What is Your Worth?


(image by Ben Chlapek)

Do you ever ask yourself, “What am I really contributing to the good of mankind with this story I am submitting? Is the whole of the earth better off with this released into the collective consciousness?”

Or does it ever get to that point for you? Most writers of fiction are completely ego maniacal. Unapologetically obsessed with themselves. And not always in a narcissistic way, in a masochistic way too. This doesn’t always make them bad people. Just cause you have a huge ego doesn’t mean you’re a sociopath. And sociopaths are terrible writers.

What’s the point in writing something unless you know it’s going to be a spark of positivity in someone’s life, or at the very least, a spark of empathy? With every story you write, you should be asking yourself, “What is someone (anyone) going to get out of this?” The answer to that question should be the place where you judge your worth as a writer.

Anyone else think different?


  1. ce. says:

    I have a feeling this could come under some heavy fire, simply because I feel there’s a decent sized movement out there writing art for art’s sake, which I suppose still has a worth, but isn’t based on such a moral/metaphysical level as your speaking to here.

    When I write, I don’t know that I ever think that this story or poem is going to change the world or anything. At most, I hope it just connects with someone, affects someone out there on a level deeper than, “That was a great line/phrase/&c.” And, I hope that’s in a positive way, sure, but I try to keep my delusions of grandeur to a minimum.

    At the same time, I’m not sure if that’s how I just my worth as a writer. I honestly am not sure how I do that. Basically, I write because I love sentences, and so, if I’m writing sentences that I love, then I feel worth. If others happen to love these sentences I am writing as well, then all the better.

    Of course I glow when I get an acceptance or read good words about my words, but it’s a balance, I suppose, to not get so wrapped in that sort of value, because then the rejections hurt all the more as well.

  2. chris says:

    I’d say I write from the same place. In the hopes that it’s going to connect and resonate with someone.

    I think it would be a mistake to write from the mental place of “This story will change the world” because then that would probably make you Jim Jones or L. Ron Hubbard. I guess what I was trying to get at was that a writer needs to write from a place beyond themselves. Even if that energy is focused at only one person. I think it’s important to write for yourself, but equally important to recognize what writing needs to be kept to yourself and what needs to be put out there.

    Full disclosure: I read a lot of slush yesterday and very little of it struck me as having any sort of use to anyone else in the world other than the person who wrote it. That’s not a bad thing. People need to write to organize their thoughts, to gain perspective and closure. You gotta get those words out. But not everything that comes out is publishable. In fact, very little of it is. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a working writer who publishes everything that comes off the keyboard. It’s probably closer to 10% of what comes off the keyboard. I guess this post was more about editing than writing. Know when something is publishable and when it isn’t.

  3. Nathan Goldman says:

    For me the true gratification in writing (or any art – for me the other is music) comes from that personal connection you’ve both mentioned. There is a baser pleasure in being told a piece is good in a technical sense, i.e. “well-constructed” or “crisp,” but that doesn’t begin to compare to the joy of knowing something you created intellectually and/or emotionally affected another human being.

    Chris, I think you make a great point that writers should ask themselves if each particular piece was merely beneficial to them as a person or a developing writer (or maybe beneficial just for writers – something to explore in a workshop setting), or could have meaning and resonance to the world at large. That distinction is rarely made, or even considered.

    It might be helpful if readers reached out. Whenever I read a story that moves me, if contact information for the author is available (email is usually easy to find, these days), I’ll let him or her know how I felt about the piece and thank him or her for publishing it.

  4. James says:

    I apologize for the length, but the timing of this is intimidating.

    Just last night I was having a semi-related conversation with your brother. I was asked what was my goal for writing — and what purpose were these goals tethered to? A huge part of it, as I attempted to explain, is that for me that the writing process is literally a means through which I am changed as a person. Many times, I literally change as I write — especially during the editing process. So many times have I come out a different person on the other side of the 9th draft.

