A Writer’s Obligations

sneak-peek-creative-writing-exercises-bookI’ve had a marvelous and vibrant discussion on Twitter with a whole raft of writers on what it means to be a writer, and what a writer’s obligation is.  I think there are some things that all of us, who care about what we write agree on. However, this is my list of a writer’s obligations. It might differ from yours. It is, quite simply, mine.

1. It is a writer’s primary obligation to care more about the work (the story, poem, novel, etc.) than themselves.

2. It is a writer’s obligation to use their primary tool, the language they write in, to a very high standard.  This doesn’t mean that every character’s dialogue should be fluent and erudite. Quite the contrary, sometimes. It is our obligation to understand that in writing, language is not only the tool with which we tell the story, but determine how it is told, and know that characters are revealed through language. That is using language with great skill.

3. It is a writer’s obligation to understand the structure of narrative. This does not mean that every story requires a perfect 12-point story structure, but that we KNOW when we are choosing to break with traditional narrative structure, and do so purposefully and with a plan.

4. It is a writer’s obligation to understand the writer / text / reader transaction. To understand that the reader participates in the writing process by completing what we start. And I feel it is vastly better to overestimate your reader’s intelligence than to underestimate it. The first is paying them a compliment. The second is treating them like idiots.

5. It is a writer’s obligation to attempt to take their readers to new places.  There are, it is famously said, no new stories under the sun. But there are endless ways of telling, looking at and approaching old ones.  This can be as radical as presenting readers with alternate universes, or inviting them to examine the interior of an erotic relationship from a fresh perspective. But there is no excuse for plagiarism or willful unoriginality. It is my personal opinion that a great amount of what is currently being published in my genre (and others) that makes no attempt at originality. There is an unabashed trend towards pumping out formulaic stories and characters with the excuse of giving the ‘readers what they want’.

6. A writer’s obligation is to write, and tell stories well. It is not their obligation to give a reader what they want. And it is a betrayal of one’s obligation as a writer to participate in the narrowing and impoverishment of reader’s tolerances. Our job is to invite the reader into a wider world, not a smaller one.  Presently, few people feel any guilt in producing predictable tasting food which makes people sick and fat as long as they make a profit. Presently, there are many writers, agents and publishers who do virtually the same thing in a literary form.

7. A writer’s obligation is to therefore broaden both their and readers’ horizons, not lessen them. I do not accept that market forces only work in one direction – give the consumer what they want. I believe that the majority of consumers will consume what is predictable and familiar until they are made aware of other options. At present, the publishing industry has little interest in the health and longevity of a vibrant literary tradition. Their sole interest is profit.

8. A writer’s obligation is not to be financially successful. This last one is really the biggie. What I’ve just said comes, in this era, very close to blasphemy.

You will notice that I have not attempted to determine who should be the judge of the excellent use of language, the deft structure of narrative, or what constitutes telling a story well. But I would like to simply state that, at present, all those things seem to be determined, to the exclusion of all other measures, by financial success.

To look back through the canon of our literature (you may believe it valid or not, however it is the one we’ve inherited) is to notice that financial success and excellence in writing have never been synonymous in the past. Some excellent writers have been financially successful in their lifetimes, but many have not. The reason why we feel they should be synonymous today is because that measure serves the agenda of institutions who care nothing for the welfare of writers, or the experience of readers, or the long-term health of our cultural heritage.  This measure is championed by people whose sole agenda is profit for themselves. Nothing more, nothing less.

And at the moment, THAT agenda is driving all the pressures imposed upon aspiring writers of every genre. What is more, this all-encompassing measure of worth (profitability) is so universally accepted, that there is almost no resistance to it. No questioning of its validity as a measure of good writing at all.

I understand that making a fair living at writing is the dream of a lot of writers. But if your dream to write good work does not supersede your desire to be remunerated for it, then I think you are a wage earner, not a writer. I can point you to professions in which it is far easier to earn a living.

  35 comments for “A Writer’s Obligations

  1. March 18, 2013 at 4:13 am

    I agree with so much of this but… The word obligation. There is no obligation in art, for me. There is nothing beyond a need to express myself as best I can. And to push myself to do that better by learning, by informing myself. I don’t understand the use of the word ‘obligation’ in relation to any art. The drive to express or create in any media is not the same as an obligation, for me and I deny any obligation that relates to anyone outside of myself.

