Recently, I posted about why I was leaving the book reviewing system. I didn’t go too deep into some of the more controversial aspects of my thought process, in part because it was important to me not to hurt good people I’ve come to know and care about over the years. I’m not exactly breaking my silence on that, but some of it is important to what I’m about to say regarding my own writing.
I never set out to be a career author. I love that my words are out there, that I have publishers who have taken their chances with me, and that I can keep doing this. But for me, writing was never about being able to have a sustainable income.
When I was a teenager, my grandfather semi-retired. He’d made his living as an artist, specifically in ceramics. Perhaps I’m a little biased when I say this, but I don’t think so: He was extraordinarily talented. He won awards, and a couple of his pieces are somewhere in the Smithsonian’s collection. After his death, his work sold for multiple times its original worth. When it crops up on reseller sites, it’s always tagged as a genuine one of his pieces.
There are probably people reading this who think that sounds fabulous, making a living from creative work and having the kind of success my grandfather did. If they can make it work, more power to them! In all honesty, I never asked my grandfather if he loved his work that much and if he was happy that’s what he’d been able to do for most of his life.
It would never make me happy.
I had the impression (and one of my relatives can correct me if I’m wrong) that his semi-retirement was mainly about leaving the business of pottery-making behind. He spent many years after that making mosaics until he finally retired for good. He seemed far more relaxed and content. I watched him many times in his shop, listening to him whistle along with the arias on his stereo as he glued the tiny ceramic shards into perfect place.
While I’m not an artist of my grandfather’s caliber, I have been writing since I was a child. Short stories, fan fiction (though I didn’t know that’s what it was called), poetry (it was terrible, but I didn’t care). In high school, I took a creative writing class and learned how to write persuasive essays and satire. In college, I wrote for the student newspaper. Before I began publishing fiction, I kept a blog on a range of topics, from adventures in parenting to critiquing the church’s position on various issues. I had an opinion piece published in The Advocate once and another in LGBTQNation. I’ve even dabbled in publicly posting fan fiction (no possible way am I linking it here, but if you absolutely must see it…nope).
Writing, for me, has never been about earning a living. When I switched from blogging to novelling, I wasn’t looking to make money. This may sound ridiculous, but I wanted to change the world. Okay, maybe not the whole world, but perhaps a few people’s minds. I wanted to infuse my work with the same sorts of social justice messages I’d been putting into my blog. Lofty goals, I know, but it’s where my heart was (and is, if I’m truthful).
Growing up, books were not, for me, mainly an escape. The greatest gift my family gave me was handing me books they loved and saying, “Read it, and then we’ll talk.” (I still do this with my kids.) Books weren’t a doorway to other worlds; they were a mirror of our own.
In the same way, writing is not my way of providing an escape for myself or anyone else. It’s a reflection of the joy and pain of our lives, an outlet for things I can’t communicate in any other way. What I want, what I’ve always wanted, is for at least one other person to say, “You understood me, and I feel less alone.”
Writing for the purpose of earning a living doesn’t do this for me. It drains away my ability to listen. Personally, I found that reviewing books did the same thing. I was grinding out reviews, consuming books like a bag of chips rather than savoring them as a meal. And to be honest, a lot of those books were more like pottery vs. mosaics. Many were good, perhaps even the best examples of their type. But they were not the kind of art I was looking for.
A huge part of leaving behind book reviews had to do with my revulsion for turning art into a capitalist venture. I will always and forever side-eye folks with power and privilege who wish to build a career from exclusively making art about marginalized people whose identity they don’t share. Saying it’s because they need to keep a roof over their heads is not quite enough, since they could easily do so without using marginalized lives and bodies. But this is not something that is going away, and there is very little that I can do aside from yelling into the abyss. It’s far better for my well-being to distance myself rather than constantly smashing my head against a wall.
As for my own writing, I’ve never fit well into boxes, and I don’t want to. I will never be commercially appealing. Maybe that’s because I’m a terrible hack and readers are better off staying away, but I don’t think so. Instead of spinning my wheels trying for market appeal, I wish to return to the idealistic vision I had at the start. My desire is to change hearts and leave people feeling heard, whether it’s one or one thousand.