What are you in this for?

One of the pieces lighting up the publishing internet this week is Corinne Purtill’s confession in Salon that the book she wrote should really not have been written.  Essentially, she realizes that she wrote her book for all the wrong reasons, and the fact that it didn’t sell was because it ought not to have:  she was writing a book not because she loves to write, but because she’d like to be an author.  She eventually faced reality: “One of the most sobering realizations of this experience was that for most of that time I was not working because I was an artist who must write or die, or because I was a crusading journalist who saw truth and needed to tell it. I was a self-absorbed striver reaching for another brass ring, and I used words as the best way to get there.”


Reading this really resonated for me on a personal level: from childhood writing aspirations that boiled down to wanting to be told I was smart, through my brief pre-law stint in college because I had declared that I would be a lawyer when I was 11 and hadn’t yet bothered to think about it more thoroughly, to the MA I got en route to a PhD I wanted to have but would never have enjoyed acquiring.  There’s nothing wrong with aspiration, surely.  It annoys me when anyone uses the word ambitious as a slur, as if that was a thing one should be ashamed to be.  And yet, I think we need to be honest with ourselves about why we do the things we do.  If you do not love the means to the greatness you hope to achieve, why put yourself through it?  The higher you aim, the worse the odds, so you really have to be sure that you’re in it for the right reasons even if also for the self-aggrandizing ones, just in case all you get out of it is the enjoyment and personal sense of accomplishment.


Of course the more you love your work, the more passionate you are, the harder it is to take the more painful aspects of publishing’s realities (rejection, bad reviews, poor sales, etc).   But in the end, whatever may come of publishing as distinct from writing, you have the fact that you are a writer, that the process matters and engages and invigorates you.  There’s tremendous value in that.

9 Responses to What are you in this for?

  1. I think more writers need to read pieces like this and then engage in critical self-reflection to determine why they write. Is it for art or glory? Realizing this may not change any of their habits, but it will force self-honesty, which can’t be a bad thing to have for anyone pursuing this line of work.

  2. Joelle says:

    I gave up acting, so I know what it’s like to have an artistic dream vs. the reality. The reality of writing is that the best part is actually the writing, and publishing is ummm…well, it’s very good and necessary, and can be fun, but it’s not ALWAYS fun, and certainly not the BEST part. When I was acting, the only part I liked was when I was either doing improvisation with a stellar group, or I was playing a great part in a fun production. Unfortunately, there’s so much more to acting careers than that. And most of it is not very fun. Going to auditions to be a hand in a commercial, playing the three line maid in a production so you can get to know the director and maybe get a ten line part next. Being an extra (or bit part) in the movies, in hopes of getting bumped up. In other words, except the few times I had great jobs, everything else was a means to a distant end. With writing, there are all these equivilent things too, but they’re fun to me. So I enjoy the process. So I’m in the right art now. And now that I’m not pursuing a career in acting, I can do it for fun. I can pick and choose without any expectations that it will get me a result other than the one it’s giving me at that moment. I think if you do all the little crappy writing things with the idea of hitting it big and don’t enjoy them as you go, you probably do need to move on.

    P.S. I took me eight tries to get the captcha. I give in. No more comments from me, but I’ll keep reading!

    • Lauren says:

      Thanks for the heads up on the captcha issue, Joelle! We’re working on resolving that–we need to stop the flood of spam we’re getting, but we definitely don’t want to be driving readers crazy!

  3. D.C. DaCosta says:

    Very interesting article.

    Personally, I write for the same reason James Fennimore Cooper is said to have started writing: because I am convinced that I can do a better job of it than 95% of the folks who are already writing and getting paid for it. I am also convinced that I can write much, much better than Cooper!

    As for the rejection, etc. — being good and being commercial are two different things. Naturally, I’d like to see them meld, but regardless of whether my books hit it big, I (and my Panel of Experts, i.e., friends-who-are-ruthless-critics) have greatly enjoyed them.

    Perhaps that’s enough.

  4. Jaclyn says:

    I love storytelling. I love it so much. I love choosing the right words and assembling them all together and arranging complex plots. I am in no way proclaiming myself a very good writer, but I’m honestly just glad I have the proper passion to hold onto. (I can’t say the same for piano, though, which I studied for ten years and then up and quit. Haha…)

    I also have a question for Dystel – when-abouts do you think another “blog chat stew” will take place? I participated in the first and found it very fun and so helpful, and there was a poll in the midst of that chat that implied there’d be more. Thanks! (:

  5. Suilan says:

    I’m the kind of person who gives up when she doesn’t immediately succeed. I gave up on finding an apprenticeship after three failed interviews and went to Uni instead. (School was easy, Uni was easy.) After I got my diploma in Computational Linguistices, I gave up on finding a (real) job after one failed interview. I gave up on the Violin. The piano. Drawing? I gave up when I was five and the house that my aunt drew for me was so much prettier than mine and I knew mine would never ever be as pretty.

    The list goes on. But ever since I started writing (1996), I have never given up. I’ve had lots of rejections (worse: the near misses). My hope of being published has dwindled right down to zero. (Or do I still hope? Am I that crazy?) Everybody is telling me I’m wasting my time. Family reunions or parties at my parents place are embarrassing. (Everybody bragging about how well their children are doing, me standing quiet in a corner, hoping nobody will ask me what I do, feeling bad for my parents that I’m not that lawyer daughter they would so much like to brag about…) School reunions? I wouldn’t dare show my face there.

    But I can’t give up writing.

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