Why should anyone read what I write?
June 26, 2019 3:45 PM   Subscribe

I love writing. The one thing that's holding me back from writing more is a feeling that I'm unnecessary. How do you get yourself to write, if you don't think anyone will care?

I love the process of writing. I like writing for the sake of it. That said, I only ever write stuff that requires a minimum of effort, because any more than that and it feels like I'm going to waste everyone's time. I want to dig in more, but I can't get past the feeling that no one will care. I imagine the comments on this site and others, taking me to task for thinking I've got something worth sharing. "There are millions of voices out there, why did this guy think he was special?" I've seen so much discouraging stuff out there.

A writer once told me that their trick is to have an "unrealistic" (their word) view of their writing. You have to believe that you're doing great stuff in order to be willing to put it out there, even if everything says otherwise. But that almost feels arrogant. How do you learn to ignore everything around you? What's especially frustrating is that I think I will probably be mediocre, and I'll only improve if I keep writing -- but I can't bring myself to do it, because I'm still hung up on knowing I'm not that special.

How do you get over this hurdle and keep trying, in spite of all your self-consciousness and self-doubt?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Kurt Vonnegut always used to say his best writing trick was pretending he was writing for an audience of one, his sister.

I think when you write something without an audience in mind, it's easy for it to feel unfocused or pointless, and to legitimately wonder who would care to read it. When you know who you're writing for and why you want them to read it, things tend to flow a with a lot more purpose and intentionality.
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:10 PM on June 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

The idea that you should "write for yourself" might be suggested later, but that has never rung true for me, because for me writing is about communication with other people. But what that also means is, writing is not about "being special." It's not about being One Of The Greats. It's about having an idea you're excited to share, and then sharing it by writing it down.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:11 PM on June 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

Could you try flipping the thought—that no one will ever read your writing, so you can write about your deepest self, your most closely-held experiences, your family and friends, etc with no concern for how others might read it? And no one will ever read your writing, so if it’s shit then no one will see it. So you can write anything on earth you want to, and as crazily as you’d like to, and no one will ever judge you for it.
posted by sallybrown at 4:11 PM on June 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

you can't waste anyone's time this way. people who see no merit in your writing will just not read much of it, and no harm done. you can't inflict it on the public by "putting it out there" unless you stand on a street corner reading it out loud, which I would say probably don't. but making it available to the eye demands nothing of anybody, not even if you charge.

the worry about your writing being unnecessary to the world is a bad road to go down because it is. everybody's is. there's not a single genius whose work the world couldn't have done without. books are most of what l I care about, but even I know that. you don't have to be necessary to be good. I would say you don't have to be good either, but I don't believe that, and you clearly care about being good, which I think is wise.

waiting until you don't care anymore what other people think is a sucker's game when you can just pretend instead. you don't have to believe all the earnest mentally healthy things that realistic aspiring artists believe, you can just pretend that you do and act like you do. it works all right.

and nobody is going to come up to you in 30 years and demand you give your Pulitzer back because they found out your early work had too many commas and adjectives in it, that's not allowed.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:16 PM on June 26, 2019 [14 favorites]

So I got this copy of 50 Shades of Grey.

Yeah, I know. It's garbage. It's just...terrible. The characters are flat or hollow or inexplicably both. The prose is turgid. The sex scenes are physiologically improbable and are written by someone whose entire research was, I'm guessing, drinking a lot of Bendadryl then watching Exit to Eden with their mum. Like, it's bad. As a novel, as erotica, as an example of words slapped together in order to form sentences. It's bad.

But people fucking love it. When I was working in Ye Olde Sex Shoppe, during the peak of its popularity, I'd have at least a half dozen people through the doors after the contraptions they read about in the book, and I'd get to hear about how lifechanging that slab of crap actually was. Some were predictably talking about their sex lives, but others? They were reading again for the first time since high school. Off the back of blooding Fifty Shades of Grey!

So whenever I get the doubt, they whole "why the fuck am I doing this?", I gaze at that block of wasted paper and reflect on all those people I met who had such a lifechanging reaction to what is entirely and literally a bad Twilight fanfic with the serial numbers filed very badly off. EL James just wrote it for fun, without much care as to who it was for and what impact she wanted to have, and here we are.