    Also the fact that the voice of those writing for craft rather than profit is not so loud does not mean it is not there. Because the industry voice is loud does not make it necessarily the majority view. Difficult to prove either way.

    The only other point I would make is that good writing and profit are not mutually exclusive. It is only that, as you say, if profit is the main motivation then perhaps it is more likely that the writing will be formulaic. To say good writing and profit have never been synonymous seems wrong to me. Dickens made a decent living.

    • March 18, 2013 at 4:22 am

      I’m probably going to say something that you won’t like. YOUR need to express yourself is egotistical gratification. That doesn’t mean that many writers aren’t motivated by this, or that it’s a bad motivation. It is essentially you putting yourself first and the work second.

      I do believe that art doesn’t have to serve a purpose, but artists do have obligations – to the art. We don’t like the word ‘obligation’ anymore. We feel it is old fashion. We just wanna do what we feel like. This is a very postmodern stance.

      I’m not a post-modernist at all. I believe deeply in duty, obligation and discipline. They are all archaic notions. I’m unashamed of them. I feel it is far better than the self-centered and essentially masturbatory rationale for doing anything that the world is currently powered on.

      • March 18, 2013 at 8:24 pm

        Hey.I neither like nor dislike. I simply disagree. I would also struggle to presume I could define any artists motivations without talking to them at length but your experience may make you feel more able to do so.
        The suggestion that there is an inflated idea of my own importance seems to miss the point of any artist attempting to express themselves through any media. Well, yes, self is important. That doesn’t mean I’m not trying to write well, in a way that I express myself clearly. I don’t accept your point that self expression is more important than the medium, the two must have equal importance for the exercise to have any point at all. If I were to disregard the medium I would be better to follow the example of Quentin Crisp. I could just ‘be’ my art.
        There is still no sense of duty or obligation in what I do. It is done for pleasure. If there is not pleasure I won’t be cutting off my earlobe. I will stop writing.
        I also do not see the qualities of obligation and discipline as being mutually exclusive so do not see your point there.
        So I do refute the idea of obligation as being useful or indeed driving quality. Obligation is talking of a moral duty. A duty external to the writers sense of integrity in what they do. I would rather write with integrity than any sense of obligation. And I do. To the best of my ability. And no-one can judge that except me.

        • March 18, 2013 at 8:41 pm

          Hmmm.. This could be a case of misinterpretation or just an issue of language usage. So, here goes.

          I’m only concerned with motivation inasmuch as it affects the content of what one produces. I don’t make judgements about motivation. I do make judgements about what I read. And I suspect, at times, people care more about getting a book published or sold, than producing a good book. At that point, I take issue.

          Ego gratification has come to mean something negative. However, I’m using it in the Freudian sense, which doesn’t carry negative connotations with it. We all, each of us, need to gratify our own egos to feel like we have a place in the world. It is a normal and healthy thing to do.

          I’m not sure how you got the idea that I felt that obligation and discipline were at all mutually exclusive. I’d say the opposite.

          Obligation is a cultural construction. It has no intrinsic truth. From what I have read, I gather you feel that your primary obligation in writing is to serve your own pleasure. For me, it is to serve the work itself.

          As I said at the beginning of this post, these are MY understandings of my obligations and how I judge writers. I don’t expect anyone else to hold them. But, not to be disingenuous, it is the measure by which I judge the writing of others.

          As much as you believe no one can judge, the fact is the whole world does judge. Mostly by how financially successful you are. And I by how well you serve what I think is your obligation to the work. You may find both judgements have no value for you. But there is, whether you like it or not, judging going on.

          And, let us not forget, I’m a total cunt.

