A friend of mine recently had an essay she had written critiqued by a creative writing professor.
“This is a fine piece,” said the professor, “but I don’t know where you would sell it.” His objection to the piece was not so much that there was anything wrong with it, but that it would be difficult to market. I’m sure teaching to write to the market is his job as a writing professor, and thankfully he offered suggestions as to how the piece could be modified to make it, in his view, more suitable for sale. My friend felt that she could use his advice without compromising too much what she had to say.
It strikes me that where my friend had begun was first writing the piece in order to express something that was very important to her. She didn’t think much at all about a market. She wrote the piece because she had to write it, and what had come out was her truth. I read the piece and related to what she expressed. I believe many people could.
Today the focus is all about where to market, and I think this focus is tripping many of us up. I know it has affected me. I began my writing career from the OU School of Journalism, where teaching to write for sale was paramount. I think this now hampers me. I think it may hamper creativity and cause so many of the books today to read the same.
I think sometimes I get so focused on what I think will sell that when I sit down to write, I am wordless. Or confused. I forget that I am first a writer, not a marketer, and it is my job and joy to express something within. To express something of my truth. I write because I have something to say. That is what comes first. You can’t get to the marketing until you have something out on the page.
What do you want to say? What is burning in your heart and mind that you need to get out, need to explore, need to share? That is where you start. That is where the honesty is, and to what people who read your work respond. What comes first is what we ourselves feel so strongly that we have something to say about it.
I was reading back through my notebook from last year, where I jot bits of wisdom I come across. I found two quotes from Dwight Swain, out of his classic Techniques of the Selling Writer (which my dog had a happy time chewing):
“Beware, too, of the other man’s rule. He sees the world through different eyes.”
“The first real rule of successful story-writing is…find a feeling.”
Don’t let your feelings use you, dear hearts. Use your feelings for writing.