So that's my bellwether now. If I'm enjoying writing it, who cares who it's for? It's still better than FSoG, and who knows? Maybe I'll inexplicably change someone's life.
posted by Jilder at 5:01 PM on June 26, 2019 [19 favorites]

So I'm a few years older than you, and I have a sextet of OCs (as the kids today like to call them (this may not be true anymore already, I am not up with the youth and it's really hard to find out when a Tumblr post was made)) that have been in my head since I myself was a teenager, but after graduating with an English degree focused on creative writing, I spent most of my twenties not writing, because every time I would try I'd get stuck in some manner. I'd hate what I was writing or I couldn't figure out how to get where I wanted to go or how to convey what I wanted to convey, and inevitably I'd end up giving up on whatever iteration I was currently trying and fucking around on the internet instead. There have to be at least different unfinished attempts to write a story about these characters numbering in the twenties at least on my hard drive.

Cause I don't really like writing. It's type 2 fun for me, at best. When I've written something I'm happy with, that's great. That's my favorite, but also rare. And I seldom enjoy the act of writing itself. Maybe when I'm really in the zone, but that's rare, and I can't do it on command. One the whole I feel pretty much like phil here about writing. So you have a real leg up on me, there. You do like writing.

In 2016 things finally clicked for me and these characters and I've written three hundredish thousand words in several drafts of a yarn that I will probably end up working on the rest of my life? Unless I can start writing a lot faster. So, to answer your question, I have a draft of the first act posted on a website which I haven't done a lot to promote, and I recently was contacted about it by a stranger for the first time, and this stranger told me that it was more gripping than thousands of other books he'd read and that I have a "radiant talent," even though I think the draft I have up is showing its age and I was already actively revising it into something I think is much better. So I've been spending a lot more time recently than is probably advisable thinking about how good I'd be if I'd spent from 23 to 33 writing consistently--writing anything beyond Metafilter comments, any fiction at all--instead of spending so much time playing Halo and WoW and Guild Wars 2 and League of Legends.

tl;dr You don't know who might care until they've read it, and you'll only get better by keeping at it.

(Also if you're struggling with trying to do something you ostensibly like and/or care about, consider talking to a therapist about it, it might turn out you have undiagnosed, say, ADHD, as I discovered about myself this year, or some other condition that might not just be a "normal" inability to find motivation to do something you ostensibly like and/or care about, such as writing.)
posted by Caduceus at 5:01 PM on June 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm in the "audience of one" camp — but. Some people try to pitch it as a thought exercise, like you can just imagine your audience's reaction and that will be enough. And that's bullshit in my experience. An audience of one is enough if they really read your stuff, and if they get really fired up about it when it's good, and if you crave their approval.

When I did slam poetry in high school, my real audience was the three other kids I was on a slam team with. We performed for other people, we were judged by other people, but those three teammates were the ones whose reaction I actually cared about. Writing for them was the most satisfying writing experience I've ever had, because we were all super excited about each other's stuff and super motivated to impress each other. But just thinking about them when I wrote wouldn't have been nearly as motivating. I needed to know they were really going to see it. Knowing that, and craving a good good reaction from them when it happened, was what drove me to put the work in.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:36 PM on June 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

If there's any existing media that sufficiently inspires you, can I recommend writing fanfiction? Even just a bit, even just to get your motivation up?

Because I have this same problem at times when it comes to original fiction, but I have learned through experience that when I write fanfiction, people are absolutely waiting on tenterhooks to devour it with enthusiasm. For me, the original drive to write fanfiction was frustration with the execution of source material I felt had unused potential (no, no, it shouldn't be that way oh for chrissake I'll do it myself) so for me it's the TV show, Supernatural.

There's two characters who a large chunk of fanbase (myself included) believes ought to get together romantically. It's one of the biggest, noisiest fandoms out there. I write a lot of that. And the thing with these people, my people, is that when there's tropes or plotlines or devices that they like, they never get tired of it.

So I never have to feel that "oh dear well it's been done already" feeling, because as a member of the fandom, I know that I could read 10,000 fics centered on Castiel's wings, and still be no less excited for number 10,0001. Almost anything I make in the fandom, someone will feel that way about.

Most fanfiction and readers-of-fanfiction are like this. We're never truly sated, which means that there's a lot of freedom in the writing, as a sense that there's a built-in audience specifically looking for exactly what you've just made. The feedback, as well, is motivating and validating. (Archive of our Own is a good place if you want to post this sort of thing.)

