[Note: the illustrations in this post are the sketches I drew when building the fictional world of my second novel. Disclaimer: I’m not and never will be a visual artist. 😉 ]
Recently I read a short article about Neil Gaiman, legendary author of American Gods. In the article, his agent, Merilee Heifetz, reminisced about having met Mr. Gaiman when he was young and first getting started. He told her that he knew he could write bestselling books. Looking back on that, she said something to the effect of, “I’m glad I believed him.”
The bravura in his statement takes my breath away. I can write bestselling books. Really, who says that? Who has the guts to believe it? If it was anybody but Neil Gaiman, a bona-fide artist and one of my heroes, I’d write him off as an unbelievably arrogant jerk…or at the very least, as someone who doesn’t mind selling out his art in favor of pandering to some common denominator. But you can’t say that about Gaiman. His books take risks, break new ground, challenge readers – American Gods might be one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read – and offer uncompromising and startling beauty and darkness, as well as incredible twists of imagination. And yes, they’re bestsellers.
Where am I going with this? If you’ve been following the blog, you know that lately and often, I’ve been tangling with the question of what my work is for, what it’s about. Why do we do this? And for many writers, especially fiction writers, I think there’s a constant, maybe unspoken but always present, question in our minds. That question is: why should anybody want my words?
Fiction writers, you know what I’m talking about. All artists tangle with this question – why should anybody want my work, the product of my thoughts and imagination? – but I suspect that fiction writers wrestle with it maybe longer and harder than many. After all, the words we put on the page come out of the created worlds in our minds, where we wander and experiment and dream. Some, maybe a lot, of what we write does derive in some way from our real-life experiences, but it’s couched as not-real. I’m not telling you a true story about my life, or someone else’s life, or some real problem happening right now in the real world. I’m making up a story, weaving a thread that comes only out of my own mind, and I’m asking you to catch hold of it and follow it.
What arrogance! Right? How could my imaginary worlds and people be so important? Why should anybody pay attention to them, or care that I’m creating them? One of the writers in my library workshop recently summed it up very well. Explaining why she hadn’t had time lately to work on her novel-in-progress, she told us about her various family obligations – she’s the oldest of a large group of siblings, with a core role in the family’s ability to get through the day-to-day – and said that she couldn’t ask her family to give her more time to herself to work, because she knew that her writing time was only “playing with my imaginary friends.” She’s an incredibly talented writer, and she herself knows that her talent is worth taking seriously. Even so, she described the act of writing as something barely relevant, maybe even childish, and around the table, every one of us knew exactly what she meant.
So how do you get from a mindset that questions the validity of sitting at the computer, “playing with my imaginary friends,” to a confidence and certainty that says I can write bestsellers? And, for a moment, let’s step away from the specificity of that word bestsellers, which suggests that the value of a given book depends on how many copies its publisher can shift. I’d make the case that Mr. Gaiman, as a gifted artist, wasn’t just talking about an ability to write a strong hook and fill a book up with whatever “stuff” would keep people turning the pages, like making a meal that tastes good but doesn’t really offer nourishment. Instead, I believe he was saying, My words matter. I can write books that will make a difference.
All art is an act of courage. All writing is an act of courage: and here I’m looking at you, my fellow fiction writers. How do we hang onto the idea that our words can make a difference, that the time we put into crafting our imagined worlds and characters is time well-spent?
If you’re a fiction writer, or any kind of artist, take a minute right now to think about a project you worked on that gave you satisfaction. Maybe it was a project that turned out beautifully well, that impressed you and others who saw it, that helped you see what a strong artist you really are. Or maybe it was a project you struggled with, stepped away from, came back to and wrestled with again, maybe over and over, and when you finally got to a stopping point you weren’t really sure it was done, but you had done the best you could and the process had taught you a lot. Maybe the process itself was full of joy, or maybe it was threaded with frustration and many moments where you just wanted to abandon the whole thing. But whatever project it was, whatever experience you had with it, when you look back on it, you know how much it mattered to you.
Here’s the thing. Maybe you had the chance to share that project with a lot of people, or a handful, or maybe you’re the only one who’s seen it. But remember how working on it made you feel, through joy and struggle, through the days when the words or music or images came easily, and through the days when you had to fight for the smallest milestone. No matter how it went, that project was your motive power. It got you out of bed in the morning and it filled your thoughts last thing at night. The energy you put into it suffused everything else you did: your other work, the time you spent with your family, the meals you made and shared, the errands you ran. Your life was forever different because of that project.
And because your life was different, so were the lives you touched. If you’re like me, your work can give you joy even on the worst days. That joy isn’t only confined to you. The sense of direction and purpose your work gives you can reach out far beyond the constraints of your own mind and body. Even if no one else ever sees that project, yes, it matters. Yes, it makes a difference, because it matters and makes a difference to you.
So artists, be proud of your work. Fiction writers, be proud of your imagined worlds and people. Weave your words with confidence. Every step we take along this complicated and challenging path makes us stronger and happier people, and that matters. Every piece of art we share with others gives them something new to think about, some new place to inhabit for a while, and every piece of art shares a piece of our energy and love for our work too. All of it adds up. All of it makes a difference.