Today, I've been thinking about that annoying question that most writers are asked at some point in their lives: Why do you write? And I ask myself this all the time. Some days it's an emphatic, though cliche: Because I have to! On other days it's: I don't know why in the hell I do. What I know more than anything else, even on the days that I feel as though I'm fledgling and not sure I can write another word, is I don't write for money or glory.
A few years ago, I was invited to teach and read at a fairly known Midwest writing conference. I was excited as a low-list, mid-list, no-list writer to be asked to present among the literati. We, as a faculty, ranged from the who-in-the-world-is-that range to national best seller from days gone by to a Pulitzer Prize winner (though she hadn't been chosen yet).
We all packed into a large auditorium to hear the keynote who was the national best seller from days gone by who everyone knew from his many novels to the films that had been adapted from those novels. There was standing room only unless you wanted to make your way up the steps to the balcony.
I was seated while the famous gentleman read a famous passage from his famous book. Members of the audience were on the edges of their seats mostly because this was a writing conference after all and many of them were there to glean a bit of magic from the famous ones coattails, hoping a little word glitter would be sprinkled on them and they too would be on a stage like the famous gentleman who read from the famous book which would be made into a famous movie.
I was hot, trying to be professional when a woman (I believe it was a woman) stepped up to the microphone and asked with a certain sparkle in her eye "When do you know that it is time to write another book?" A hush (and I'm only exaggerating slightly) came over the room. The famous gentleman rubbed his chin the way famous men do as though he was thinking the most famous thoughts in all the world, looked toward the ceiling as though God himself were there to help him, and said "When my wife wants a new fur coat or a new tennis bracelet." I gasped so loudly that everyone turned toward the balcony where I was seated for a few seconds before they gazed back into the eyes of the magic man.
It bothered me all night. I didn't stay for the reception but slunk out the side door and went back to my room. Of course I had prep for my workshop to do but his answer started swirling through me that has stayed around for years.
I don't gasp (at least not aloud) when someone sees the light of glory and steps on everyone in their way to reach that literary pinnacle of glimmer. Or maybe this glimmer is really (to use vampire terms) that the readers and converters are "glammored" not by the writing necessarily but the light that blinds them from the writer's inflated ego.
And I don't gasp when a writer with only dollar signs in his eyes bangs out a book every six months to keep the gravy train humping whether the books are good or not. I most often just shake my head and take a deep breath before I go on to the next task. But it does make me linger over my keyboard a little longer before I begin clicking the keys toward the next scene, chapter, story.
I guess one good point that somebody out there could make is "Well these books are published." Yes, they are but if you have sat on the front row of any local pageant or church service then you know that there are many people in our own lives and neighborhoods who could out sing any Billboard diva on the charts. Same thing with writers. Not everyone who writes really well becomes a bestseller or reaches icon status.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't desire a little glitter and enough money to keep the creditors from garnishing my check (Which of course is really happening. No joke!) But where is the dignity? Don't get me wrong, I have a table full of absolutely wonderful books that have been released recently by writers who have written with both their heads and their hearts. But it seems to me that more and more clunkers are being published and slipping into the cracks everywhere. It's getting so now that you have to sift through the bad ones to find that gem.
I'm all for new ways to deliver words to readers. But have we stooped so low (in today's print-on-demand, anything-goes, she'll-look -good-beside-Matt-Lauer, let's-rub-a-few-pennies-together-and-say-we-are-a-publishing-house-ink-stained world of books) that quality doesn't matter? Has writing been reduced to a popularity contest? Or does quality still matter? And does it matter to the reader or the writer or the agent or the publisher or the reviewer? I'm not sure anymore. What do you think?