Novel-writing is an act of wild optimism. It is for any writer, I think, but particularly for those of us who aren’t published. When I begin writing, I write not for an audience, not even for myself, but for the story–because there is a story that wants to be told. When I revise, though, it is with audience in mind. Will my thoughts come across clearly, my images vividly? Are these characters believable, sympathetic, real?
The initial drafting is a kind of possession. The raw material of story seizes you, sinks its fingers into your windpipe, and refuses to let go. Revision is different–a smoothing, a subtle shaping of worked clay. The story is birthed and must now undergo its metamorphosis. This is the point, for me, at which audience truly begins to matter.
But here’s the rub–there is no audience. This is true for published writers as well, but in the case of the unpublished writer, there’s a special sort of insanity at play. I am writing, but I don’t know if anyone will ever read my words.
We write for ourselves, of course. I think the best writing always emerges from some deep personal compulsion. Stories demand telling, and there’s something wired into us, something ancient and deep, a creative impulse that demands release in the form of stories. But at some point, like the Velveteen Rabbit, a story has to be loved ragged in order to become real.
It is a strange feeling to return to a story poured on the page in a burst of abandon, and to try to shape it for the reader, without being sure if the story will ever find its way to that reader at all. If you google “odds of getting published,” you will quickly discover that no one actually wants to tell you what the odds are because odds are numbers and we are writers and would rather tell you a story. But those odds feel completely overwhelming. They feel like the odds of discovering a message in a bottle, and that’s what the submissions process can feel like, too–like writing a novel and cramming it in a bottle and casting it out upon the ocean.
The odds of finding a message in a bottle are, according to CNN, “about the same as your chances of finding a golden ticket in a Wonka bar.” And yet, there is a man who has found dozens of messages in bottles, and you can read about them here. I think I have a new hero………
I am thinking about all this today because for some reason I decided it would be a good idea to fill my fountain pen with canary-yellow ink. Apparently “canary yellow” means “almost the same color as paper.” As I wrote, I found that I could hardly read what I’d just written, and that unmoored me. Without easy reference to the words I’d just said as I flicked my eyes back up the page, I found it was harder to know where I was going. Our pasts inform and guide our futures. Symbol metaphor blah blah blah.
But it got me thinking about writing without an audience–at least, without an audience that exists outside my own head. Some days I feel like I’m writing bottle-messages in invisible ink. Why do I do this??
Recently Gabriel Posey, a blogger I admire, gave up his quest for publication. His posts on the subject have been authentic and honest, deep-digging. They’ve forced me to examine and re-examine my own journey. I’ve been spending a lot of time examining my own motivations.
In the end, for me, it’s about hope, that pesky thing with the canary yellow feathers that perches in the soul and sets up an infernal racket and won’t shut up. It’s hope that my stories will find their readers, because I’ve found so many stories that have mattered to me. If I could do that for someone–set adrift a book that that found its way to someone and made that someone’s world a little more beautiful or bearable–I would feel wildly successful. That’s my golden ticket.