Jul 28, 2008

Fiction Writing: The most difficult career?

PROBLEM. In the forty-five years that I've known students of Objectivism, I have met about fifty individuals who said their central purpose in life is to write fiction--either historical, philosophical, or other genre. Most of them soon switched to another central purpose in life. (For my views of CPL, see my posts of May 20 and June 5, 2008.) Some of those who switched are still in art, but in a different medium, such as painting, and are doing well. Why do so few individuals stay with fiction writing?

PARTICULAR REASONS. One reason, which I know from personal experience, is that the novice fiction writer may discover a more suitable central purpose while in the process of learning fiction writing. For example, for twenty years, my central purpose in life has been to tell success stories. In the beginning, I assumed that meant fiction. After studying the basics of fiction writing for two years, and then planning and writing two short practice novels (adventure genre) over a four year period, I realized that the success stories I most wanted to tell are real-life stories, specifically drawn from the history of philosophy. (My second, and last, practice novel was historical, which became a natural segue into history as a field.) So, after switching to historical writing from fiction writing, my basic purpose remained the same, but no longer in the form of fine art.

I know of two young men who started as fiction writers and have switched to visual arts because the visual arts objectively fit their needs and wants better. A few others have equally objective reasons for switching to another career. Beyond these individual explanations, is there something in the nature of fiction writing, itself, that makes it initially more attractive and simultaneously more difficult than other careers?

GENERAL REASONS. First, fiction writing, more than other arts, is a process of creating another world, an imaginary one. A sculptor creates a single object, but a novelist creates a whole world, implicitly and explicitly. Combine that with the fact that the medium is wholly abstract -- relying on visual symbols, that is, words -- and you have a recipe for an art that takes a long time to learn and great labor to enact.

Now add a second ingredient: there is no "career" in fiction writing except what the fiction writer builds for himself. The career of medicine, for example, is intellectually difficult, but the general academic and professional steps in the ladder are clear. There is no comparable ladder in fiction writing.

A third ingredient adds another burden: there are no jobs for fiction writers that allow them to earn an income while learning the art. A would-be attorney can work as a file clerk in a law office, then as a paralegal, while going to law school at night. After officially becoming an attorney he can work for an established law firm before setting up his own practice. Nothing comparable exists for fiction writers.

A fourth ingredient is that fiction writing involves the whole person more than any other career, even more than other arts (with the possible exception of acting). For example, a writer who has a psychological problem with repression may be more crippled in his work than if he were an electronic engineer.

A fifth ingredient is the great time lag between starting a story and seeing it made real. The process of researching, planning, writing and editing a novel--especially one that is historical or philosophical--is too long for artists who want to see quicker results.

Given these difficulties, the small number of persistent fiction writers, and the even smaller number of artistically successful ones, is not a surprise. But for someone who has selected fiction as his central purpose in life, and is objective about his ability to succeed, the long, slow climb to competence might still be very rewarding personally.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

1 comment:

Amy said...

All good points. Another difficulty that I see is that fiction writing requires a massive storehouse of concretes that can be drawn upon as the basis of the "selective recreation." Ayn Rand made a brilliant decision in studying history at a young age, and I believe this enabled her to begin quality writing much earlier than usual. I considered fiction writing in my late teens but I had nothing to draw upon.