          • March 18, 2013 at 9:09 pm

            Yes I write for the pleasure of finding a way to express myself. It’s not pleasure in the ‘eating chocolate’ sense but in the sense that it fulfills a need I have which I had found myself unable to explore in other ways. I simply do not comprehend that the writing is separate from me so it is perhaps difficult to understand the idea that I can give more thought to either one. Sounds embarrassingly gauche but I do feel a piece of me is laid bare in every story I write. How then could I not care that the writing is as good as I can manage? How could I not strive to always write better?
            And of course you are right; everyone can judge, people are judging everything, all the time, in all aspects of life. I expressed myself badly. It is simply that I have learned to choose my judges carefully. I disregard the majority because judgements often reveal more about the judge than the thing they are judging so I don’t often consider that the opinions expressed are relevant. How’s that for judgmental? 🙂
            Being a total cunt does not seem at all bad to me…

  2. March 18, 2013 at 4:19 am

    I think our ideals align on most points except one: the financial aspect. If a person has one skill and that is writing and that is the means by which they feed themselves, they have an obligation that extends beyond any obligation they may have to their readers. Sometimes you have to dirty yourself up to make money. That’s a decision that a lot of people have come up against and chose the “easier” path. I don’t fault those writers for making those decisions, I just know it’s not for me. I don’t fault the readers who want these formulaic stories either. I just don’t want to be lumped in that category or read by those readers because I know that I will not deliver what they are expecting. I think the best avenue with this is to just STOP comparing myself to other writers or measuring my success alongside theirs. If I continue to do that, I will never achieve what I consider to be success. And to me success is just to be read. Making money would be nice, lol, but I want to be read.

    • March 18, 2013 at 9:02 pm

      “I don’t fault those writers for making those decisions”

      I’d never fault a human being for trying to feed themselves. But that doesn’t mean I feel that this puts them outside the pale, in some protected place where their work is not judged on its own merit. Get as ‘dirty’ as you like. But if you write formulaic, unoriginal crap, I’m going to call it formulaic, unoriginal crap.

  3. Catherine Mazur
    March 18, 2013 at 4:32 am

    Yes and yes. I agree with all of this one hundred percent.

    One completely unrelated thing, though: “the cannon of our literature” should be “the canon of our literature.”

  4. March 18, 2013 at 5:28 am

    A thought-provoking post. I would amend the part about financial success, however. I believe a culture that does not support art and artists is impoverished. When we ask artists to put their art before food on the table and the needs of family, we compromise their art. This imposes a greater burden on women artists. The point at which art become impossible is always closer for women. We already make less money in our non-artist jobs. Our art is valued less, in culture and in finance. Women have greater demands on our “free” time since the pattern is that our male partners in life do not take on even half the responsibilities of home and family.

    The image we have of the artist sacrificing for art is overwhelmingly male, and that man has been, overwhelmingly, supported by a woman who makes that sacrifice possible. Women artists almost never have a partner who manages the work of day-to-day living while she crafts her novel.

    All artists have an obligation to protest and end the ways in which we devalue the female and impose, overtly or otherwise, a greater burden on a woman struggling to carve out a room of her own.

    • March 18, 2013 at 6:14 pm

      Hi Carolyn,
      Economic and gender inequities in the arts are undeniably important issues, but I find that allowing them to interfere with aims in creative practice is not productive for me.

  5. Aiona
    March 18, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    As always, I enjoy your thought provoking posts, and the comments that follow! I agree with Curious Muse that writing is not an obligation for me. It is a compulsion. But just as some people have a compulsion to kill, it behooves them to find a way to sublimate that to fit a greater good. Your obligations, Remittance Girl would seem archaic but in fact are romantic, as King Arthur’s Round Table dream would seem. I subscribe to them as well.

    Carolyn Jewel, I disgree that a culture should support art. I believe all cultures contain art, reagardless of their monetary or cultural support. I passed by a mailbox today that was artfully made of tractor and agricultural machine parts. I am positive no one funded that but the artist himself. There was no state funding of art when a cave man or woman decided to draw a deer on a rock in Somaliland. People will continue to make art whether anyone supports them in their endeavor or not, and I can guarantee it is usually *not.*

    • March 18, 2013 at 8:59 pm

      Gah, I have such mixed feelings on society supporting the arts. I’m really torn on the issue. Certainly, the current mechanism by which artists get support from their respective countries does, at the moment, seem to favour good bureaucrats over good artists. Canada, in particular, has wasted a fortune in taxes on utter crap. At the same time, I don’t know how else to attempt any redress of the current monumental pressure to only produce what is commercially viable.

      I just have to own up to being fortunate enough to earn a good living doing something relatively unrelated to writing.

