There’s nothing zen about writing

When you’re learning to be a writer, you get a lot of advice. One theme that re-emerges is the importance of not caring too much about publication outcomes. At its most extreme, this devolves into a kind of zen philosophy: to be a truly great writer, you must focus solely on the journey, and not the destination. You must divorce yourself from the earthly concerns of career development, prizes, publication and — especially! — ever hoping to one day be paid for your work.

I get the theory behind this, I think. an early career writer’s job is to write the best she possibly can, and quality can be impeded by thinking too much about fit for a particular journal or pandering too much to an audience. A writer just starting out will also face a lot of rejection. Perhaps all that rejection will sting a little less if you don’t care (or have convinced yourself you don’t care) about the outcome?

Like a zen koan, I find this insoluble. What is the sound of one hand clapping? If a writer slaves over a great short story in a forest and no one ever reads it, has he really achieved anything? Come on: ego and writing are inseparable. How can you write (other than, perhaps, a personal journal or diary) if you don’t genuinely believe that you have something to say that is worth the time and attention of others? Unless I believe in myself, why would I write? How could I? And if I do write, how could I be truly uncaring as to whether someone else reads me?

Writing is a highly competitive field and there is an up-front price to be paid for success. That price is years of hard work and failure. Perhaps bizarrely, that concept doesn’t seem at all discouraging. An early career writer is making an investment: a bet, in fact, that all this work they’re putting in will pay off one day in the form of recognition, readership, whatever it is. I’ve worked in other industries that have similar barriers to entry. That makes sense to me.

But let’s drop the mystical bullshit that the virtuous writer simply doesn’t care about publication. I want to be published. I want to win all the prizes. I want a readership that numbers in the- …well, at least the hundreds. I want these things deeply and urgently. And I think that’s not unusual.

A tree falling in the forest, my arse.

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