There has been a lot of chatter in the Twitterverse lately about sales numbers, hitting the lists, debuts, sales expectations, and (the often inevitable) disappointment.
Writing a book is hard.
Getting that book published? Harder still.
Maintaining a career in publishing? Probably hardest of all.
There is no question that all of those require a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. And luck. Don’t forget the luck part, because that is a big component of anyone’s success.
Furthermore, as writers—whether unpublished, debuts, or seasoned veterans—there is very little about the industry that we can control. We can control the writing, and that’s about it. Everything else is out of our hands. That is a recipe for frustration and angst, so it is inevitable that heartache will find us at many points on our journey.
But I’m not going to talk about that today. Today I’m going to ask you to take a step back. No, even further back than that.
Why do we write? Why do humans write?
To tell stories.
It’s the purpose of all art, really, to tell a story, to capture a moment, a feeling, a transformation. But for writers our medium is words.
But stepping back yet again: What is the purpose of stories?
With readers, with our own voice, with a shared truth, a voice that resonates.
With the human experience.
So whatever other reasons compel us to pick up that pen or keyboard, whatever lies or rationalizations we tell ourselves, at its most basic it is a desire to connect.
The thing is, we can never truly know what our own life’s purpose is. We can know what we think it is. Mark Twain says two of the most important moments in our life are when we’re born and when we understand why.
For many writers, we think we understand why when we discover writing.
But what if that’s not truly our purpose? What if it is the connections we make through pursuing writing that are actually our true purpose?
Connections with other writers.
Connections with our own truths.
Connections with readers, even if only a handful.
What if writing is simply the medium the universe uses to foster it’s own connections?
Most of us have heard of the Butterfly Effect—the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings over one continent can have an untold affect halfway across the world.
I suspect that writing is like that. Whether we are ever published or not.
Writers with a big audience obviously connect in a big way to a number of readers. But even writers with dismal sales numbers probably connect with at least a handful of readers. Among that handful, it is very possible there is one person who really needed to hear that exact story.
But here’s the thing. We will likely not even know what that moment of connection meant in their lives. They might not even know it. But I believe it’s there. Even if, at its most cynical and discouraging manifestation, our book strikes someone as so poorly written that they KNOW they can writer better tripe than that. So they pick up a pen for the first time. Maybe they write the next Great American Novel that touches hundreds of thousands of lives.
Or write the next wildly commercial success that helps people escape—if just for a few hours—their own pain or unhappiness.
Or maybe that person starts writing, but also never publishes, but through the act of writing, discovers the power of their own voice and are then able to gain much needed agency in their lives.
That’s a powerful connection—even if our book is a dismal failure. And I believe—with all my heart—that connections like that go on all the time that authors and readers aren’t even aware of.
The connection can be as random and sideways as someone asking what book a person’s reading, and they hate the book (yours!) so much that they begin ranting about it, starting up a conversation that sparks a friendship. Or romance. Perhaps they go on to give birth to the next Kwisatz Haderach. Or Albert Einstein. Now of course, no one sets out wanting that to be their grand contribution to the body of literature, but even so, it IS a contribution.
So it’s possible, even if you only published one book and it tanked, it served its unknowable purpose. No, it didn’t launch your career as the next JK Rowling. And you weren’t able to make a living. Hell, it didn’t even earn enough to pay off your student loans! But you likely touched someone’s life in some unknowable way.
I think this is also true of unpublished writers. You connect to critique partners, to writing teachers, but again, and perhaps most importantly, you begin to mine your own truths, explore your own voice, ask yourself tough questions. And that changes you. And as all writers of fiction know, when you change the protagonist in any story, that change alters the people and world around them. No matter what else happens with your writing, THAT is a worthy thing, a reward in and of itself.
Now look. I totally get it. I remember the despair, the frustration, the sense of not being good enough—of never being good enough. And that was just last week! Seventeen books under one’s belt does not inure you to those same feelings you have when you first start out.
One of the advantages of experience is that I am acquiring a longer view—not just of publishing, but life. And I am convinced that can help us as we wrestle with our writing demons, regardless of our publishing success. No, you can’t take ephemeral connections to the bank. You can’t brag about them at Thanksgiving dinners with annoying relatives. And you can’t post a cool Instastory about it. But it still matters.
You show up. You do the work. The rest of it is out of our hands. We might know we didn’t achieve the sort of success we were hoping for, but we can never know if it was all for nothing. There is an overwhelming chance that it was not.
So as you struggle with trying to get that agent or receive yet another rejection or are faced with dismal sales number, I invite you to take those three giant steps back and look with your eyes wide open at all the possibilities that exist that you will never see or know. But trust somewhere, in some small way, they are happening. To whom and how much? Well, that’s part of life’s mystery.
Can you think of some unexpected connections you’ve made through your writing? Ways you might have touched others’ lives? Ways your own life has been enriched?