Recently, Justin Cox reminded readers of this quote:
Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.Cyril Connolly, 1933, as quoted in the patron-only January newsletter of Patreon, https://www.patreon.com/home
As timely today as it was in 1933, this statement reminds me that I’m a writer. Yes, I’m an author, too, but, even if I hadn’t published anything, I’d still be a writer. I choose to write on a computer, but if we were back in cave life, I’d etch on the walls with a rock. It’s who I am.
I’ve always written, even as a child. When I was born in Scotland, only some Christians celebrated Christmas. For families who did celebrate, one neighborhood “rule” was that we children had to sit down and write thank you letters for our presents on Boxing Day (Dec. 26). Most of my friends were dragged to this. I thought it was fun. I was a writer, finding different ways to say thank you. My thanks were more enthusiastic the more I liked a particular present. My most eager thanks were for gifts of books.
I never thought about becoming an author when I was in “single digits.” But I knew I was a writer. And I always will be, as long as I can pick up a pen or clack on a computer.
As I enter another year of writing, the quote also reminds me why I’ve come to writing historical fiction. We can call this quote timeless because we have the distance that enables us to realize its continued validity today.
The lessons of history, in whatever form they take, are hard come by. History is what has been written down, both in primary and secondary sources. That, inherently, means bias. What we choose to write also implies what we haven’t written down, what’s lost. As I read extensively in researching my novel, I’ve become more and more aware of the fragility of knowing what really happened. My novel is set in Europe in WWII and much has been written, but always from a perspective and often from a set of constraints on the writer. Or is the writer an “author” in this case? Sometimes no, if the writer never intended for the words to be read, but sometimes yes, if the writer was aiming at sharing those words with others, from a small group of family members to formal publication.
When I read these many works, I seek what really happened, if it’s possible to know that, and I seek the writer’s “self.” It’s very important to me to find the “authenticity” in the work, to know that the writer truly believes the words he/she/they have put on the page. I want a writer who conveys passion and conviction on the page, someone who gives me deep-seated belief in the subject matter, even though I am that writer’s “public,” planned or otherwise. I need the one who writes for the public, but only one who has found and written from “self.” And I strive to be that writer myself.