All my life I wanted to write—to be a writer, to have my work read by others and enjoyed, or even change their lives! And in my dreams I imagined them being read long after I was dead — in a kind of immortality.
Now, decades later, I can say that I’m a successful writer, with three New York Times bestsellers and my work translated into some 25 languages, and I know my books will be trashed and thrown away probably before another fifty years have passed – and there’s something Right in that, and Just.
Here’s what I’ve learnt. It’s not the selling but the work that brings you happiness. I tell this to my students. (Besides, you never know who will discover your book after you’ve died. Like Steven Crane. Like Herman Melville. Like Jane Austen and scores of others.)…
I remembering writing my first cover story for a major New York publication I wrote it mostly for money but also to learn the craft. I remember walking out into the park with a copy of the magazine in my hands, my heart breaking.
“I worked on this for six weeks,” I thought, “and it’s ashes, ashes in my mouth.” Why did success (publication) feel so false?
Years passed. I wrote successful books. In our culture that means they “sold.” And then I hit a long, dry patch. Every writer knows those despairing times.
I didn’t want to write what publishers would pay me to write, and they didn’t want to publish what I wanted to write. In a frenzy of creativity, I wrote six books in eight years—and I couldn’t get any of them published. At the end of eight years I woke up, thinking—“I’m a failure!”
Well, in the end they all came out, with timing better than I could have imagined, for they sat like trains in the station, ready to pull out, one by one, but only when the audience was prepared. (Patience, says the Muse. Just wait!)
Still, it’s hard to wait. Every artistic endeavor requires a triangle: work, artist, audience. The artist needs another’s recognition. To have no audience for too long a time is . . . degrading.
And yet to cast your fishing line ahead too soon courts failure. There is a time for Selling. But first you write. You must not think of selling and PR just yet.
One of the books written in this dark period, was FOR WRITERS ONLY. It was written to remind me of what writing is about—discipline, determination, working even when you don’t feel like it, even when you don’t have anything to say, even when discouraged beyond imagining.
“The first four months of writing the book, my mental image is scratching with my hands through granite. My other image is pushing a train up the mountain, and it’s icy, and it’s in bare feet.”
Mary Higgins Clark.
What I wanted to know was, How did the Great Writers handle depression and despair, poverty, rejection? How did they handle the manic emotions of anguish, despair, that ringing, deep humility that comes when the Muse sweeps you away on a river of words.
Do you want to write? Then write.
Whenever I have endured or accomplished some difficult talk—such as watching television, going out socially or sleeping—I always look forward to rewarding myself with the small pleasure of getting back to my typewriter and writing something. This enables me to store up enough strength to endure the next interruption.
Listen. Write what is important to YOU. Write the story that only YOU can tell. Don’t think about selling it. And don’t worry about grammar or structure or earning a degree in creative writing before you start. If you write from the heart, you will touch another human.
But if you start to write with the purpose of selling—well, go get a job. You’ll make more money, and your book, created from wrong intentions, won’t be worth your years of effort.
Writing is a lonely life, but the only life worth living.
Unfortunately everything in our culture tells us to think of SELLING! Right from the start. Today the author is not only the writer but also the marketer, salesman, publicist. Even if you have a mainstream New York publisher, you do your own publicity. (Does this count as writing?)
You’re required to go on Social Media, push yourself forward, boastful and bragging, make yourself a Celebrity. It goes against the grain of the very qualities that make a writer a writer. This is what I want to pass on:
If you do the work of writing, your book is already a success. You wrote it! That’s heroic. The rest is a gift of the Gods, “for the race,” as we know from Ecclesiastes “is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the brilliant… but time and chance happen to them all.”
And this: if you think too much about selling, and whether your book is marketable , and how to make it publishable, or more publishable, or more marketable. . . I guarantee, you won’t write it. Then you lose everything. Just write. From the inner core of your being.
Let me end with the words of Vladimir Nabokov, one of my heroes, quoted like many writers in FOR WRITERS ONLY.
He is ready to write, he is fully equipped. His fountain pen is comfortably full, the house is quiet, the tobacco and the matches are together, the night is young and we shall leave him in this pleasurable situation and gently steal out, and close the door, firmly push out of the house, as we go, the monster of grim commonsense that is lumbering up the step to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never, never—and right then, just before it blurts out the word s, e, double-l, false commonsense must be shot dead.
About Sophy Burnham
Author of 15 books, best-selling author, Sophy Burnham has written novels, award winning plays, journalism, nonfiction, children’s books and short stories.
She is most celebrated for A Book of Angels and other books on angels, mysticism and spirituality. Her works are translated into 26 languages. Her most recent novel Love, Alba, won the IndieFab Book of the Year Award. Her poetry Falling: Love-Struck; the God Poems is due in 2016.
A frequent public speaker, she has appeared on scores of TV and radio shows including Larry King Live, Oprah, Today Show, Good Morning America and CBS Morning News.
She is a member of the Cosmos Club of Washington, D. C., where she plays on the chess team.
Find her website on sophyburnham.com
Check out Sophy's book:
“I see but one rule: to be clear.” Stendhal
If only it were as easy for most writers as it was for Stendhal. The truth about the act of writing is much more varied, even violent. In fact, there seem to be as many contradictory admonitions about how to go about doing it as there are writers themselves.
With that in mind, writer Sophy Burnham has collected the thoughts of some of the greatest writers and laced them with her own observations and experiences of the writer's life.
With an emphasis on the emotions that writing wrings from those who practice it, Burnham writes about beginning a work prematurely, the ecstasy when the writing is really flowing, the crash that can follow the flight — and how to pick yourself up and continue.
Most of all, you will be reassured, enlightened, and inspired to learn that, in your own writing struggles, you are not alone.
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