My first reaction was, "What's the difference? We can't get readers unless we get published, can we?"
But as I thought about it, I realized I've had another, related discussion with other writers for years, a discussion that usually takes place when one of us feels depressed about the difficulty of getting journal editors, agents and/or publishers interested in our work. It goes something like this:
"I'm sick of writing stories nobody wants to read. From now on, I'm only going to write what sells," says the discouraged one.
"Don't do that," says the discouraged one's friend. "Everything out there is crap. You're too good for that. Uphold your standards."
"Why? Nobody wants to read thoughtful stories. Hardly anybody reads period. I'm just going to appeal to the lowest common denominator until I get published. Once I'm established, I'll have plenty of time to write good quality fiction."
There are a couple of flaws in this line of reasoning. One is that what we label "crap" is usually written by someone who thinks her story is pretty damn good. The other is that when we do try to write something we don't believe in, that doesn't reflect us, the story almost always falls flat.
Years ago, for example, I decided that I would write a series of romance novels.
Not that romance novels can't be good. You can argue that the Bronte sisters wrote a type of romance.
But I figured nothing could be easier. Why? Because they all follow one of a few predictable formulas. All I needed to do was decide on which formula I wanted to follow, and I was good to go.
I read twenty or thirty of the "bodice ripper" variety until I was sure I had all the elements down. I was sure I was only a few thousand keystrokes away from fame and fortune. Because that's what I wanted. Why I was writing. I wanted people to buy my books so I could make money. I wanted people to know my name (Well, my pseudonym which was, as I recall, Desiree Darling.)
I sat down at my computer and .....NOTHING. My mind went blank. I looked at my notes, my careful outline of all the plot elements I needed to include to make my first novel a hit. I turned back to my blank computer screen, stared at it for a full five minutes. Finally, I forced myself to write an opening paragraph introducing my innocent yet feisty heroine.
When I finished, I was drained. I got up from my computer to fix myself a sandwich and a cup of coffee.
I couldn't talk myself back to the computer that day, though I promised myself that tomorrow I would get down to it. For a full week, I told myself that my romance novel was as good as written. All I had to do was sit down and write.
I couldn't do it.
It didn't make sense. I knew exactly what I needed to write. What was the matter with me?
In retrospect, it's pretty simple--I couldn't write my romance novel because my heart wasn't in it.
In the end, we write what we must, I think. What we're drawn to. What speaks to us. And, yes, we want people to read our work. We want that with every fiber of our being.
But we have to write for ourselves first. The rest will follow if we're lucky.