It was interesting to read the responses to my Starving Artist article. Some thoughts.
I never stated writers (or anyone else) shouldn't be passionate about what they produce. I think in order to write a good book, you need to be passionate and believe in what you are writing. However, I think writers need to take a long hard look at what audience they are trying to reach with their book and whether or not anyone else will care about it.
As many of you know, I recently completed a memoir. I put a lot of time and effort into writing it. However I did not write the book simply because it was something I wanted to write. I wrote the memoir because of the hundreds of emails I've received over the last few years from people who have been touched by my story. I saw that writing a book about the death of my first wife and infant daughter, moving on, and falling in love with my second wife could touch and benefit many people's lives.
For those who haven't gone through the process of selling a book to publishers and agents like I am currently doing, there is a hard reality they don't teach you in writing classes: agents and publishers want to know who will read the book you're writing. Agents won't represent a book and publishers won't publish a book simply because a book is well written. They expect the writer to know the audience the book is intended for. If a writer cannot define an audience for the book and point out why his book will stand out above similar books in the market, it will never be published.
The writer who I referred to in the Starving Artist had done none of this. He simply thought that by writing a good book he was entitled to be published and became famous. Before writing the book he never thought about who would enjoy reading the book outside himself and his immediate circle of friends.
Having passion about what you write (or paint or build or program) is a key part of becoming a successful. But passion is not enough. There are many artists out there with a passion for what they do but are destitute because they 1) don't know who they're making their products for and/or 2) don't take the necessary time and effort to sell their work to that audience.
Those famous artists and writers who died in obscurity and poverty didn't have to live that way. A little marketing and the ability to convince others that their books or art were worth buying would have gone a long way to help those artists become successful while they were alive instead of receiving the recognition after they died.
Currently I am writing on a work of fiction. I am very excited about the subject, the story, and the characters. However, I am writing this second book not because I think I have a good plot of interesting characters (I do) but because I see an underserved audience in the book world that would enjoy reading the type of fiction I'm writing.
Yes, be passionate about your writing (or whatever it is you like to do.) Just make sure there are many others who will enjoy what you create.
Finally, I would like to address the idea that when a book or work of art becomes a commercial success it is somehow not worth reading (or buying or admiring).
If you feel that you can't read a book because it's a best seller or because some talk show host has put her seal of approval on it then you are what I used to be: a literary snob. There are many great books that can be enjoyed that you don't need your secret English decoder rings (read: literary criticism) to enjoy.
I remember the first time I read Jurassic Park. I had shunned any books by Michael Crichton because I had been told that his books weren't worth reading and lacked any artistic merit. Instead I discovered that Crichton was a talented and imaginative storyteller who wrote a book that I couldn't put down. Was the book flawlessly written? No. Was a great piece of literature? Probably not. But Crichton told an amazing story and was rewarded for his efforts by having millions of that book sell and also made into a popular movie.
The story of Jurassic Park created value for millions of people. Though the book wasn't nominated for any literary rewards, it entertained millions of people. In my mind that makes the book far more valuable than some obscure book that is well written and won some literary prize.
And for those who think all commercially successful books lack artistic merit, you might want to read books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lovely Bones, Fahrenheit 451, The God of Small Things, The Time Traveler's Wife, or Catcher in the Rye.
Reading books that sell well can help you become successful full-time writer. Read best selling books and figure out how the writer is connecting to the intended audience. If you want to write murder mysteries, read the popular murder mystery books and figure out what the author is doing right. Then write your own book but make it better whether it be in terms of artistic quality, characters, plot, etc. (I'm not saying to plagiarize other books but figure out why these books are connecting with their intended audiences.) You don't have to "sell out" to become a successful writer. But you do need to know who you are writing to and be able to connect with that audience if you want to make enough money to do it full time.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying a well written book. There is something wrong, however, when you think others have bad taste simply because they enjoy books that are more popular than yours.