A mentor of mine at the University of Pittsburgh called writing a battle against “the tyranny of the empty page”. On many mornings, I lost that battle. The causes were numerous. Procrastination, random videos on Facebook, Playstation4, self-doubt, doing all the chores in the house…these are just a few of the reasons for past defeats.
Lately, I’ve experienced a few minor victories. I finally published my first novel, and I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation.
That should be cause for celebration. Instead, I’m experiencing anxiety. If the act of putting pen to paper is a battle against the tyranny of the empty page, waiting for sales reports and literary reviews consists of anxiety-fueled trepidation. After victory against doubt, a writer experiences the terror of judgment.
How does a writer determine success? What brings that writer back to the empty page?
I recently sat down at brunch with my wife and her cousin. I contemplated those questions while conversing with Cousin Robert, a published author and a kind soul. I told him and my wife that I was uncertain about whether I would write the next book in the trilogy. If few bought it, and everyone who bought it hated it, why keep writing? Wouldn’t that be a message to put the pen down and shut the hell up?
Personally, I don’t give a damn if people hate my dissertation. The opinions of four people mattered: the scholars on my committee. They said I passed. If people hate it now, I don’t care. I’ll smile, forget their names, put my head on my pillow at night, and sleep like a baby. Additionally, academics are normally passive-aggressive with their hatred of work. They might give me an underhanded compliment at a conference presentation, or write a snarky message about my methodology on a comment card, but they are very unlikely to tell me I suck directly to my face.
Reviewers and Twitter’s Keyboard Warriors, on the other hand, can be vicious. My novel is also not an academic piece analyzing an aspect of public policy formation; it’s a part of my soul. It’s my own artistic expression and voice. If people think it sucks, then they think that I suck.
Finally, why would I write another book if no one buys the first one? Isn’t that the perfect example of Sisyphus-rolling my own writing boulder up the hill of futility? I might as well tell my story to the trees outside my window. At least there’s no chance that they’ll tell me I’m horrible.
Robert opined that I was looking at it all wrong. A writer should not look to others for verification about whether a book was a success or failure. Such conclusions should come only from the writer himself. Robert also advised me to avoid reading reviews. Neither ego boosts nor soul-crushing critiques were good for the spirit.
Likewise, sales reports are often an indication of an author’s visibility, rather than his ability. Indie and micro-press publications often only record around 75 sales, and debut authors can expect half of that. While my book is doing relatively well at the moment, I can’t expect to appear on any best-seller lists.
Robert’s advice and personal reflection have led me, I believe, to the most suitable approach to writing. I have to write for myself, and no one else. Sales and reviews are irrelevant. If I’m compelled to tell my story, I need to tell it.
In a way, the act of writing is simultaneously selfish and altruistic. It’s selfish in the fact that I will say what I have to say, even if the entire literary world tells me to be silent. It’s selfless, because I will bring the next chapter of my story to my readers no matter what, even if my audience is limited to just one excited fan waiting for Book 2 in her local library.
Charles Bukowski once wrote, “If it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it”. That short quote encompasses all of my feelings about writing. For better or worse, my story is bursting out. I await the world’s judgment of Realms of Glory. I will write its sequel. I am both anxious and excited about what lies ahead.