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How to make the journey your reward

What do you want from your writing? I work with authors all the time who want to get published. I’m a publisher, so I don’t want to play down the joy of seeing your work in print, but I’m also aware that publication is often not quite what people imagined and that it still leaves a hunger for something further.

It’s not that publication is irrelevant, but it’s far from the whole story and there are other aspects of writing that are vital and more overlooked.

So what do you want from your writing?

In Writing Wild, Tina Welling declares:

We as writers have no business dealing in outcomes.

You could replace ‘writers’ with many kinds of artist or life skills. She goes on:

Only the creative process is in our control, and only that process deserves our attention as we’re writing.

Writers, and other artists, know that they are going to be the main promoters of their work, but the key is in those last three words ‘as we’re writing’.

We’re often so fixated on outcomes in a busy, productivity-focussed world that the creative process can start to blur with what comes after. You need to resist that.

I recently worked with an author who wanted to know how to streamline her process for ‘the most effective outcome’: publication and sales. But this is the wrong way round; passion and process have to come first and flow for their own sake long before we start to wonder where our work will fit and who might respond to it.

Welling uses the metaphor of buying gifts — we chose it with care and love, but once you’ve given the gift, it’s out of our hands. We release it and the person on the receiving end makes of it what she will. In the same way, our writing is like seeds, we scatter them and they make their own way, garner their own responses.

Which takes me back to the opening question: What do you want from your writing?

Visibility

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Creative people are those who live in a state of awareness. At our best, we walk around with all the senses open making connections and bringing into the light things that would otherwise go unseen.

Writers function as witnesses and prophets. Writers provide insight into the human condition. They dig deep into the human psyche. Writers entertain and delight and make us think.

Writers don’t do all this to stay invisible and silent. As a writer you spend a lot of time alone, creating. So when you emerge into the world you want your writing to make an impact. You want someone to notice this awesome gift you’ve crafted.

Reception

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In short, you want a response. After the incubation period in which a writer has dug deep within herself and put her guts onto the page, it’s heartening to have some kind of acknowledgment.

Community

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Writing is lonely, but at some stage you want it to connect:

  • You want other writers to nod and say it means something.
  • You want to share ideas with peers.
  • You want readers to engage with what you’ve written.

Rethinking publication

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You want your writing to be visible, responded to and engaged with. If you put it away in a drawer you get none of this. And so writers are keen to find a publisher. I’m not saying don’t do this, but I am cautioning you not to make this so important that the journey becomes insignificant.

Not all writing wants to be public. Journalling, for example, is vital to many writers, but is not intended for others to read. And even for the writing you intend to make visible, it’s worth thinking about what publication means.

Publication is a proclamation. It’s an act of making something known, something public. And there are many ways to achieve this:

  • an open-mic reading
  • a local writers’ group
  • attending a residential writing course and sharing work
  • reading at a conference
  • blogging

Value the journey

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Moreover, when we focus too much on the outcomes of our writing, we can lose the joy of it.

First and foremost, you are your own reader. There are hundreds, thousands of serious writers who are never published. They are still writers. They do it for the trance. They do it for the deep connection to an inner life, to nature, to the world. They do it for the sheer joy of it.

In W H Auden’s poem ‘Atlantis’ the journey is beset with obstacles, despite which the journey itself becomes the vital event. It’s on the journey that learning takes place, that the traveller digs deep within

Being set on the idea
Of getting to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year…

and learns that the process is everything:

Unless you are capable
Of forgetting completely
About Atlantis, you will
Never finish your journey. …

This is amazing advice. If you write with only the end in mind you will sabotage yourself.

Assuming you beach at last
Near Atlantis, and begin
That terrible trek inland
Through squalid woods and frozen
Thundras where all are soon lost;
If, forsaken then, you stand,
Dismissal everywhere,
Stone and now, silence and air,
O remember the great dead
And honour the fate you are,
Travelling and tormented,
Dialectic and bizarre.
Stagger onward rejoicing;
And even then if, perhaps
Having actually got
To the last col, you collapse
With all Atlantis shining
Below you yet you cannot
Descend, you should still be proud
Even to have been allowed
Just to peep at Atlantis
In a poetic vision:
Give thanks and lie down in peace,
Having seen your salvation.

Honour your calling

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Writing is a calling. In the act of creation it should be its own reward. If it’s not, then why write?

Too often it is ego that goads us with questions like:

  • Shouldn’t you have published 10 books by now?
  • Shouldn’t you be making a living from all this time spent writing?

But writing that speaks to the inner self isn’t concerned with ego and apparent success. The inner writer feels compelled to write.

  • Writing makes life make sense.
  • Writing is play and work rolled into one.
  • Writing is a form of breathing.

This kind of writing takes risks, doesn’t try to people-please. When we over-focus on the destination, we are more likely to cut off any creative impulse that might seem too strange, too deep, too radical. We are likely to lose the willingness to fail that is vital if we are to go deeper in our writing and learn important lessons.

In Auden’s ‘Atlantis’ it’s not about getting to the light at the end of the tunnel, but about the tunnel itself, with the glimmer of light making it worthwhile.

This is how Paul Cantor puts it:

Of course, goals are worth setting. It’s good to have goals. But true joy should be found in the work itself, and the goals should be met merely by the act of doing that work.
When it’s the other way around, no matter how hard you try, the lights at the end of the tunnel somehow keep moving further and further away.
You don’t need to find the light. You’re already in it.

What do your want from your writing?

If the answer is fame, this post isn’t for you. But if you care about

  • delighting in language
  • discovering more about yourself and others
  • taking yourself by surprise as images and characters emerge
  • the creativity that flows through you
  • voyaging on the ‘ship of fools’ where you can learn as much from failure as you can from success

then keep writing whatever the outcome.

To sum up in the words of Henry Miller:

Writing is not a game played according to rules. Writing is a compulsive and delectable thing. Writing is its own reward.

Want to become a different story?

If you’d like to keep thinking differently about writing, creativity and life, please sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life.