nobody cares

“Sometimes I feel like I should just give up.”

One of my writing students recently said that. In fact, I hear that with distressing regularity from my students. (As an aside, it still occasionally strikes me as improbable that I’ve become a Person Who Has Students.) That statement is almost never posed as a question, but the question is always there as a not-very-subtle subtext. Should I just give up? And that question always masks another question, which is generally phrased as another statement: I’m never going to be good enough to get published, am I.

The question at the heart of all this is an awkward question. It requires a graceful answer. It also requires an honest answer. As a Person Who Has Students, it’s my experience that honesty and grace don’t always dovetail together.

The graceful response is easy. “No, of course you shouldn’t give up. If you approach your writing with diligence and sincerity, you can become good enough to get published.” There’s some measure of truth in that. If you work hard at any craft — writing, cabinetry, weaving, brick-laying, pottery — you can improve. Most of my students have the capacity to be good enough to get published.

But most won’t. That’s the honest answer. Hard work doesn’t guarantee mastery, and mastery doesn’t guarantee success. The unwelcome Truth is that while most of my students have the capacity to improve, relatively few will actually fulfill that capacity; they either lack the necessary persistence or are prevented by circumstance from achieving it. And even whose who ARE good enough, may still not be good enough. Even if they produce excellent work, the first publisher to read it may reject it. And so might the second and third. And the fourth and and and.

Nobody cares about your zombie novel

Nobody cares about your zombie novel

Instead of responding directly to my student, I asked a question: “What matters most to you — writing a good story or getting published?” Everybody wants both, of course — and logically one should follow the other. If you write a good story, it’s got a better chance of getting published. But knowing which of those matters most changes your approach. If getting published matters most, then you let the marketplace direct the work. If the marketplace is hot for zombies, then you write zombies. Some folks will sneer at that, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a professional approach  Getting paid for your work is a wonderful thing, and the best way to get paid is to give the market what it wants. And down at the bone, a good zombie story is first and foremost a good story — just with zombies.

If it’s the writing itself that matters most, then your approach is different and the reward is different. In that case, story takes precedence over the marketplace. You might still write a story about zombies, but it’s the story that’s driving the process, not the zombies. And I’m going to repeat myself: down at the bone, a good zombie story is first and foremost a good story. It’s an issue of whether you’re writing a good zombie story or a good story that has zombies in it. In either case, it’s got to be a good story.

A few days after my chat with the student, I came across this video by Ted Forbes. You should watch it. Not right now, necessarily (because c’mon, I want you to keep reading this, don’t I) but at some point take a few minutes and watch it. It’s called Nobody Cares About Your Photography.

I don’t know Ted Forbes; we’re ‘friends’ on Facebook, which just about the most tenuous sort of human connection possible. I don’t think I’ve ever exchanged a word with him, but I watch his Art of Photography videos. I don’t always care about the subject matter, but it’s always worthwhile to listen to anybody who’s passionate about something talk intelligently about it. I’m pretty confident that if you listened to somebody talk passionately and with intelligence about lawn bowling, you’d learn something you could use in writing. Or in photography.

Forbes says nobody cares about your photography — and he’s basically right. In the same way, nobody cares about your writing. There are SO many writers out there (and so many photographers or lawn bowlers) that it’s easy for you, as an individual, to be ignored. And if you’re proficient enough to care about your work and intelligent enough to wonder about your place, you’ll almost certainly at some point wonder if you should just give up.

Forbes, I think, makes two important, related points. He says No more easy shots and The world needs work that matters. What the hell does that even mean? And how does it translate into writing?

I don’t think he’s saying you need to be trying to create work that will be of historical importance (if he IS saying that, then the poor guy is delusional — but still worth watching). I think when he says No more easy shots he’s basically saying not to do the same old shit you’ve always done just because you’ve always done it. Do different shit, or do that old shit differently. Don’t relax, don’t sit down, don’t do it in your sleep.

And when he says The world needs work that matters I don’t think he’s saying the work must be Very Important Work. I think he’s saying to think about what the work actually means and how it fits into our culture. That sounds impressive as hell, doesn’t it. But consider the works of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s fluff. But it’s incredibly well-written fluff. It’s not easy to write comedic fiction that light-hearted.

Does the writing of P.G. Wodehouse matter? I’d say it does. People need a bright, witty escape from the world. They need it and deserve it. The question isn’t whether the world needs another novel about zombies — or about elves, or former special ops soldiers, or a sharp-witted nanny who is kidnapped by Barbary pirates. The question isn’t whether anybody really cares about your elven special ops zombie romance novel. They don’t.

But they do care about stories. They care about what stories do. About what stories make them feel. About the things stories inspire them to think about.

The world needs good stories. Stories matter. Grace matters, honesty matters, passion matters, intelligence matters. Stories will always matter. You may not write one that finds its way to an enthusiastic reader. But you can try. If you can approach your work with grace, honesty, passion, and intelligence, then it might matter. It might.

Lawn bowling

Lawn bowling

If it doesn’t — well, there’s always lawn bowling.

 

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15 thoughts on “nobody cares

  1. Maybe I’m being simplistic, but damn, it’s 2016! Publish it yourself!

    I do things for two reasons. Because I’m enjoying the process, or I’m entering a competition to crush all comers because I’m that fucking awesome (and competition fulfills my need for the approval of strangers – birds, stones, death, blah blah blah).

    Nobody cares? GOOD.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Self-publication is a perfectly valid way to put your stuff out there. But those folks who dip into their hard-earned and pay for an advanced workshop generally want a more traditional sort of validation — a publisher who reads their work and says “I’d like to give you money just for writing that.”