Fanfiction gets a bad rep, but lots of published authors write and read it all sneaky-like on the side (I know a few, in my fandom) like sous chefs enjoying doritos, and the New Yorker featured a fanfiction this year (in which Anthony Bourdain does an episode in Narnia.) I promise, it's not just 12 year old girls making anime boys kiss (not that there's anything wrong with that, either, just that it doesn't comprise as much of the genre as some people think.)
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 6:39 PM on June 26, 2019 [8 favorites]

I'd recommend that you stop reading whatever is making you feel too inferior to write. I think if you really get to know some lesser known writers and artists, or at least listen to honest interviews with them, you'll find a lot of them feel insecure about their work, but they're driven to create anyway.

If you really love writing, and you feel inspired to write, you have to push through the doubt. Let the process of writing take over. If you want to dig in more, dig in. You will not hurt anyone by doing that, but maybe it hurts you to not do it.
posted by bananana at 7:05 PM on June 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is a real concern most, if not all, writers have at some point, professionals as well as amateurs. None of us feel we deserve anyone's time or attention. Yet despite these doubts, these uncertainties, this potential lack of audience, people continue to write, and people continue to read what other people write. And many people actually pay for the privilege of reading what others have written.

The only guarantee of failure in any creative endeavor is to not do it. If you don't put yourself out there, you cannot possibly succeed. Humans are creative by nature. And as much as they like creating, humans also like partaking of what has been created. People want and need story. They want and need art, and music.

No one will ever read your words if you don't write them. I think there is an audience out there for everyone. If you don't create something, you and that audience, no matter how big or how small, will never find each other.
posted by lhauser at 7:28 PM on June 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

OK, here's the thing that got me writing after a long haitus: No matter how bad you are, no matter how niche, you will have an audience. I have been writing fanfic, mostly specialising in a rather neglected corner of my fandom, but it turns out that I can build a solid readership *because* there are so few people catering to this niche - and also because, as has been stated, the bar for writing quality is so dreadfully low.

So write what you like, if your kitchen is churning out slug sandwiches, just present them with confidence and panache and I guarantee that you will have plenty of people who consider them gourmet.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 7:36 PM on June 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

You have a ton of good advice here already. I'm going to add just a little: I play in an amateur orchestra, and we're okay, not fantastic but not bad. People (some of whom are not related to us!) come to our concerts, and if they're kind enough to come and they have a good time, that's wonderful, but I think of it as a bonus. The point of being in the orchestra for me is the six months of rehearsing, getting to know the music and hear the other instruments, not the one day of performance for other people.
Which doesn't exactly map onto your question about writing, but what I mean is--if the process of writing and /or having written something you like is pleasurable for you, that is PLENTY good enough reason to do it. You're not forcing anyone to read it under duress. People can read it if they want to, and if not they won't think about it twice. The supply of pixels or bytes or whatever is not finite, you're not taking away from somebody more deserving (even if that could be judged) by putting your writing out there. And the odds are pretty good that SOMEBODY will like it, and will be grateful to you for writing it.
posted by huimangm at 8:41 PM on June 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Two things:

1) What would you enjoy reading that you can't find out there? Write that. Or else, what would a person you love deeply-- a real person-- like to read that they can't find out there? Ask them. Write that. For them and for you, and don't worry about anyone else.

2) Make it as specific and tailored to your own personal tastes as humanly possible, because one of the great secrets of writing is that the more specific about details something is, the more unique it becomes, and the more universal its appeal can be. This is why people can still write interesting novels about white male professors of a certain age committing adultery-- granted, it doesn't happen often, but it can be done.

Tailor your work to the fine details of either your id or the id of that person you love deeply. Indulge the hell out of yourself. You'll have a lot of fun... and people will want to read the results, because they will be able to tell you're having a lot of fun.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 8:45 PM on June 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, I'm an editor, and I read slush. I read a lot of slush. Some of it I wish didn't exist, because it's racist/sexist/homophobic/kyriarchal/fucking offensive crap.

Never in my life have I read a piece of slush that I wished didn't exist for writing quality reasons. Every single one of our submitters is so, so brave, and I wish I had the time to sit down and workshop with all of them. Very rarely do I run into a piece that doesn't have a sentence that sticks with me, or a plot point that's well turned, or an idea I've never seen before. And in the instances where a story doesn't have anything like that? It's actually noteworthy for that reason, because it's really hard to write something non-offensive with no redeeming value! I bet you couldn't do it if you tried! (Hell, if it strikes you as funny, why not try? You won't get there, and if you do, there are literally contests for that sort of thing.)

