Writing For Yourself
As many of you have probably heard already, the great children’s book writer Maurice Sendak died today. While not entirely unexpected (he was 83 and had been in poor health for quite a while), his death saddened me a lot. Outside Over There was one of my favorite books as a kid — it was creepy and full of adventure and I could identify with the story, as it was about the love-hate relationships of older siblings and their younger counterparts (I am a big sister myself).
When I read about Sendak’s death this afternoon, I immediately thought of his recent interview on Fresh Air, which you can find here. It’s a really sad, touching interview, and I remember getting teary-eyed the first time I listened to it, so if you are an emotional listener, just be ready. In the interview, Sendak talked about being old, about being aware of his closeness to death, of the fact that soon he would die. And in talking about that, he said something that I found really interesting. He said that he wrote only for himself now, that he wrote only things that interested him, that he’d always wanted to write, and nothing much else.
“I’m writing a poem right now about a nose.,” Sendak said. “I’ve always wanted to write a poem about a nose. But it’s a ludicrous subject. That’s why, when I was younger, I was afraid of [writing] something that didn’t make a lot of sense. But now I’m not. I have nothing to worry about. It doesn’t matter.”
What a gift it must have been, to be able to look at his work that way. To only write because he felt like writing, to write it and not to care if anybody ever read it or liked it (though they probably would want to do both, I’m sure). It’s a thing that I struggle with every time I start to write something new, and I continue to struggle with it the entire time I’m writing. Because I can never get rid of that imaginary audience in my head, that cruel, nitpicky class of readers jeering my every word choice. I’ve struggled with it since I decided I wanted writing to be my career, because the reader is a necessary part of writing professionally.
It’s not the same as it was when I was a kid. I wrote constantly, without filter, and I think that part of the reason I could do that was because I had not ever considered the fact that if anyone read my stories, they would judge them. They would judge the merits of the story, the believability of the characters, the words I used and the way I used them. I didn’t fear improper punctuation or cliched phrases, because I didn’t care about my readers. So it was easy to sit down and just write what I wanted to write.
As soon as I made the decision to pursue publication, everything about the way I wrote changed. There was a new pressure there, a new guilt that came with time spent doing other things. There was a new panic when I thought of a new story, this voice in the back of my head that squeaked, “But will anybody like it???” Writing became something hard, something stressful, something that had to be done. And I think now that a lot of the reason for that stress was the imagined reader.
It’s become worse since I finished my novel and sent it into the publishing fray. Rejection after rejection comes back to me with reason after reason for that dreaded phrase, “No thanks.” So when I try to write something new, I’m automatically thinking, How can I make this sellable? How can I make them want to take it on?
This is terrible thinking, people. As artists, we are not supposed to worry about what kind of a reception our work is going to get, especially not before we’re even finished with it. And while it is important, if you’re going to be making a (supposed) living off of your work, to create something that can communicate with people, your work will be dead before it hits the water if you get too concerned with what people are going to think about it from the very beginning.
I want to get back to a place where writing is just something I do because I want to do it. I want to be like the little girl I once was, sitting in the corner with a pencil and a notebook scribbling away, because the story in my head was too good to stay there. I want to kill off that dissatisfied audience in my head, turn them out of the place and send them to some other person’s stories. I want to write a poem about a nose, dammit, and I don’t want to care who likes it.