A friend asked me recently whether I was "really satisfied" with what I'd written. What he meant, I think, was that I should be producing something a bit more signficant than romance novels, not to mention some of my earlier works. The question took me by surprise because I don't give my words much thought once I've put them down on paper. Because I've written in so many different genres and under so many different arrangements (freelance, stringer, on spec, on assignment, as an employee), the circumstances are always a little different. Sometimes I write something knowing that it will be published and I'll be paid a particular amount and that's the end of it. In others, I create something unprovoked and then have to decide whether or not I want to take the time and effort to try to sell it, or whether giving it away will help me sell something else later on. There's a whole spectrum in between, but no matter how it goes, one thing is consistent: once something is written, it's pretty much over for me.
That surprised my friend, who was thinking (and had assumed that I'd be thinking) more in terms of the work created than the process, of the words that I was sending, for better or worse, out into the world.
I tried to think about whether this might have been something that changed when I started making my living through the written word, but it seems like maybe not. It seems like it's always been about the process of writing for me. I'm not sure that I was ever concered about "having something to say". Sometimes I DO have something to say, but I believe those things emerge best when left to their own devices. Many writers too focused on sending a message forget to tell a story or to weave their words in ways that wander and whisper on the wind.
Still, the words do take on a life of their own once we open the window and let them fly. There's obvious black and obvious white in that. If you write, convincingly, "How and why to murder your mother" and send it out into the world, you've clearly done some harm. And if you write, convincingly, "How and why to love your neighbor better" and send it out into the world, you've almost certainly done some good. But what if you've written a story about your first car? A fluffy little romance novel? An essay about what makes grass green? For better or worse, they go on living without you, like grown children who have left the nest, but who are to a great extent what you made them.
What does that mean for the way I write, the way I publish? I'm not sure. It instills a sense of responsibility, perhaps, one that I've previously considered only at the blackest and whitest ends of the spectrum, where a clear "message" was sent. But it doesn't, for me at least, instill any greater interest--at least, not yet.
And yet, even as I say that, I'm conscious of the fact that when I write for work, it bothers me that more people (by a factor of 100 or more) will be reading the post about Nicole Richie's DUI than about a state Supreme Court ruling that allows police to enter your house without a warrant if someone has called in a tip that you were driving drunk and your car is parked in front of your house. Only one of those things is information I really feel compelled to convey to the public, and it's not Nicole Richie's DUI. But I think that in my mind, they're different issues. Writing is writing. Period. It's probably most powerful when it intersects with that desire to convey information and insight and all that, but that's not necessary to the process. The process is about the words, and the way they fall out of your fingertips unbidden and become an essay or a story or a book or a poem, almost without your participation.