It’s not that I didn’t gain anything from this experience. Now, when I teach creative writing (which I do less often than I might, because so many people in my program want to do it), I know what to tell my students not to do.
Here’s Rule Not To Do #1: Don’t write for yourself.
I can hear the shrieks of protest now.
I suppose I do need to qualify. If you hate what you feel you have to write, why do it?–unless somehow you discover that you can make a million dollars by forcing yourself to do it. But yes, above all, if you’re to keep doing it without becoming rich, you have to enjoy it yourself; you have to take some pleasure from what you’re doing. I’ve read plenty of testimonials from people who say that they succeeded as commercial writers by writing the kinds of books they’d like to read.
But in the process of doing that, they’re putting themselves at least somewhat in the minds of readers. That’s the key.
Because the easiest way to write a failed novel is to do what I did: Write what you love to hear yourself saying. Write what sounds just lovely every time you read it aloud. Admire your metaphors, your sentence rhythms, your choices of such idiosyncratic, tantalizing words. Write what you like to hear.
I tell my students, whether they’re writing fiction or research papers or magazine articles, that once they leave college, nobody ever again has to read a word they write. They have to give people a reason to commit even five minutes to hearing what they have to say. In college, your teacher has to read it, your classmates have to read it–but once you’re out, you have to compete with reality shows on TV (at this historical moment, I use American Idol as my example–or Dancing with the Stars). When readers give you their time, they’re giving you something precious. You better earn it. If you’re one of those lucky folks for whom what sings in your ear sings in everyone else’s, more power to you. That wasn’t the case for me.
So remember that writing is communication.
I have to admit I still have trouble finding the exact line between what I want to write and what I want to communicate. But when I wrote my failed novel, I think I was just too far my side of that line.