I am drowning in slush. I have an inbox full of slush, and three different work queues full of slush, and the magazine I work for is only open to submissions like six hours a week. And my response to that? SUBMIT. YOUR. WORK. Because we have a fucking gigantic slush pile, but you know what? Nothing in it is from you.

And no one else is you.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 8:56 PM on June 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

How do you get yourself to write, if you don't think anyone will care?

You did write. You wrote this question.

In case it helps, I can tell you two reasons why I read what you wrote:
-because I liked the honest vulnerability in the headline
-because I am interested in writing & trying to get better at it

Maybe you could try asking yourself what idea do you want to communicate? Then, try to sell the idea the best you can. Pretend it's the same thing is what I'm saying: motivate yourself by trying to make people click the headline on your idea.
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 9:08 PM on June 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I love the process of writing. I like writing for the sake of it.

This is literally the only thing that matters. Write because you enjoy it. If other people like it, so much the better. My advice is to not think about the audience at ALL. It will get in your head and you will spiral out. Besides, it's everyone's own business how they want to spend their time -- who are you to decide that your work is a waste of their time? That's up to them! (I consume a lot of media that is FOR SURE a waste of my time and I love doing so.)

I am a writer myself and I think -- and I say this with kindness -- writers have a tendency to get into these philosophical spirals about their own work and its greater meaning as a way to emotionally procrastinate. Like, when it comes right down to it, either you're going to sit down and write the thing or you're not. And you say you love the process of writing, so why are you depriving yourself? Sit down and write the thing and make it the best you can and worry about whether or not it's wasting someone else's time when you're done. Because it's not wasting YOUR time -- because you enjoy it! -- and that's really your only responsibility anyway.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:30 AM on June 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think you have to do the opposite of what your friend says: you have to be comfortable with putting your work out there and letting it suck. You know the writing advice “kill your darlings”? If your writing is too precious to you, you’ll fear criticism too much to ever release it. And maybe you’re okay with that and want to keep your most beautiful work to yourself, which is absolutely fine; you don’t have to have an audience to be a writer. But if your goal is publication - and it’s okay if it’s not, but be honest with yourself whether it is - you’ll have to relinquish control at some point.

There are a lot of rabbits in my town, and it’s not because they’re particularly smart or strong or hardy, or because the parents stick with their children until adulthood. It’s because rabbits produce a lot of offspring. For every healthy adult rabbit you see, there are four or five that didn’t make it, all as strong and smart and beautiful as the successful adults, just unlucky. It’s the same with writing. Many writers are brilliant but never get out there; many published authors often have a boatload of rejection letters or a portfolio stuffed with things like “10 Times Waluigi Was Totally All of Us” listicles. The more rabbits you produce, the better your odds of seeing one in your backyard.

You don’t have to choose to write exclusively for yourself or exclusively for an audience. Maybe you have a baby at home and give it years of love and protection, and still send litters of rabbits out into the world every spring.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:32 AM on June 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'd agree with the suggestion above to try fanfic - I've written loads, and at times when I've felt too paralysed by fear to do 'proper' writing, the fanfic has flowed out of me like a river in spate. First time in my life I've ever had that thing you read about writers having, where they just can't stop the words coming. It had a few things going for it - it was a bit easier because the initial hard work had been done - I had great characters and situations given to me already. I started it anonymously, which was unbelievably liberating. There's a huge variation in the quality of fanfic, so I felt much more able to just write something and publish it without it being perfect. It had a ready-made audience of people who were so in love with the characters that I could literally write them having a coffee together and people would be commenting in raptures and heaping praise on my writing. It was the most joy I've ever got out of writing (or probably expect to get ever, tbh, it was so free and positive and enjoyable).

Apart from that, I was recently sent this by a writer friend to encourage me, it's a quote from choreographer Martha Graham, which you might appreciate:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
posted by penguin pie at 6:33 AM on June 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

Hey shapes, good question. A dear friend of mine got a great gig years ago. She was given an assignment to interview Studs Terkel and to write about him, and she literally could not do it. She was paralyzed by the fear that she had nothing special to say. It has pretty much never occurred to me to worry about that. Mostly I consider myself a vessel for the message; anyone interested in Studs Terkel would have enjoyed that interview and her article, but my friend just couldn’t see that.

