling stories and storytelling is the difference between dining alone and cooking for friends.
If I can’t write for a time, I miss it as I might a lover. The agitation and the yearning only increase in intensity the longer it continues. I become restless, I mope, get depressed. It’s like fasting. The longer I fast, the hungrier I get. There’s a gnawing emptiness deep in the pit of my being. I fade, weaken, and sicken. If writing is living, then without it, I’ll die.
That’s the dark, dangerous and negative aspect of the illness: the addiction, compulsion, dependency, symptoms of withdrawal.
I get my fix.
But let me try to describe the high. As reasons to keep writing go, it’s a powerful one. I think it’s the high which provides the answer to the question of why writers write even without approval, recognition, or sales. And represented or indie, that’s most of us.
Writing has inherent rewards. It delivers an extraordinary “kick.”
I suspect it’s not just writers, but people working in any creative field, who experience this high. It’s often referred to as being “in the zone” or experiencing “flow.”
When I’m writing a story, the experience is the closest I’ll ever get to something I might describe as “spiritual.” Like a religious ritual, the act of writing involves a liturgy expressed in physical activity, emotional engagement, and intellectual exultation. The experience of writing or telling a story is to lift the curtain on a theater of the soul; a sacrament of meaning and truth which leads to a deep communion – a common union – with life.
Really? I mean, really?
Even when I’m writing about talking monkeys, flying to the moon in air balloons, kids who travel back in time, sword-wielding teens descended from dragons, stuff like that?
Especially when I’m writing about stuff like that. Didn’t anyone ever explain that fairy tales are as much depositories of truth as science is the guardian of facts?
When I’m “in the zone” the experience of storytelling is a dichotomous fusion of transcendence and connection. Transcendent because it’s as if I’ve entered another plane of existence, an alternate reality; connected because the story, the world, imagery, and words become cogent, unified, and whole. I become utterly absorbed as the boundaries between self and story, and story and reality, melt away.
There’s no other hit comes close.
And that’s why I write. Storytelling is intrinsic to my well-being; as essential as nature, food, coffee, and friends.
And that’s how to write without approval.
Tell your story for its own sake. Yes, once you have a complete work, you’ll want publication, approval, recognition, success. But that can wait and come if it will. By the time that happens (or doesn’t) the story is told. Once you get to “the end,” the personal, interior experience of writing is done; the story petrifies and becomes nothing but an artifact in the archaeology of memory. You leave it in the dust, perplexed, wondering how it ever seemed such a vital and vibrant thing, and move on to the next story urging its telling.
No sane person would ever write to obtain approval. The desire for approval is real, and the want of it, uncomfortable. But it must never be the reason why we write.
That’s not why we do it.
So even without approval, I’ll write and write, and keep writing.
I’ll write for as long as there are stories to tell. You see, I have no choice.
If you’ve enjoyed this post or if you haven’t, I would love to read your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments below. Please share this post on your social media. That would be a lovely thing to do.
Image credits: all images (apart from the book covers of my novels and the photo of me) are in the Public Domain and were sourced via the Creative Commons. Click on the image to reveal the name of the artist and the work in the address bar.