“Storytelling is the most sacred thing we have… at its heart it’s a religious exercise.” — Paul Michael Glaser
Sometimes, most times, in fact, when I’m working on marketing a piece I ascribe all sorts of importance to the publication process. Eventually, the work stops being intrinsically valuable and starts to have merit only in terms of its saleability.
Once I get into that frame of mind, I find it hard to avoid the inevitable self-doubt that ensues. The longer it takes to sell a piece, the harder it is to maintain any confidence in the story or in my own ability. Even now, I’m shying away from the word ‘talent’.
This weekend, two disparate and fairly trivial things happened to help me become aware of what I was doing and, more importantly, to shift my mindset.
The first was a televised interview with writer-director-actor Paul Michael Glaser. I’ve posted his quote at the top of the page. Now, he didn’t say anything I haven’t heard before; in fact, I’ve read whole books on the subject of writing as a sacred art; but I think it was that word ‘Storyteller’ that I found arresting.
As a writer in the twenty-first century, I find it too easy to get caught up in all the ‘isms’ that plague literature. Naturalism, modernism, post-modernism, and so on and so forth. When did we lose sight of the fact that our first, best duty is to the story? We are the ‘dreamers of dreams’ as poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy once said. Why is it so easy to forget that?
A second thing that happened this weekend was I heard about an assignment a teacher gave her class. The subject was if you take money (or, I’d add, publishing) out of the equation, how do you measure success?
Think about that for a moment. It’s a hard question and there is no right answer. But for the writer, well, for this writer, success is measured by the truthfulness of the writing. Truth to the story. To tell the tale with conviction. To tell the story that wants to be told, not the story I think the world ought to hear. And, finally, to place the story first, over the word-play and the clever literary gimmickry.
Let no one kid you, storytelling is hard. Novelist Paul Gallico (The Poseidon Adventure) got it spot on when he said,
“It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.” (Confessions of a Story Writer, 1946)
Here’s another hard question: is it better to write a mediocre story that sells, or an excellent story that does not? And before you pipe up with a claim that any good story will eventually sell, let me assure you that is not necessarily the case. Consider John Kennedy Toole whose novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, was not accepted for publication until eleven years after his suicide. The novel is now part of the American literary canon and earned Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
In Writing as a Sacred Path, Jill Jepson says,
“Few people write because it’s fun. It can be fun, even exhilarating and delightful, but it’s not why writers write… the impulse may sound like masochism or addiction, and perhaps it is, but it is also something greater and more compelling: it’s a vocation, a calling.”
So my final question is this: If you don’t have that sense of vocation, why write? There are certainly far easier ways of earning a living, more lucrative ways. Even if your primary objective is fame and fortune, there are much easier ways of achieving them than writing a novel. Or, worse, a poem.
We all have to find our own answers to these questions, but perhaps the answers don’t really matter so much as the questions do. What are your questions and answers?