Dedicating Your Life to Writing

Robert Louis Stevenson writng at his desk.

Unable to sway his obstinate father, young Robert Louis Stevenson had to justify to himself his decision to pursue writing rather than a more realistic means of earning a living. (Image: public domain)

The Dedicated Writer

Not all writers want to dedicate their lives to their art, but as Virginia Woolf has noted, many people who write want to do nothing else. Those who love literary biographies can attest to the remark’s salient truth. Are you among those for whom the urge to write is so strong it eclipses all other ambitions? If you are, then you have – whether you consciously realize this or not – joined those who want to dedicate their lives to art. Give this some thought. The single most effective way to enhance your work’s power is to have a clear understanding of what you want and what you are doing.

Creating Your Own Life

So, what does it mean to dedicate your life to your art – in this case to the art of writing fiction? Obviously, writing fiction is not a job for which you can apply, and while you can study creative writing, you cannot take a course in how to devote your entire existence to the process. If you want to write in a serious way, then you are on your own. Living a life dedicated to your art means, quite literally, turning your creative powers to the vitally important task of creating your own life. You must find a way to liberate the time you need to write. This may mean finding a way to survive outside the jobs and careers mainstream, always a risky move that requires ingenuity and courage. Nevertheless, if you are determined, you must invent a lifestyle that works for you rather than against you.

Art for Art’s Sake

Some writers insist on trying to make money from their efforts while others are more idealistic in their approach and take up the classic “art for art’s sake” position. Consider Russian socialist Georgi V. Plekhanov’s explanation of the philosophy of “art for art’s sake.” He sees the attitude as arising when artists feel a “hopeless contradiction between their aims and the aims of the society to which they belong. Artists must be very hostile to their society and they must see no hope of changing it.” That is to say, they must see no hope of social change through action and realize their divergent views will prevent them from gaining popularity and making any money from their work. This is clearly an extreme view and leaves out all those dedicated artists who work for the sheer love of, or powerful need for, self-expression. One hundred years after Plekhanov’s death, we more clearly understand the worth of self-expression.

There are two very different views here, one rooted in external social circumstances (objective), the other based on inner personal imperatives (subjective). Plekhanov’s view is that strongly felt alienation from society drives the art-for-art’s-sake philosophy. A more modern, gentler, view says the art-for-art’s-sake philosophy may spring from a forceful inner need for self-expression where the form of self-expression is not likely to be popular. Are you in one of these camps? If not, then the next section is for you.

Art for Money’s Sake

Presumably then, artists who do art purely for other reasons – such as financial gain –  are less alienated and feel they can change society; or they feel the need for self-expression less keenly and are therefore willing to compromise their work to gain acceptance. Are you willing to alter what you write to make it more saleable? Are you already tailoring your work to hit a specific market? If so, then you do indeed belong in this category. If, however, you are so determined to do things your way that you will sacrifice the bucks to do just that, then you had better back up a bit and reread the previous section.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

6 thoughts on “Dedicating Your Life to Writing”

  1. This is a really great post. Writing is all I want to do but I don’t like the idea of Art for money’s sake at all… it seems to be a bit of a problem! A pleasure to read, as always 🙂

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Emily! Your struggles with the two sides of writing do you credit, yet they are far from unique. Virginia Woolf noted that when people are bitten by the writing bug they soon want to do nothing else but write. Then, of course, financial realities set in and the aspiring author must face the age-old decision of starving in a garret while striving for literary glory, or making serious compromises to pay the mounting bills. Most writers with genuine talent (as opposed to what were once called “hacks”) must wrestle their way through the dreadful inner conflict. It sounds as if the war horns are calling you to battle and a resolution must be won.

    If you do not already keep a diary, now would be a good time to start. Chronicle your thinking, your feelings, and by the power of writing, the path will become clear much sooner.

  3. That is really good advice — thank you! I don’t keep a diary, though I used to. I might start one up again, I agree that would be a great way to clarify thoughts for oneself 🙂

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