Write Posthumously, Edit Currently

Adapted from a speech given to the 2012 Whiting Award winners, Jeffrey Eugenides implores writers to “write posthumously”–to take a step back from the writing world and deadlines and money and fame and critics, and to write according to a deeper and more lasting truth. Forget about what your readers expect, what your critics want–just write.

I like a lot of that advice. No matter what stage of the writing game you’re at, there’s a lot of pressure. How can you get an agent? What do editors want to read? How can I make this book more marketable? How can I win an award, and write a second novel that will win an award? That kind of thinking doesn’t necessarily get you award-winning novels. At the end of the day, I want to write books that touch people or make them laugh or explore what it’s like to be alive. It’s hard to do that when you’re trying to think “But I hear that vampires/dystopias/mermaids are really popular!”

Eugenides says: “When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive.”

For me, writing felt like the most natural thing you can do with some paper. The world has so many stories! Why wouldn’t you want to tell them all? So when I’m feeling stuck or under pressure, I try to remember what it was like when writing was about fun. It was about having a blank sheet of paper one minute and a full one the next. It was about getting to that place inside your head where the world retreats somehow and the characters start to move and talk. That’s a good place to be.

Of course, that’s the ideal writing life. In real life, you have editors and agents and readers and critics and, heck, a rent to pay and you can’t always write exactly what you want to write exactly when you want to write it. At the Millions, Todd Hasak-Lowy suggests writers take Eugenides’s advice with a grain of salt. Sure, we should write without the demands of the publishing industry in mind. But writers also have to deal with these issues. Your agent may say that your latest project isn’t going to sell. Your editor may not be into the minor character you love. Maybe no one shows up to your reading. Maybe you get a bad review. From talking to working writers, this stuff happens way more often than we’d like to think. Writers need to be prepared for the realities of the business side of writing, not just the creative side. I like Hasak-Lowy’s suggestion for what authors should do:

“[The] so-called writer has to wear all sorts of hats: writer, reader, editor, negotiator, businessman, self-promoter, etc. And only the first of these hats should never be worn outside one’s private necropolis. The next two have the odd responsibility of communing — patiently, cautiously, and courageously — with the dead self. The rest must find of way of coming to terms with life among the living.”

When you have your writing hat on, forget the rest of the world. You’ve got a story in front of you–focus on that. But you need to understand how to deal with the rest of the world, too, and part of that means putting on new hats. Over the last few months, I’ve talked to several writer friends about the “follow up book” and developing a solid reader base. And that doesn’t always include writing your secret favorite idea first. No matter what stage of your career, you need to recognize the realities of being a professional writer.
Still, that doesn’t mean Eugenides is wrong. The writing is what matters. We’re here for the writing, not for the money (ha) or fame (ha) or cool book swag (bookmarks!). Even if your writing career doesn’t bring you all the success you hope for, you’re still craft characters and finding the right words to express those deep longings we all feel. And that’s pretty awesome.

2 thoughts on “Write Posthumously, Edit Currently

  1. Wow. Great article (and great quotes, too). I got hooked at the second paragraph!

    “[Write] in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive.”

    This is exactly why I write, but I have to admit it’s very hard to keep the outside world completely out. It’s difficult to know if I’m really focused and truthfully write because I love to, and not because I want to be financially independent or even famous.

    I guess I just have to remind myself everyday. 🙂

    Thanks for this.

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