      That said, probably the healthiest approach is enjoying the process.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This has stuck in my craw for several days now since I first saw it. Heh. I don’t care that nobody cares. If you’re driven to create, you’re driven. “Nobody caring” will not deter the creatively driven. Anyone whose work is driven by the opinions of others is not coming from a place of integrity, they are coming from a mercenary place that has nothing to do with creation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anyone whose work is driven by the opinions of others is not coming from a place of integrity, they are coming from a mercenary place that has nothing to do with creation.

      I hear that a lot. But Jody, I have to disagree. I sort of live at the intersection of Creation and Mercenary. I don’t think creativity has to be divorced from money. There’s stuff I write for pleasure and amusement (like this blog) and there’s stuff I write to put beans and rice on the table. That also requires creativity — and while it can be done cynically, I think it can also be done with integrity. I like to think that’s how I do it.

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      • You are 100 percent right, of course. We all do something to make a living, and it (hopefully) intersects with our creative instincts. I’ve just gotten very jaded at the corporatism of the various creative fields. It seems that “no one cares” about true creative worth any more, only about how much dinero it will bring in. So since I’m not trying to earn a paycheck any more, I’ve fallen off the spectrum of trying to create for anyone else. There is terrific freedom in that, and I do know that I’m in a better position than most to only create for myself and no one else.

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      • Jody, I just re-read my response to you…and it sounds sort of defensive and snippy. You know, I hope, I didn’t mean it that way.

        We’ve all seen writers or artists who churn out crap for the coin, and that’s a sad waste of talent. And we’ve seen folks who continue to do the same thing over and over, partly because people expect them to keep doing that one thing that draw them to that person to begin with — actors who make the same movie over and over, writers who write the same damned book over and over, and they get caught in that orbit of expectation.

        I think in some ways the notion that nobody cares could be liberating for some folks — especially if they use it as a springboard to do something more adventurous and innovative.

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  3. If giving up because things didn’t work out the way you intended them to, where would we be today had our forefathers adopted that way of thinking? I’m somewhat a pessimist in that I’m a firm believer in Murphy’s Law: If it can go wrong, it will. This is true with whatever endeavor you select to pursue. Furthermore, the learning factor is never-ending. There is always something new to explore to determine it if fits you, or not. That takes study.

    You’re speaking mostly of writing. Well, I write a blog, too. My direction has more to do with politics, although I do wander off into oblivion every now and then. I write to vent. My work prevents me from having much of a social life, and if I can’t get things off my chest every once in awhile, I’d explode leaving a mushroom cloud that would make any nuclear device jealous. When I put together something for publication, I could care less whether anyone reads it or not; yet I’m managed to collect a nice following. Will I ever get rich from it? Hell no, but I’m not looking for compensation for what write.

    But whatever someone tries to do, they have to have the determination to work through every aspect of it, keep on studying to make themselves better and just remember that someone will come along eventually who thinks they’re a genius.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good to have this reminder when one’s latest post has bombed ;-) Not that one needs validation of course, but one does prefer the ‘likes’ to get to double figures. Blogging gives me space to try things out. It ought to be a place to be a little braver than you might be in the ordinary world, where people have assumptions about where who you are.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I think the crux here is “to think about what the work actually means and how it fits into our culture.” When you write repeatedly just to amuse yourself, you are not getting a message across to another person, nor are you really understanding your culture. You are only understanding you (which has value, but limited value).

    Being something of a misfit, I have written for myself and no one else for decades. Most of it, I think, is garbage because it is not tested against the tastes of our culture. It just sits on the page, not doing any good to anyone.

    If I could only figure out how to fit into our culture, that would be something.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have written for myself and no one else for decades.

      I hear that a lot, and I rarely question it. But if I take a moment to think about it, I don’t believe it. Maybe folks who keep journals or diaries write for themselves, but I’m pretty sure most folks who write anything in a venue that’s public is writing for an audience — even if they don’t actually have one.

      That doesn’t mean we allow the audience to decide what we write, or how we write it. It just means we’re attempting to communicate with…somebody. Somewhere. It’s really a very human thing to do.

      Like

  6. Whatever I write or whatever I photograph I do for myself with the fleeting hope that other folks may find something within they can relate to. Of course it would be nice to make some coin from it, but it is not a motivating factor.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I really loved this piece. As an inspiring writer myself, of course I’ve had those moments of what is the point? But you’re so right: I should be writing for me and for the story and rest may follow if it’s meant to be. It should be less of a chore to right and more enjoyable and therefore it would be more enjoyable to read! Thank you so much for sharing this, it’s really helped me today!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s an interesting conundrum when you’re trying to make your living from your creative endeavors. I’ve ‘sold out’ over the years in any number of ways, and usually it has come back to bite me in the ass, because after doing art as someone else’s hired wrist, I find I get burned out on it and I end up finding another avenue for creative expression. The creative need, the craving, the compulsion, is always there, but I do my best and happiest work when it’s just for my ownself…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the accuracy of the term hired wrist. It’s a clear and perfect Marxist analogy for the status of a worker in a capitalist society.

      The thing is, in our society we have to sell our labor, and in doing so, we also generate a certain level of alienation. We become alienated from the product of our labor (in your case, the picture you’ve created at some other person’s request for some other person’s use and some other person’s profit), and alienated from our own creative selves (the hired wrist). When we sell our labor, we also can become alienated from other workers, because we have to compete with them.

      The benefit of working in some field of the arts, though, is we can generally find some way to infuse ourselves into the products of our labor. And we generally don’t have to rely on somebody else for the tools to create.

      Like

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