To Save Yourself

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.
     —Sherwood Anderson to his son

writingLast week I talked about some of the financial realities of being a writer, and this week I’m turning the coin to its other side. I want to talk about why we write, why any of us comes to art of any kind.

When I was teaching in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, we would, from time to time, have students show up who were desperate to publish. I don’t mean just that they hoped to publish. Everyone came in hoping, of course. But I mean they had set a goal for themselves and it was the only thing they could see. By the end of their two-year program they had to have a contract in hand.

Thus they didn’t approach their work by examining their hearts, asking what they wanted, needed to write. They asked instead what was selling out there, what the market wanted, and they were convinced if they could only find the secret answer, they would succeed.

Their passionate search reminded me of the times I’ve had an aspiring writer come up to me and say something like, “Well, you wrote about [fill in the blank]. That must be what editors are wanting now. I’m going to write about that.”

No point in explaining that even if my book was published because of its topic (which was probably not the case) and even if the topic did happen to be in just then (which probably wasn’t the case, either), by the time they could get their book written and delivered to a publisher any currently in topic would surely be on its way out. I never say it because it would sound like “This is my turf, stay off it.” But it is the truth.

And there is a deeper truth. Choosing to write a story—or paint a picture—because that’s what we think someone will want to buy, can be the most direct route to failure.

I used to say to my students whose desperation was showing, “I know it’s hard, but put aside all thought of publication. Your job while you are here is to find out who you are, what stories are yours to write. It’s only in that search that you can have any hope of success.”

Good advice, if I do say so myself, but what does it mean and how can any of us do that?

Sherwood Anderson didn’t say to his son, “The object of art is to make a living.” He said, “The object of art … is to save yourself.”

But save ourselves how?

We begin, in my experience, by mining our own energy. We latch onto story ideas because there is something about an idea that draws more ideas the way a magnet pulls in iron filings. I never ask myself why a particular idea appeals to me. I simply take note of the buzz that it generates in my brain once it lodges there.

Looking at the reason behind that excitement would be a buzz killer. If I did that, my story would get too small. I’d end up looking only at myself, and my energy would dribble away.

When my son died, about eight years ago, I was writing early readers for Random House Stepping Stone. And so, despite what was happening in my life, I rummaged around for an idea for my next book. I found one in my own childhood fantasies about my dolls. I decided to write about a china doll that comes to life. The animated doll looks into her dollhouse mirror and finds herself so perfect that she must surely be a princess. She also decides that the flesh-and-blood, far-from-perfect human girl hovering over her must be meant to be her servant. Why not? And my story took off from there.

Very Little PrincessThat’s where it started, but not where it went. A new element showed up between my childhood fantasies of animate dolls and the writing of my story. I discovered that the girl’s tear brought the doll to life. And ultimately that tear turned The Very Little Princess into a story about mortality. What else could I write about at such a time?

I didn’t stop to notice until the story lay before me, completed, that I was writing about my son’s death. But I let my grief into the story because my grief was the substance I had to work out of just then. And that’s what made The Very Little Princess mine, a story only I could write.

I never asked what the market might want. I didn’t even ask what the editor I was working with wanted. I simply wrote to save myself without knowing that was what I was doing. (And then, incidentally, I rewrote to satisfy the editor, who found herself surprised by what she received. But I rewrote keeping the heart of my grief as the energetic core of the story.)

The story that matters, always, is the one that saves us, the one only I—only you—can write. And curiously enough, that also usually turns out to be the story we have the best chance of selling.