Imagine this. You, the irrepressible writer, spend years on a manuscript. You painstakingly edit and revise, you put all of your heart and soul into the prose, perfect it through draft after draft after draft, until--finally!--you've realized your ultimate vision. It's done! And then....
You put your novel away in a drawer and never show it to anyone.
Seems unthinkable right? Who would want to do so much work for so little payoff? As writers, we eventually want all this labor to actually lead somewhere. It's probably not fame or riches. (And if it is...I have some bad news for you). No, what most of us really want are readers. We just want somebody to read our novels, dammit!
I'm right there with you. When I first started writing, the idea of a stranger reading my book was incredible. I'd break out in happy giggles at the very thought of it. Wasn't that the best feeling? Sadly, for many of us, that innocent excitement doesn't last long. Instead of giggling at the thought of an agent reading our full, we start bracing ourselves for another rejection. Our novel is finally published (yay!) and then we come face-to-face with a scorching one-star review (ouch). Yes, yes, that's just part of the writer's life. We all know it, whether in theory or from all-too-vivid experience.
But after awhile, all that rejection starts to wear on a writer, presently company included. No wonder some writers give up. Today, I want to propose a different solution. Don't give up on writing; just become a recluse. A temporary recluse. Do I mean you should spend years on your novel and never show another soul? Probably not. But as a short-term exercise, writing just for yourself could have some surprising benefits.
Somebody's Watching Me
How many people are writing novels at this very second, hoping to get them published? Many thousands, I'm sure. (Hey, I'm one of them.) And how many are blogging or tweeting or instagramming, hoping that perfectly-crafted post will catch some attention? Millions, at least. Everybody wants a follower, a viewer, a reader. Better yet, a lot of readers.
It makes me wonder--whatever happened to the reclusive writer?
The classic reclusive genius was, of course, J.D. Salinger. After the phenomenal success of Catcher in the Rye, Salinger famously published very little even though he was still writing. He once said, "When you publish, the world thinks you owe something. If you don't publish, they don't know what you're doing. You can keep it for yourself." Obviously, most of us don't have the same problem with fame that J.D. Salinger had. (For better or worse!) But I think maybe he was onto something. With our current culture of overexposure and oversharing, there's something a little subversive about the idea of keeping your work to yourself.
Even if you don't have millions of readers hanging on your every word (yet), it's easy to get distracted by the idea that someone is watching. That hypothetical reader quickly morphs into a writer's inner voice of self-doubt. As if we needed another excuse to be insecure. After awhile, all that second-guessing will sap your creativity, and might even become paralyzing. I'm talking the dreaded writer's block. Why not break free, even for a little while? Why not write something just for yourself? You might be surprised at just how liberating it feels.
Writing just for yourself is a great way to tap into your creativity. When you aren't obsessing about some hypothetical reader (i.e. critic)--if the only reader you care about is you--then you're more willing to write the kind of stuff that you like. We can't please everyone. There will always be bad reviews. But at least you can write the best damn book that you'd like to read. I'm guessing at least a few other people will share your taste.
When you're not anxious about the inevitable critique, then you're a little more willing to play. Go ahead--experiment. Try something that you think you'll be bad at. And yeah, you might actually be bad at it. That's ok! If it's just for you, then nobody will know! But in the process, you'll develop your narrative voice and style. Instead of worrying about the kind of writer you should be, you'll have a better sense of the writer you actually want to be.
Good to be Bad
Last year, I went through a rough patch, creatively speaking. I started wondering why I was even writing at all. And I love to write. I don't know if writing was breaking up with me, or if I was breaking up with it. Either way, my heart was hurting. So, I decided to do what any love-sick sap with a pen might do.
I decided to write some poetry.
Was it "good" poetry? I doubt it. But I liked it, and I had a great time writing it. And that was all that mattered. Nobody else would ever read it, so nobody was judging! I wasn't afraid to write some poems that I liked, regardless of what anyone else thought. And something magical started to happen.
I wanted to write again. Not poems--that was fun, but I'm not really a poet. No, I wanted to put my newly-flowing creativity into my favorite form, a novel. A year later I'm still rolling along, working on a manuscript, excited about where my revision will go next. That nagging voice of self-doubt pops up every once in a while, but now I'm better at ignoring it. I plan to take advantage of the break between drafts of my work in progress and write a wacky short story (again, not my best form) that's just for me. My writing group never has to know...
If you think I'm crazy, just give it a try. For a week, or even a couple days, write something that's only for you. (And not just in your journal. You weren't going to show that to anyone, anyway). When you come back to your regular writing schedule, you'll be refreshed and hopefully a little less obsessive about the possibility of critique. The more often you sneak away to write just for you, the better sense you'll have of your own unique vision as a writer. And your writing will probably be so much better for it, too--more true, more daring, more exciting. Eventually, you won't be afraid to take chances in the writing that you actually plan to show the world.
And when the inevitable rejection or harsh review comes along, you can just shrug and keep going. Your writing won't please everyone. But at least it'll please you.