3) Make Me Better Or Leave Me Alone
A few of you might have noticed that these rules are NOT written from the point of view of the writer. No, they’re written from the point of view of the READER. From the perspective of our AUDIENCE.
This is intentional.
Because the reader is the person on whom I am going to inflict my work. The person who will enjoy my triumphs, but who will have to suffer through my mistakes. And I’m not talking about typos here. I’m not worried about whether I used a semi-colon correctly or if I misspelled “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis.”
No, I mean that every work that goes out into the world should go out with the intention of improving the world. Of making the world we live in, this lone and dreary place, a little bit better. A little bit closer to Paradise. A little bit closer to God. Even if you don’t believe in God as a reality, just as an abstract – an all-powerful, all-knowing being who wants nothing but the best for us.
Who does that sound like? An author, perhaps? You, if you wrote your story correctly?
That’s intentional as well.
You are the god of your story. You craft and create a world, organizing all the ones and zeroes of your computer program into something amazing. Out of the quantum nothing of computerized chaos emerges character, setting, plot.
And what then?
What is the purpose, the point?
Some of you may be turning up your noses at this point, saying, “This is none of his business. I write what I write, and I don’t worry about whether it improves the world. It’s art, dammit!”
But I hope not, because I’ve heard that line of reasoning before, and it always makes me sad. Here’s why: because I have a psychiatrist.
Wait, I’ll explain.
Mental health issues don’t run in my family. They gallop. And then periodic wind-sprints with the song “99 Luftballoons” playing in the background. I don’t know why.
So a lot of us have to see a mental health care person. A therapist, a psychiatrist, or a combination of the two. And they all have one thing in common: they expect US (the patients) to pay THEM (the person listening). Which I think is weird, being as how we’re doing all the talking, but whatever, it’s the way things work I guess.
What does this have to do with writing? Everything.
I think “artists” – meaning people who do creative stuff and expect others to look at it – have a responsibility to leave their audience better than they were before reading it. This doesn’t mean “shiny happy feel-good” necessarily, but BETTER. Sometimes this means challenging them to look at the world in a different way, sometimes it means giving them hope in the darkness, sometimes it means just allowing them some time to escape and enjoy something for a few hours of pure fun.4
But I am disheartened when I hear “artists” talk about how they create without regard to what their art will do or what effect it will have. I have to admit that I always have the same thought when that happens: “You’re not an artist, you’re an a**hole.”
And here’s where the part about my crazy family comes in: if someone is creating without regard for their creation’s effect on the outside world, then what they’re doing isn’t art, it’s therapy. They’re working out their issues, figuring out their damage, opening up their baggage. They just happen to be doing it for all the world to see. Unfurling their dirty underwear and waving it around in the front yard like… well, like a crazy person. And then holding out a hand and saying: “This show is $4.99!”
And remember what I said about therapy? Remember who has to pay? That’s right: the person getting treated. So airing your dirty laundry and then expecting an audience to pay for it isn’t just wrong, it’s bass-ackwards.
No, if you are going to create art and send it into the world, it isn’t for you anymore, it’s for everyone. Don’t say otherwise – if you do you’re either selfish or a liar. And if it’s for everyone it should make everyone better. It should improve the universe that it has become a part of.
It should represent you, and in so doing, should be your agent for positive change.
There really aren’t many rules that you CAN’T break as a writer. But there are a few.
Three, to be exact.
Break any of them and you’re still writing. But you’ll have a hard time finding an audience. And an author without an audience by definition CANNOT be a professional.
Go forth. Write interesting, clear prose that changes the reader for the better… sooner or later success will come a-knockin’.