Philosophers ask whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if no one hears it. A different question is closer to my heart: does writing matter if no one reads it? I must admit to believing in the importance of readers to completion of the art that is writing. Hungry Writers and Smart Readers. Printed words are meant to be read. But likewise songs are meant to be heard, and yet I defy anyone to dispute the value of someone singing her heart out in that lonely forest of falling trees. Would we feel differently if she were writing and left her words behind unread? I want to believe the act of writing still matters, for reasons personal, professional and profound.
Personal. At the simplest level, writing is a form of play. Remembering to Play Pretend. We do it because we love it – at least that’s how it starts. Sometimes we may lose track of that along the way. We need to keep reminding ourselves that writing is a joy. Writing can also help us to make sense of our lives. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests writing daily morning pages as a way to open up pathways from the brain to the page. Whether as journal or fiction, writing provides us with a place to air grievances, share insights, confide worries and express happiness. Putting words to our feelings gives us a sense of release.
Professional. We learn to write by writing. Leading Against Your Strengths. Writing is a muscle that requires use to grow stronger. Failure teaches us, as well as success. And practically speaking, as long as it was yours in the first place, you can always steal from yourself. That minor character you once had to abandon may turn into the protagonist of a brand new piece. With computers, you can easily keep your darlings. You never know what new work your old may inspire.
Profound. Writing fiction is an act of sympathetic imagination. The Poetry in Prose. We take on the perspective of other human beings and look at life through their eyes. We open ourselves up to possibilities that we wouldn’t otherwise face. We extend ourselves outward by sinking deeper inside. Writing as Full Body Experience. Our words may be never be read by someone else, and yet we ourselves are changed. In addition, the effort to capture insight in words is, like other arts, an outward expression of internal vision. An attempt to create something new and unique. A Still Center. With or without an audience, that’s a profoundly spiritual act.
So, does writing matter if no one reads it?
Of course it does.
Practice is necessary to the development of skills in every field, from work to sports to art. Watching Wimbledon this week reminds me of the hours I put into tennis when I was a kid, tossing balls in the air to practice my serve over chalked marks in the driveway, hitting shots against our uneven garage door. Originally my backhand was lousy, but years of leading with it in practice turned it into my best shot. In Jeremy Denk’s fascinating article on his life in piano lessons (“Every Good Boy Does Fine,” The New Yorker, April 8, 2013), he quoted his teacher, the Hungarian pianist György Sebők, as saying that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice. Practice is where the learning occurs. Good students know what they need to drill.
Writing is unusual in that the most intense practice happens in the course of writing drafts. Even if we attend classes, keep a journal or follow writing prompts, the real work of improving our writing takes place on the ground. We practice on the very same pieces that will become our finished product. Everything that goes into that – all the brainstorming, outlining, writing and rewriting – is both part of perfecting a particular manuscript and part of learning our craft.
I’d like to suggest that you structure your approach to new work with a view to pushing yourself in your areas of weakness. I don’t mean that you should tamper with what inspires you, whether you begin with a character, a plot, an insight or something else. My suggestion comes at the next stage, when you begin to outline or brainstorm scenes. If you’re great with character but weak on plot, then push yourself to consider the what if’s of plot – to get some ideas on the table. If you’re great with plot, then try to invest some early work in your characters. If dialog is your best shot, then experiment with action and description. If description, then make your characters talk. We all have to deal with our weaknesses when we’re revising: the idea here would be to increase your awareness of those areas at the outset – not only to enrich the manuscript in front of you, but to work on your mastery of writing skills.
Once your manuscript gets going, you’ll naturally play to your strengths. You won’t be able to help yourself from paying attention to the aspects of writing that you love. But if you start by leading against your strengths, then over time your weaknesses should improve in a more integral way, rather than just being something other people always have to tell you to fix at the end.
You know better than anyone else what needs work. Own it. Drill it. Be brave.