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Writing for Therapy versus Writing for Publication—Part 1

Copyright 1999; 2012 by Patricia Anderson



"If you think this is fun—if you find it therapeutic—then you don't belong here."

I can hear the words all these years later. The speaker was the instructor of a senior painting class in a university fine arts program. I stood at my easel nodding agreement, fingers itching all the while to get at my paintbrush.

I always started out with good intentions. This time, I promised myself, I'd plan my composition, block it out on the canvas, paint an undercoat, then build the picture's depth layer by layer. But it never worked out that way. Instead I'd grab that brush, slap on the paint, and play tirelessly with unusual colour combinations. I'd get so involved in the experience that I often didn't pause to switch brushes as I changed colours. I couldn't help it—to me, painting was fun.

The results were less rewarding. After producing one muddy mess of a painting after another, I eventually gave up in frustration. Needless to say, I was never exhibited—the art-world equivalent of never published.

There is nothing wrong with painting—or writing—for fun or therapy. Creative expression as a way of healing or just for the joy of it is among life's unparalleled experiences. The problem arises when goals get mixed up. I thought I was studying painting seriously, and I wanted eventually to be exhibited. But the trouble was, I was not doing what was necessary to achieve my ambition. Instead, I was hooked on the short-term gratification that painting afforded. And in the end, even that lost its appeal.

In my encounters with writers' groups and in my workshops on getting published, I have seen all too many aspiring writers caught in the trap that I fell into as a young painter. They're stuck on writing for fun or therapy, when what they really want is to be published. For a time, these contradictory goals don't much matter—the act of creating is rewarding enough. But as the rejections or, in some cases, bills from vanity presses pile up, so do the feelings of frustration and failure. At this point, many writers give up for good.

Experiencing the beneficial effects of creativity is certainly part of the process of writing for publication. But it is only the first stage. The writer whose true end-goal is publication must keep this always in view and strive to progress from the entry-level satisfactions of writing to the professional habits and skills necessary for getting published.

From Amateur to Professional: The Case of Agatha Christie

Virtually all writers start out as amateurs who variously experiment, heal, work out issues, and have fun. But through a combination of sound instincts, discipline, determination, and the acquisition of appropriate knowledge, developing professionals move on toward first and then ongoing publication. The bestselling detective novelist Agatha Christie provides a classic illustration of this transition from amateur to professional.

As she recollected in her Autobiography (1977), "for some time" she "toyed" and "played" with her first detective story. "In leisure moments bits of it rattled about in my head." Then came the beginning of discipline: "It wasn't easy to snatch much time, but I managed."

At that stage, the pleasure she took in writing gave her the momentum to keep going. When she bogged down at the halfway point, she took a solitary holiday and adopted a routine of writing in the morning, then walking and planning the next chapter in the afternoon. She became "quite excited by this" and the next day "would get up and write passionately again all morning." In this way she finished the book.

Her career might have ended there, however, had she grown too attached to excitement. But an amateur with the instincts of a professional, she knew that the fun of writing the first draft "was not the end. I then had to rewrite a great part of it . . . Then I got it properly typed by somebody, and having finally decided I could do no more to it, I sent it off to a publisher."

Predictably, a handful of rejections followed. But Christie persevered and two years later John Lane of The Bodley Head offered to publish The Mysterious Affair at Styles. As is often the way, some further rewriting was necessary. "I managed that quite easily," Christie recalled. "I was the complete amateur—nothing of the professional about me. For me, writing was fun."

Unfortunately her lack of professional knowledge locked her into a multibook contract with unfavourable financial terms. "None of it meant much to me--the whole point was, the book would be published." Several books, forfeited royalties, and years later, she knew better. By then she'd acquired a competent agent and found out "a good deal" about the business of writing and publishing.

Equally importantly, during those first few years of professional development she honed her intuitive sense of market needs. Would-be writers, she advised, must "take account of the market for their wares":

It is no good writing a novel of 30,000 words--that is not a length which is easily publishable at present . . . You have got something you feel you can do well and that you enjoy doing well, and you want to sell it well. If so, you must give it the dimensions and the appearance that is wanted.

At this point, already with three published books to her credit, it "was just beginning to dawn" on Christie that she "might be a writer by profession."

The final transformation to complete professionalism came a book or two later as she struggled to write The Mystery of the Blue Train. She was still recovering from the trauma of the breakdown of her first marriage, was hard up for money, and "had no joy in writing." But as she later realized, "that was the moment I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you are writing, and aren't writing particularly well."

The Stages of Writing for Publication

There are undoubtedly variations among individual writing careers, rates of development, and levels of success, but broadly speaking, the process of professionalization that Agatha Christie went through is typical. Her experience suggests that writing for publication is a progression through four stages:

  1. Writing for the joy of it
  2. Cultivating discipline and the will to revise
  3. Understanding—and accepting—market dictates and the business of publishing
  4. Writing as a job

Progression does not mean that all joy disappears. There's always the excitement of a new idea and the stimulating challenge of putting it into words. But in the dynamic process of writing for publication these pleasures increasingly give way to the more lasting gratification of professionalism. Even the most dispiriting projects thus offer the satisfaction of completion. As Christie said of her troublesome Mystery of the Blue Train, "I got it written, sent off to the publishers . . . and contented myself with that."

If you are beyond the first two stages of writing for publication, you can identify with much of Christie's experience. If you're completely unpublished and still just having fun, you, too, are in the good company of all the professional writers who started out the same way.

Unless, of course, you're stalled at the fun stage.

If so, whether you realize it or not, you've confused the desire to enjoy yourself with the goal of getting published. Part 2 of this article will help you sort out the confusion and get back on the right track to publication.

Go to Part 2

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