    If I don’t write, whether it’s journaling or at least crappy blogging, it’s hard to explain but the world doesn’t feel the same to me — and then my mind becomes more and more convoluted. My head feels heavy, and I can feel something pressing on me. Simply — I end up with too many inputs and not enough output — and I suffer. Then, those around me suffer, like my wife. :)

    As far as deciding whether to share with others — for me, sometimes I have that intention from the beginning, with the hope of impacting even just one person … then it becomes worth it. Other times, it’s something personal — say a failure or struggle or exposed weakness — and I choose to share for the hope of the potential to encourage someone at just the right time that regardless how they feel … they are not alone. There is nothing worse than feeling alone, regardless who’s actually around you. Or — sometimes I share because I have been brought through to the other side from a deep darkness — and to share with others completes my joy … it completes my gratitude and utter thankfulness.

    And even right now I’m in a dark valley … and not sure when it will end.

    Lastly — with the “change the world” thing … I absolutely agree for the caution of grandioseness, and I am frequently tempted by that and I hate that I am — still. BUT that can paralyze me, or I can move forward holding onto that in ultimate reality, I think I have too many times under-emphasized and minimized the impact on one single person and the incalculable domino effect. Who can truly know say that one act of inspiration couldn’t have a near infinite impact spanning into millenia? And what if it only helps that one person? Why, I ask myself, is that person not worth impacting? Why must I hit some stupid magic number? Answering those questions tends to expose a very short sighted vision in me — that I continaully seek to be released from.

    So with all that said, my current criteria is a simple question of: is this worth it if it only impacts one other person whom I may never know of?

    If the answer is yes, I click submit.

  5. The brother says:

    Does anyone eles find it interesting that you are all writing about weather or not your writing should help people. While this stream of consciousness style of writing seems to just flow from your heart and head without to much going back and forth with yourself, I would argue that this very post is evedence that you all have an urge to write to inspire, help, awaken, ect. Anyways, I just thought it was interesting that you guys were doing the exact thing that you were questioning to have any kind of relevance.

    Ps. I am not a writer so please excuse any 3rd grade spelling and or horrible grammatical errors.

  6. chris says:

    Nathan: It is nice to feel that sort of validation, especially if you’re writing in a sort of vacuum, like I’ve felt like I’ve been doing for the bulk my writing life, except for a few years here and there. But I’m at a point in my life where I know when something sucks and when somethings publishable. It’s an invaluble place to be at and it’s taken me many, many years. And at the core, I think I’ve always known that my writing sucked, that it wasn’t worth publishing, I think I’m just getting to a point now where I think it’s starting to turn a corner. But that’s all I’m gonna say, for fear of jinxing that corner.

    James: Stephen Elliott says that writing is like opening a door, only to find yourself in a room full of more doors. A continuous journey of self discovery. I’d amend that to say that it’s a continuous journey to best articulate yourself. We’ve all got these thoughts in our head, but it’s the goal of the writer to figure out the words that best represent them. This is where the connection comes in. The more articulate you are, the more clear and precise, the more a reader is going to connect with your work.

    The brother: That’s a good point. The original post was about connecting, and here we all are, making connections.

    But I think what I was trying to ask as well was does you’re writing have an ulterior motive to change the world? To take the context of the world in which you live, to take the good things you see and praise the shit out of them and to see the things that you don’t agree with and rail against them? I feel like writing used to serve this purpose, fiction served this purpose. But nowadays I don’t see a lot of young American fiction writers doing that. We’re scared for some reason, or possibly we just don’t think people want to read that sort of thing, don’t want their fiction mixed with politics. I don’t think that’s right, I think that fiction still has the power to change things and if not change, then at least inspire.

  7. connecting: Agreed

    changing the world: To your point about fiction writing. I would say that fiction story telling in general has an amazing way of subtly changing peoples perspectives which in turn can have great effects on how the interact with other human beings.

