You can’t please everybody. It’s a fact of life and a fact of writing. You’re in love with epic fantasy, but your best friend prefers Shakespeare. Neither your tastes nor your friend’s are wrong (although your debates on what’s “literary” could get pretty heated). We need differing preferences in order to sustain the large pantheon of books, short stories, and poetry that we enjoy today. The problem for writers is that we can’t figure out whom we should aim to please with our work. Should we go with short stories or novels? Do we write for commercial appeal or worry about being “literary”? The biggest, and perhaps most common, question of all: should we write for ourselves or for an audience?
It can all be immobilizing. I know that too well. Often–much more often than I would like to admit–it has disheartened me and very nearly derailed my writing ambitions. A lot of my projects have stalled because I worry too much about how my writing and reading preferences conflict with the readers’.
So, with all the different tastes and so much at stake, for whom should we write? I can’t give an answer that will work for every writer in existence. There are pros and cons to each, a plethora of situations appropriate for each approach. Just do a quick Google search and you’ll find that each side has been debated thoroughly, and so has every approach in between (just check out this article from The Writer’s Dig column). My ultimate approach–and one of the themes driving this blog–is for the writer to write for him/herself first.
How can I say that when I am so jarred by the idea that my writing might conflict with readers’ desires? It all boils down to one thing: passion. Passion, I’ve learned, strengthens writing, sometimes to the point that readers don’t care that they don’t like the style, genre, whatever. Passion got me into all the writing programs I was in as an undergrad and into the Master’s program at the University of Edinburgh.
I wouldn’t have had this passion if I hadn’t written for myself first. The first graduate program I applied to rejected me because I prefer the Gothic horror and supernatural genres. If I had taken their preferences into account and assumed, based on their response, that all of these programs would want more “literary” genres, I would not have been accepted into the University of Edinburgh. I would have avoided those genres, including fantasy and science fiction, which I am also the most passionate about. I would have stuck with “literary” fiction for which, although I do often enjoy, I usually lack the passion. My passion would not have shown to the directors. My work wouldn’t have shined as well and I wouldn’t have been accepted. I may not have even bothered to apply again out of fear that my work would never be good enough.
In a nutshell, passion drives writing. If you don’t write what you want to write, you will have no interest in or passion for the work. That is what I mean when I say that a writer should write for him/herself first. You don’t always have to write what you like to read instead of what you think an audience would like. Instead, write what you want to write, what you feel is best for that piece or collection of works without worrying about what others will think. Everything will fall into place, and you can worry about balancing your desires with what the critics say later. Put yourself first.