By Michelle Arch
I’ve spent nearly every weekend this year (and many weekends of the previous four years) working on my novel-in-progress and MFA thesis, Time of Death. To date, only a handful of workshop peers, a few contest judges, two editors, and one trusted writer friend have read excerpts from this body of work. When I’m not writing or revising chapters, I’m crafting academic essays, newspaper columns, and blog posts that may never be read by anyone other than my professor, my Orange County Register editor, and my mother, but here I am nonetheless, writing. While it’s true that nothing may come of these endeavors, the urge to write is wonderfully innate; it will occur with or without the promise of an audience.
The number of manuscripts and short fiction received and rejected each month by literary agents and editors is staggering. After months and most likely years of effort and sacrifice, the writer’s work is discarded for reasons ranging from undeveloped characterizations or plot to the quality of paper on which the manuscript was submitted. Those that do make it to publication rarely sell more than 20,000 copies. “Most often, books go unread,” asserts Anneli Rufus in Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto. “The fiction shelves in any library are heavy with novels […] that have not been lent for years. Thus the writer, knowing this as writers do, is even more alone. Who will deem my work worth his time to read? The few.”
Jonathan Franzen describes his own despair about how little novels matter in current mainstream society and the dwindling of a literary America in his essay “Why Bother?” (How To Be Alone). America’s waning interest in literature, suggests Franzen, is due in large part to “the incompatibility of the slow work of reading and the hyperkinesis of modern life.” I would purport further that activities done alone are considered by many to be inferior to activities shared with others. To opt deliberately for solitary activities in lieu of social ones often prompts questions of physical or mental well-being. Reading and writing is tedious work done in seclusion, ostensibly the pastime of one who has no friends, spouse, children, life.
So why do writers write? If there’s no audience, what’s the point? Gautier and Wilde would contend they write for the intrinsic value of art without function, l’art pour l’art. In “The Poetic Principle,” Poe also avows “that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than [that] which is a poem and nothing more […], written solely for the poem’s sake.”
As a child, my love for words and the images and inspiration they evoke was manifested in my desire to write. I was fascinated with rhyming and with the history, meaning, and derivatives of words. I read the dictionary each day, supplementing the homework given by my teachers with self-imposed vocabulary assignments. I wrote poems and short stories as a young girl and kept a diary from the age of thirteen to give voice to my soul.
Soon I was no longer content to simply record events; rather, it became necessary to find meaning and purpose in life, and then make it endurable by transforming it to art. The events themselves are hardly remarkable without the willingness and courage to explore and articulate fully the universality and depth of human emotion, to present pain exquisitely. As both the author and heroine of my own story, I’ve learned, there is healing in the telling.
With its requirement of hyperawareness of the world around and the world within, perhaps writers write merely to stay fully conscious. Or perhaps they are compelled to tell a story, their story, to discover its meaning. Certainly there are those who seek celebrity and wealth and still others who simply maintain the one, seemingly unattainable goal of publication. Then again, I suspect l’art pour l’art is reason enough for most of us. And so we write.
Michelle Arch is a graduate student at Chapman University and is defending her thesis for the MFA in Creative Writing in November 2014. She holds a Master of Arts degree in English, a Master of Business Administration degree, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre and English. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, the Christian Writers Guild, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Modern Language Association, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, and the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society. An excerpt from her novel in progress, Time of Death, won First Prize in the Fiction Writing Contest sponsored by The Editorial Department, Second Prize in the WestBow Press Writing Contest, and Third Prize in the Beverly Bush Smith Aspiring Writer Award competition at the 2012 Orange County Christian Writers Conference.