  8. Nathan Goldman says:

    You know, I think it’s true that people are not so focused on broad-scale world-changing with their fiction nowadays. Some of my favorite novels are, besides being good stories that are beautifully written, pieces of intensely controversial social commentary: The Grapes of Wrath as an indictment of capitalism, an attack on greedy banks and laissez faire government, and a glorification of humans’ ability to help one another; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as questioning the legitimacy and value of psychiatric care.

    As to why this has declined, I posit two possibilities as to why writers might be terrified of associating themselves with anything political-ish:

    (1) Fear this will diminish the possibility of a writing career or any sort of prominence. If you are going to take a strong stance in your fiction, it creates one more reason you might fail – what if an editor rejects you not for the quality of the piece, but because it will bring the publication too much grief (this wouldn’t be a problem if editors can be as ballsy as writers), or what if a would-be fan is turned off by a view with which they immediately disagree (this seems most likely to happen on extremely controversial social issues: I know pro-choice individuals who probably would abandon a favorite author if they revealed themselves to be pro-life, and vice versa)?

    (2) Fear of being thought of as a social commentator first and a writer second. The person who comes to mind here is Ayn Rand: though in many ways she is no more a political writer than is Steinbeck (who does get talked about as a socialist or whatever here and there, but is still largely considered a WRITER), when was the last time you heard a discussion about Rand that had anything to do with her characters, stories, or writing, rather than her ideology? For some writers I’m sure this is not a problem – I’m thinking George Orwell, who was an essayist as well as a fiction writer. But I would rather not go down in literary history exclusively for some political statement, I don’t think.

    I do think fiction has the power to change things, in a lot of ways mores o than journalism and essays, which are seen as so tainted by partisanship that they are basically all propaganda (and there is a difference between propaganda and an honest consideration of an argument/viewpoint).

    I also think we shouldn’t underestimate, as James said, how impacting one or a few people on a personal level might affect the world at large. Any statement of opinion on humans or the world is, at its core, a political statement: the only difference between personal and political in the way we use the terms is scale and controversiality.

    Though I’d definitely like to see more open and guilt-free attempts at social commentary through fiction – people saying things they really think need to be said and who cares what the backlash is – what I think we really need to stay away from as writers of literary fiction is putting out anything that is complacent, unthoughtful, unfeeling, or that ultimately doesn’t say a thing.

  9. Nathan Goldman says:

    I always kill these discussions with my too-long posts.

  10. chris says:

    Nathan, sorry for dropping the ball on the conversation.

    Those are some good points. I see it a little differently as to why young writers and authors aren’t writing socially charged fiction.

    1) It’s hard. It’s very easy to let one’s emotions take over when dealing with politics, and if you don’t reign them you start to rant. A rant isn’t a story, it’s a shout. It’s hard to take a step back, to let the story tell itself without letting the narrator get in the way. That’s probably why some of the books you listed effected you as much as they did, they told a good story and made you look at a political issue from a different angle. Not an easy thing to do at all.

    2) I’m not entirely convinced the audience is out there. Do people even want politics in their prose nowadays? I’m really interested in reading Kapitol. I just started flipping through We’re Getting On. These are books rooted in relevant discussions. But do these types of books hold the clout they once did. I don’t know. Any thoughts?

  11. Andrew Bowen says:

    This is a great topic because of my writing contains some social commentary simply because I write fiction based on theological issues. Some have been offended by my work, others inspired, and others unmoved altogether. That’s cool. I think what seperates a writer who is proficient at social commentary from those who aren’t is the placement of the writer’s own opinions in the piece. I tend to make my fiction ambiguous; this is because I believe telling the reader how to think or react isn’t only easy, but unfair. Secondly, I write about religious issues on a social level. I’m a writer, not a policy maker.

    As Chris said in the beginning, many writers create to serve their own egos. But this is just a sign of immaturity on the novice’s part. We too are also at fault because we live in a time where every opinion is validated, even if unsound. This is what drives my interest in religion, because virtually any perspective can be validated by scripture; so now you have folks arguing over issues like, oh, the beating of women–not based on common sense, but over whether or not their scripture condones it.

Leave a Reply