      • Aiona
        March 23, 2013 at 7:43 pm

        Gah, indeed. I too have difficulty drawing the line with who should support the arts. Andy in Oman just posted about this recently: http://susanalshahri.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-rohm-incident.html

        I do think there is a lot of waste when support is centralised. Example, in the U.S. one artistwho will remain unnamed received approximately $10,000 to make something that could have been made with a $4 mason jar, a cheap cross, and a six pack of beer. Strangely the uproar was not over the money wasted, but the subject matter of the art. Same goes for the Oman Royal Opera House incident.

  6. Aiona
    March 18, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Also, I make appromately ten times the income of my husband despite equal education, but biology constrains me to the larger part of family duties because as of yet, medical technology does not allow men to breastfeed.

  7. March 18, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    Although, interestingly, when art was seen as an integral and nothing-special part of life, artists were paid the same way plumbers were. Today, artists tend to be seen as these romantic figures, and art as beyond or outside of day to day commerce and necessity. Art is either grossly inflated in importance or disregarded entirely. Both are unfortunate and – I think – mistaken positions.
    As for obligations … interesting thought. I have a feeling that these will almost always be deeply personal and also perhaps subject to change depending on circumstance.

  8. March 18, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Hah, this quote just popped up, from Tom Bissell: ‘A great writer reveals the truth even when he or she does not wish to.’

  9. March 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Well said. Agree with all of that, including the obligation factor. I especially enjoyed #6 and the literary fast-food diet analogy.

  10. March 18, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    “I understand that making a fair living at writing is the dream of a lot of writers. But if your dream to write good work does not supersede your desire to be remunerated for it, then I think you are a wage earner, not a writer.”

    Does this mean I should feel guilty for making a living doing what I love? No, I shouldn’t. I get up at 5 am seven days a week so I can focus on making my stories the best. And I’m very fortunate and eternally grateful that I happen to be writing in a profitable genre. I believe a writer can do both without compromising.

    • March 18, 2013 at 7:39 pm

      Of course you should not feel guilty about it. Feeding yourself is important.

      But if you write crap to do it, then I don’t count you as a writer keeping to their obligations. Then you’re just a hack adding to the literary fast food mountain.

      I’m not encouraging you to be defensive about your ability to earn money from writing. I’m asking you to make your first obligation, as a writer, to the excellence of the work, rather than its earning potential.

      • March 18, 2013 at 9:52 pm

        Writing isn’t an obligation. It’s my life. I’ve struggled. I’ve paid my dues, earned my wages or whatever you want to call it. I’ve been writing since the third grade, learning every step of the way, and I’ve gotten better with every book I publish. Throughout my entire non-writing career, I searched for ways to incorporate writing into my dayjob, but nothing has ever challenged me the way writing for a living has and nothing else ever will.

        I don’t write for the popular market. I write for me. My first and most important goal is to produce quality.

        • March 18, 2013 at 10:43 pm

          Amelia, I get the sense that I’ve made you feel defensive. Not my intention.

          I didn’t say writing was an obligation. I said writers have obligations.

          I’m glad writing is your life. How wonderful for you.

  11. March 18, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Nice one.

  12. March 18, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    For myself I prefer the concept of duty to obligation – perhaps because, in my mind, at least, obligation suggests that outside forces have a say in my writing. For me, at least, my duty is to be true to the story that sings to me, to craft that story to the best of my talents and not to shy away from subjects that might make someone else uncomfortable. As this is my self-imposed duty the entire concept of writing for profit and cleaving to genre guidelines is an anathema to me. In fact, if that were the only option I would probably not write at all. Thankfully, I never set out to make money, so not doing so will not derail me. I am reviled more than praised, and that is alright, too – because I can look at my work and say I am satisfied with what I have done.

  13. Shar
    March 18, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    #1 is hard for me sometimes. “It is a writer’s primary obligation to care more about the work (the story, poem, novel, etc.) than themselves.” If only seeing the ego was enough to minimize it… I do think it gets easier over time, though. Over my lifetime, but also over the time of the work. When I put something away for a while, it’s easier to see the writing as its own thing with its own integrity that I must work on.

