This was Sam Smith’s speech at the Grammy Awards last month. It may seem clichéd, even cheesy, but there’s truth to what he’s saying. And it’s not restricted just to the music industry. You can apply the same principle to every type of art.
All writers are aware of the conflict between writing for yourself, and writing for others.
When you were young and naïve and the only world that existed was your own, you wrote solely for yourself (and maybe for your parents who read everything you scribbled). But the moment your eyes were opened to the big, big world out there, and you felt the overwhelming dread and necessity to stand out in the crowd, it’s likely you started writing more for others than for yourself.
So which is right?
I have nothing against writing for others, especially if you want to entertain or have a particular message you want to convey. But you must never ever write without writing for yourself.
You’ll lose credibility because there is no ‘you’ in your work. You’ll never please everyone, and if you try to do so, you’ll only find yourself failing over and over and over. Despite whatever reaction I may get, I believe in writing things I’m proud of.
Honestly, I’m writing this post more for myself because I need this necessary reminder—especially since I’m an English Literature student, and I study and examine and contemplate and analyse the ins and outs and backs and fronts of every text, carefully scrutinising formulations and frameworks and foundations. That isn’t to say all this is bad, but if you get too focussed on these aspects—particularly as a writer—you end up trying to impress people with style, to please people with content.
A short story I recently wrote for a literary magazine has received rejection after rejection. My initial thought was: how can I tweak it to make it ‘accessible’ and ‘likable’? But this was not exactly the right question; rather, I realised the source of the problem lay in my attitude when I first wrote it—I was trying too hard to please the editors, and it showed.
If you write more for others than for yourself, you’re very likely to produce adulterated writing.
And you also risk writing something that has been said again and again by countless others; no one is interested in regurgitated reiterations. But if you write something original, something bold and even foolhardy, which you believe in 100%—now that’s something worth reading, worth listening to.
Take my latest joint blog, Our Isle Sketches (for an explanation: ‘New Blog: “Our Isle Sketches”‘). I’m proud of how it looks: the layout, the format, the content; and I want people to view it. But when the response wasn’t as huge as I expected or desired, I felt disappointed.
That’s precisely what I’m trying to avoid. If I let such trivial matters get me down, I’m never going to progress or improve—because I’m essentially forming my writing identity through the recognition and admiration of others. This will prevent me from writing about what I’m passionate about, what I love, what excites me to no end.
In a recent article ‘Kazuo Ishiguro’s turn to fantasy‘ on The Guardian, he recalls once being asked to write a piece about the atomic bomb’s relationship to literature:
I sat down and I thought, well, I don’t really feel strongly about anything, but I’d better work myself up into some position, and write a piece as though I do feel very strongly about something to do with it. I came up with this concept of the pornography of seriousness, that some people would often bring in issues like the Holocaust or the atomic bombs into otherwise fairly ordinary stories, so that the stories would be given a serious dimension.
But he reveals how ultimately it wasn’t him. It was well-written and sounded plausible, but it wasn’t him. And he realised:
if I keep doing this, I won’t know who the hell I am. I’ll just be a sum total of these positions that I’ve taken up to fulfil commissions.
Instead, he’s spent the last 30+ years working out what really interests him:
I’ve managed to stay relatively pure. I stick to what I really want to write about […] I write novels. I try and write films. I write songs. That’s all I can do.
And sometimes, I feel, that’s enough, that’s really all we writers need to do. Or at least, we mustn’t forget.