Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The question I've never been asked and the question that I still think about

I was hoping to announce a new (well, rewritten) ebook, but that's still a couple days away, so I'm putting up a question I just answered on the Much Cheaper than Therapy blog.

My old writing teacher asked me: What question has no one ever asked you that you wish they would.

I should have come up with something funny. For example, I wish someone would ask me, "How come you look so much like Angelina Jolie?" Sadly, no one has ever asked me that.  But the thing was, I'd gotten a question that I still think about, so I wrote about that instead.

After sixteen years of publishing, I think I’ve been asked just about every question there is about writing. At conferences people ask about agents, editors, and revisions. Bloggers ask about the writing process, how book ideas happened, and what’s next on the horizon. The really interesting questions come during school visits because kids will ask any and every question that pops into their mind. What is your favorite color? What did you eat for breakfast this morning?  How much money do you make?

The question I’ve never been asked is: Is it all worth it?  I suppose everyone thinks they already know the answer to this question. The aspiring writers are sure it is, the bloggers are glad it is, and many of the students--when they realize how much money I make--are sure it isn’t.  (The first boy who asked me how much money I made pondered my answer and then said, “So, writing is really more of a hobby than a career.”  It was back then, now it isn’t.)

Perhaps the best answer to the Is-it-all-worth-it question is: “If you want to know if you’re really a writer, try and stop.” That pretty much sums up life for the avid writer. We’ll write whether it’s a hobby or a career.

The question that surprised me and still haunts me sometimes, came from a young girl during one of my school visits. She couldn’t have had the wisdom or prescience to realize what she was asking when she said, “Have you ever written anything that you regret writing?”

At that moment I thought of every book I’d ever written and the millions of children who have read them. I thought of how books affected me as a child. Some made me want to be a better person, some expanded my mind, some comforted me, others influenced me to do things I shouldn’t have. Books are that powerful. You can’t step into a main character’s skin, live their story, think their thoughts, and not be affected somehow.  Authors are kidding themselves if they think they can step away from that privilege and responsibility.

Standing in that school auditorium, I thought of the story ideas, plot outlines, and random chapters I have on my computer in my Possible Manuscripts folder.  A lot of those story ideas are really good. Some of them might not have the best affect on readers though. I vacillate whether I should ever write those books. On one hand, I as an author want to go on those journeys, to give life to those characters, and experience their stories with them. And doesn’t an author need to be true to a story no matter where it goes or what paths it takes the characters on? Who am I to censor creation?

It’s not the fault of Batman’s writers that some psycho dressed up as the Joker and shot up a movie theater. It’s not Stephenie Meyer’s fault if some misguided folks try to be vampires, or Footloose’s writers fault that teens died recreating car stunt shown in the movie. People are born with common sense and should use it.

But once you publish a book, once it’s out in the world of sale and resale, it never goes away. You can’t ever take back what you’ve written. You can’t add disclaimers. No matter what common sense dictates, readers don’t even seem to fully realize that everything a character says or does isn’t condoned by the author. I’ve had people order food for me because I wrote that my main character liked that food.

The books I have out now are fun, romantic comedies and adventures. I write about good characters making mostly good choices. The others stories are still safely tucked away. For now at least, they’ll stay that way.

That's when I looked the girl in the eyes and told her there were books I wish I’d written better, but I didn’t regret anything I’d written.


KenzieB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KenzieB said...

For me, writing has nothing to do with the money. If I was never to be paid, I would still write.
Great post! Keep up the good work

gaylene said...

I love this post. I'm not a published author, but I have thought about that same question as I've written several stories. I never want to write something that I'll regret later. That's one thing I love about your books -- I can pick them up and enjoy them, and my kids can, too.

Janette Rallison said...

Kenzie, that is the right attitude for a writer, because most authors write for many years before they ever get paid for their work. If you don't love writing, there's no point in doing it.

Gaylene, Thanks! I always keep my own children in mind while I write. It's what keeps me honest.

Jeanna said...

I'm so glad you posted your thoughts on this. I've read some other authors' opinions on this subject, and I just didn't feel right about them. Yours seems just right; just because you CAN write a story doesn't mean you SHOULD.

I have a different question that I'd love to hear you answer. You touched on it with the whole "if you're a writer, just try and stop" thing, which I've often heard as the test for whether you should really write. My question is this: You have other interests and things that are important to you, like family and church probably and other things. How do you balance it? How do you not let writing take over your existence? There are all those stories of those incredibly dysfunctional authors who were miserable human beings and never did anything other than write. Where do you draw your line on when you've done enough and need to do something else? (Yes, that was THREE questions. But they were all sort of the same thing.) :)

Connie Flynn said...

Just stopping in to say hi. Great to read your post.