If No One Reads Your Writing, Are You Still a Writer? (And Other Questions to Keep You Awake at Night)

My husband is not a creative type. He is an engineer; everything he does is precise, rational, pragmatic. I rarely engage him in conversations about books and writing, because we think too differently. I believe in possibility and the power of the imagination, and he believes in only what he can see. Now and then, I forget how fruitless these attempted discussions are. Woe is me.

Here we are, not quite half-way through a long drive home from visiting with family, and I mention in conversation about there purportedly being two types of novelists: the writer who writes for the market and the writer who writes for his or herself. I tense, predicting what he will likely say.

My husband scoffs at the idea of a writer who writes only for himself. He is about the end product, the bottom-line, the return on investment, etc. He can’t fathom why some people expend tons and tons of creative energy (and valuable time) into projects that often get set aside, uncompleted and forgotten. Every writer, he says, writes for a market, even if that market is only one person. What he means, I guess, is that every writer writes for an audience––the reader––and also that every writer wants to earn money from their writing.

I roll my eyes at this, but am also prepared to give in to the argument because he can not see that some people have a compulsion to write and why should I have to defend my desire to write? As a friend and fellow author’s agent once told her, quite frankly, we would be writing anyway; we need to decide if we want to sell what we write.

Most writers hope that someone will read what they have written, but there are some who don’t want anyone to read their writing, for whatever reason; fear, shame, etc. Then there are the ones only out to make a buck and put out pulp fiction as fast as they can type it. Most people probably fit somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Some genuinely seek to discover themselves through their writing. But, in my opinion, most writers want someone to read their work and so, in a sense, I am about to agree with him. Until he asks, “Are you a writer, if no one reads your writing?”

Cue sound of screeching brakes. Cue incredulous look. Cue anger. What? What? Of course, I am writer if I write. No one need ever read it. No one need ever know I wrote it.

Insecurity finds purchase in my chest as my thoughts race. What does he mean? What does he mean?

He looks at the road ahead, his eyes watching the trees whip past as I wait for him to elaborate. Eventually, he says, “Did a tree really fall down in the forest if no one sees it?”

Oh. Oh. Okay, Mister Engineer. Mister I-wish-I-were-a-metaphycisist. He’s going to get all Schrodinger’s Cat on me.

Unfortunately, I never come up with the snappy comebacks until two days later. Too late to not give away the fact that I’ve been stewing on his comment for the past forty-eight hours.

If you are unfamiliar with the tree falling in a forest theory (or Schrodinger’s Cat, for that matter), let me explain. It is not exactly expressed the way my husband presented the question.

“If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound if no one is near to hear it?”

This is a “philosophical thought experiment” (I quote this directly from Wikipedia. Yes, I know. Bad Hope). The question was originally posed by who knows who, but is often attributed to George Berkeley. The scientific answer? Sound is a perception of the senses, created by vibrations. If no human, or no animal even, is around to hear it, or perceive it, then, no; it would not make a sound. That’s the strictly scientific answer. But to take that one step further, as Einstein supposedly asked Neils Bohr, “Do you realistically believe the moon doesn’t exist if nobody is looking at it?” (I also quote this from Wikipedia).

Is an object not visible if it is not being seen? I think this is where my husband was going with his question of the tree falling in the forest. Did it really fall if it wasn’t seen to fall? If we are going to ask that question, we may as well as if the tree exists at all, if no one is around to see it! Thank you, Einstein, for giving us problems to keep us up at night and question our very existence.

I know. Deep. That’s about as complicated as I’m going to get in this, because thankfully I don’t have to. This theory does not apply to: “If no one reads your writing, are you a writer?”

I don’t need a degree in metaphysics to know that I am a writer. I write. I perceive my writing. I create. I bring my writings into this world for others, if they want to, to read. If no one else reads it, I read it. My writing exists, therefore, I am a writer. Cue sounds of Heavenly Choir.

On a side note, it seems philosophizing about the reader might make an interesting topic. A book that delves in to the invisible omnipresence of the reader, and the difference between reader and writer’s expectations, is Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, by Umberto Eco, where he published six lectures on one of his favorite activities: being a reader. While not directly related to the questions posed above, I thought it close enough to mention here. If nothing else, the book gave me great ideas on how to give voice to a narrator.

As a final thought, I ask this: Does a reader exist, even if no one reads my writing? Did I create a reader, somewhere in the universe, by writing?

Cue Twilight Zone intro music.

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