I used to be a professional journalist; now I’m a professional bullshitter and by that I mean business clients pay me to write marketing materials of various sorts. I often write promotional articles, for example. It may be that I lack imagination, but I do not worry that I am wasting someone’s time by writing or that my writing has to be unique or special. It really doesn’t. It just has to be good enough. It is good enough, and I’ve read many of your questions and comments here so I know that yours is as well.

Reading is usually a voluntary activity, so I figure anyone who gets bored will just go listen to a podcast, turn on Netflix, or find something else to read. From a 12-step perspective, I wonder if it’s not a form of arrogance to be so concerned about wasting the time of your potential readers. Won’t they be adults? Don’t they get to decide how to spend their time? Is it not up to them to decide whether or not the time spent reading your work is wasted? You are trying to decide for them in advance. That’s kind of controlling, so cut it out. Maybe other issues are in your way.

Thanks to my ADHD brain and one of those common, less-than-ideal childhoods I do spend a lot of time wrestling over not writing certain things for myself (rather than clients). I think that particular struggle is because I have a fear of success as well as a fear of failure. Not doing the writing for myself that I want to do has protected me from success and failure and also sucks. That is not the future I would hope for you or anyone else I care about.

Do your writing. That’s how you get better. That’s how you get better at anything, it’s by doing. Do more than the minimum. If you want to write fiction, writers conferences can be super inspirational. Also, you don’t have to write for other people; it is completely legitimate to write exactly what you want to write simply for pleasure or to learn or because it’s what you need.

That may be hard to accept. I grew up with a super critical dad and we live in a winner-take-all society and so naturally I have also internalized this idea that it’s better to be dead than to be mediocre. But that’s not true. Most of us will never become better than mediocre unless we write and write and write and write. Even then we may not become great. But what’s wrong with mediocre? In all seriousness, if writing is an activity that nurtures you, who cares if someone somewhere might potentially think your work is mediocre? Doesn’t matter unless you allow it to matter.

Very few people make it to the Olympics or become professional athletes and yet millions and millions of people around the globe are happier, healthier people because they play tennis, or jog, or go swimming, or do another sports activity that feels good to them. I promise you that people at gyms are not being stalked by critics demanding less mediocrity during spin class.

Of course that’s a joke but it’s also not a joke. Millions of people write for public consumption in any number of ways. I have become an acquaintance with a writer I met at a writing conference. I am ashamed of myself for not writing the escapist fiction that I really, at least in theory, want to write. After I shared my struggle with her in an email, she wrote back and said, “Please write. We need your writing now more than ever.”

This woman has no idea if I can write or not. I do but she doesn’t. She can still sincerely encourage me to write because she understands that there is an audience out there for virtually all writers. It may be a tiny audience or it may be a larger audience. There is no way to know until you put your ass in your chair and write. And keep writing, and writing, and writing, until you have a body of work. It doesn’t have to be huge. But you do need to start, and you do need to keep at it. Otherwise, you will end up an old person like me who wanted to write some things and never did. Don’t be me. Start. Start today. Don’t look back. Just get started.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:44 AM on June 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Other people's feelings about your work aren't your problem. I write this as a literary, film, and music critic/reviewer who also writes and makes art and games lol. I just do what I want, and it took me around 20 years to get to that point (my 6 year old self was a lot braver lol). What's "good" or "necessary" evolves and is usually dependent on the unique chemistry, experiences, and tastes of whoever is looking at your work, and all of that can always be developed and cultivated in yourself, but at least that's you who has that under control. Critique is important for producing work, but you need to be able to make enough work to have something to critique, if that makes sense? Critique is also not a negative thing, because it means someone cares enough about your work and its potential impact to have an opinion on it, therefore taking you seriously as a creator. And constructive criticism means that there are ways to improve and ways to learn, and you know all of this! So I think you just need reassurance that you're fine and your work is necessary if you choose to view it that way, because also very few people will view that for you if that makes sense.

The best thing you need to do is just develop your own work and be all-out on it, so others who read it can recognize what you are doing and be able to talk about it. The work I like reviewing the least is when I can tell when there's hesitation or reticence and the ideas are not even fully filled, it makes me wonder what on earth happened? But I speak this as a writer who struggles with my own issues with being reticient and shy in my ideas, so again, that's my specific lens.

Just do what you want - people will say what they want regardless, it's a lot like friendships or dating. Some people will get it, some people won't, some people will really want to help nurture it. Just keep producing and don't take responsibility for other people's feelings, while acknowledging their perspective -- it's a good boundary to have.
posted by yueliang at 12:23 PM on June 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

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