    “I understand that making a fair living at writing is the dream of a lot of writers. But if your dream to write good work does not supersede your desire to be remunerated for it, then I think you are a wage earner, not a writer.” I’m both–I do work as a wage-earner through writing, that’s my “day job,” and then I write separately as well. I definitely approach wage-earning writing very differently from writing that I initiate for a non-financial reason. I don’t mean that the writing I do for money is bad or that I’m not proud of it, not at all. But the creation of it, and the employer’s ‘right’ to a part in the process, that is different, from the stage of conceptualization right through to the finished product. It’s still creative–but it’s not “creative writing.” Not better, not worse (or at least, not necessarily), but different.

  14. Damian Bloodstone
    March 19, 2013 at 3:57 am

    I enjoyed reading this article. It was everything I believed and more. I know I will never become rich at writing and it is not the reason I do it. I do it to tell stories and open minds with new ideas. I may never make a dime off anything I write, but I will have the knowledge that I have left a legacy of possibly fair things for others to read. Writing isn’t a job for me it is a passion. I will probably never write anything really good, but if I keep trying I just might. That is the sole goal I strive for, to write something that last longer than I will.

  15. March 19, 2013 at 6:26 am

    I think some folks are reacting to a loaded term here.

    Artists often cringe at the connotations of the word “obligation” without really understanding what it means. I feel I have an obligation to my writing (whatever its purpose, even if to “just” make money) and that is what creates an obligation to the reader. In the old days you had to make your writing connect to editors before it would ever get seen by actual readers. That is largely gone now, with self publishing, but being honest in your art means understanding that readers are part of the cycle the printed word follows — if you don’t connect with your readers then it is not communication and, for me, art is a form of communication.

  16. March 19, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    #1 is on my mind. As I write more, I’m realizing that as often as I’m writing things I like, some of them make me vastly uncomfortable. Right now, I’m struggling with some non fiction that is painful. It’s awful to work on, it hurts, I want to throw up when I do it and I need to get through it because the work is that important. I feel obligated to it in that it is so important, I can be uncomfortable. I care that much. I’m bookmarking this post for future reference.

    • March 19, 2013 at 4:10 pm

      It’s on my mind too. More and more. When I first started writing the problem was getting my ass and my ego out of the work. Now, it’s the feeling of obligation to write what I think needs to get written. I never stop enjoying the use of language, but there are stories I often feel I don’t have the stomach to tell, but I know they’re the ones waiting to be set down.

      • March 20, 2013 at 11:22 am


        Me too. This Fall marked the first of those. Writing them was drawing blood from vein in a sense.

        So close to bone, all drawn from “The Real.”

  17. March 20, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    Nice post. It reminds me of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing rules: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window to the world for your story, it may catch pneumonia.” [slightly paraphrased]

    I long ago gave up trying to write stuff the world would find amazing and make me millions of dollars. I decided to stick to my guns and write what I like and what I think one person would enjoy. Sometimes I am that one person. It’s my wife most of the time. Other times I write stuff for a specific friend, like when they inspire me with talk of pizza delivery guys. If other people end up enjoying it or paying me for things I write, even better.

    I can also relate this specifically to writing comics. In the world of indie comics, setting out to create “the next big thing” that will be scooped up by Hollywood and a major comics publisher is doomed to failure 99% of the time. Writing what you like and sticking with it (AKA “paying your dues”) is what earns you respect in the industry and eventually paying gigs.

    • March 20, 2013 at 8:30 pm

      I think that writing for whatever or whomever ensures you do your best work is the key. Although I do think that writing for ‘another’, i.e. not you, is what makes creative writing truly something wonderful – what causes the spark to jump the gap and bring an imagined world into the real.

      As far as success, I think we all have our individual understandings of it. I guess for me, having had the experience of whoring (in a bad way) my talent in another sphere of the arts, I realized that having to live with the shame of producing what I know to be inferior is a place I’m just not willing to go again.

      • Aiona
        March 23, 2013 at 7:07 pm

        “Whoring.” The world’s oldest profession. Must it be so maligned? I’ve always felt that good people try to fill voids in society with what is needed. 🙂

        Husband and I discussed “obligations” in writing. It led to an interesting discussion in which I learned a lot about his values in life. It was nice to know we are on the same page. Betcha never knew you would make a marriage stronger by your fabulous posts.

  18. adotnon
    April 27, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    This resonates for me, and I’m not even a real writer. I think almost any creative pursuit, done well, requires work, and a certain need to “get out of the way” of the creation. To take oneself out of it is often difficult, it DOES require self-discipline to do it well.

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