The other day, seeking inspiration on the Internet, I came across the following:
“There is no happily ever after in life, or in the career you’re building. There’s no gold medal. No end to the race. There is just the endless marathon through a desert teaming with snakes and jagged rocks and riddled with the bones of exhausted colleagues who have fallen along the way.”
This statement, by Locus blogger Kameron Hurley, sums up how a lot of professional writers seem to feel. There’s no sense of joy, just a miserable, endless slog to the career grave. But how do professional writers end up like this? And why do they seem to accept it
A fictional example may help. Guido, a young lad in Michael Ende’s children’s novel Momo, becomes popular by making up fabulous stories about the town in which he lives. To begin with, he tells these stories for the joy of it, and they are wild, imaginative and exciting.
This is bad news for the villains in the book, the grey men who steal time, who decide to neutralize Guido. They do this by giving him his heart’s desire. First, he gets in a newspaper, and then is ‘discovered’ by television and radio. Soon he is famous, in demand, and completely miserable.
I’m sure that Guido’s dilemma sounds very familiar. There is the sense that fun will be jettisoned as one’s career develops, and professional commitments squeeze out silly daydreams. The transition from amateur to professional, then, is the change from a giddy daydreamer to a serious-minded, professional adult.
But if professional life is really so miserable, and demands the sacrifice of vitality and playfulness, is it worth the effort? What is the use of selling a million copies of a book, if you’re left a hollow shell, robotically writing the next New York Times bestseller? Even worse, what if you jettison those precious parts of yourself, and fail anyway?
It is my belief that maturity, in any part of life, should not mean slaughtering one’s soul.
When developing a professional writing career, there is always a danger that extrinsic motivations will begin to seem more important than intrinsic reasons for writing. This is one of the seductions of becoming a professional.
Extrinsic motivations are things like money, or getting your short stories and novels published, getting fabulous reviews, gaining a large online audience and maybe even an award or two. Extrinsic motivation also has a negative side, called fear.
Intrinsic motivation, by contrast, means play and imagination. It means writing for the fun of it, taking pride in one’s work, and enjoying the act of creation.
The problem is that extrinsic motivations tend to stifle intrinsic motivations. It’s quite striking, sometimes, how many professional column writers tend to focus on the external and tangible at the expense of the inner.
This switch in motivations occurs because of the conflict between the imaginative life and surviving in capitalism. Ursula Le Guin was correct to say that “the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed,” and that “amused contempt is about the pleasantest emotion either partner feels for the other.”
This conflict is most visible when authors feel forced to ‘brand’ and market themselves as disposable products. It is perhaps an indicator of how deeply consumerist values have penetrated that we don’t see how inhumane this demand actually is.
The solution to this is to go back to basics, and remember what got us excited about storytelling in the first place.
When I first started telling stories, as a small child, I had no thought of publication. Like Guido, I loved exploring imaginary and fantastic worlds. For me, storytelling was an expression of the rich, often frightening but always vital world in which I lived.
Good writing demands the recovery of that inner life, and a refusal to be dominated by money, fame or fear. The imagination, which is like fire, needs air to breathe.
Matt Colborn is a freelance writer and academic with a doctorate in cognitive science. He has written for the Guardian as well as SFX and Interzone magazines. He writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction. He published a collection of short fiction, ‘City in the Dusk and Other Stories,’ in 2013 and is currently completing a novel. His website is at http://mattcolbornwriter.blogspot.co.uk