I had a world-class college professor who gave up on her ambitions to write poetry because she didn’t think it was worth producing inferior material. She is so brilliant that I have no doubt her poetry was brilliant as well, and I also don’t think she’s Keats or Wallace Stevens. If she were she would know. Though I’m sure her reasons for giving up were complex and thoughtful, I dislike where the reasons she’s shared with the public lead–that only the best of the best should reach the public or be created at all. You’ll find less extreme versions of this too–you should give up your art of choice if…you’ve tried a long time and met with no success or you don’t understand grammar (or whatever other rule or set of rules the critic is attached to) or (gasp) you strike the critic as kind of a poser.
I think that’s nonsense. Some of those considerations should come in if you’re thinking “Do I quit my day job?” But the only reason you should give up creating (or trying to create, if you find it as much of a struggle as I often do) is that it is personally not worth it for YOU.
If you find creative work bores you, if you can’t work up to your own standards and that’s so frustrating for you the effort is too painful, or if the embarrassment of revealing something that doesn’t match up with your friends’ tastes or standards is more powerful than the desire to share your work, I understand and sympathize and don’t blame you in any way.
If a lot of your motivation for creating is “I want to give something of the highest value to the world and to posterity” or “I want to sell lots of books [paintings, movies, whatever] and make lots of money!” and I fully understand your giving up if you have good reason to believe that’s unrealistic–as long as you also have no underlying itch to make art anyway. (If it isn’t unrealistic, but you still have no underlying itch–why the heck not? The world needs more enduring masterpieces and you need more money.)
But I sympathize as much with someone who shares reams of fanfiction that arrived straight out of the id vortex. I’m a hopeless showoff. And I suspect that for many creators the itch to create–at least, a lot of it–is more primitive and less about the consequences of creation (whether viewed selfishly–fame and fortune–or selflessly–a desire to give something of worth to others or to the world). It’s about having ideas and wanting to see those ideas take material form. I suspect it’s biological in origin as well as social. And I believe that it can be one of the most important parts of your life–even if you burn every last thing you create the moment you after create it (though I hope you won’t!).
Basically, I believe that anyone who wants to create for any reason should, and that anyone who wants to share what they’ve made should. Separating the wheat from the chaff is for the agents and publishers and critics and audiences (not that they can determine the worth of your work in an absolute sense; I doubt anyone can do that with any degree of certainty). You don’t have to try to do their job for them.
Let’s be clear.
I believe in literary quality, though I think it’s nearly impossible to define. I believe that literature can do a million different things, though, and that skill at any given one of them is worth a lot. I also believe that cruddy work is worth a lot, whether as self-expression or as entertainment or as something that, even though it doesn’t meet my (or lots of people’s) standards, reaches people on a deep level. But you have to know what you want to do and think about what it’s going to take to do that.
Do you want to express yourself? Learn to be as honest and perceptive as you can. Write from your heart.
Do you want to communicate? Learn to write clearly and evocatively.
Do you want to write shameless wish-fulfillment? Have fun. Take others with you? Work on your craft.
Do you want to be famous? Write for yourself, but also write for your audience.
Do you want to write something great? If you’re I or most of the human race, you probably can’t. But you can try, and when the risks are so low it’s better to try and fail than never to dare.
Do you want to write something you love? Figure out what you care about in books, figure out when you’re doing that, and don’t give a rat’s posterior for your audience. It may never sell. It may never be published. It may never see anything other than the insides of your computer or one or two trusted readers. But it will be a long, worthwhile labor.
Probably your goals are a hybrid of these things and others that I haven’t thought of. But I think it helps to figure out the proportions and then think about what you want to do to get where you want to be, without judging people who have different goals.
What about me? I want to write “good” fiction. I want to write at least some fiction that will sell. And I want to write fiction I love. But even at my most commercial, I’m a disproportionately large part of my intended audience. I want to write the books I wish I’d read but never have, and I’d probably rather make a few people like me very happy than write Harry Potter (well, Harry Potter did make me very happy, but nothing like Diana Wynne Jones).
How about you, creators out there? What are you trying to do with your work? What gets in your way?