I’ve been writing romance novels. The last two books I self-published were the first two in a planned series of four romance novels, and the project I’m working on now is the third in the series. I’m writing them under a pseudonym to differentiate them from the rest of my work, which is much different in style and tone. I call these my “cheesy romance novels,” partly as a joke, and partly because I have this lingering feeling that they can’t really be taken seriously.
This is a pretty lousy attitude to have toward your own work. I try to remind myself to be professional, to take all my work seriously and to write what’s best for the project at hand. In fact, this project is starting to go very smoothly and I’m happy with it. I wrote the first two books seven or eight years ago, when I was much more optimistic about publishing, and it’s been a real struggle to get back to number three. Finally it’s going well, I’m happy with it, I’m feeling successful – and yet I can’t help hearing the little voice in the back of my mind saying, “Are you sure this is what you should be wasting your time on? Shouldn’t you be working on one of the more serious story ideas you have?”
I recently listened to an episode of the Meditation in the City podcast. This show is produced by the New York Shambhala Center and features talks by Buddhist teachers, and the talk in this episode was about creativity. One thing I like about Buddhism and particularly about Shambhala is how practical everything is. They’re not just talking about abstract matters in philosophy or theology; they’re talking about the nuts and bolts of living your life. In this case, a creative life. Creative arts, according to this speaker, aren’t just about getting your voice heard. (He mentions the “but I need people to hear my voice!” and “it’s all about me!” lines of thinking as problematic areas, something you can see on display whenever authors throw fits over bad reviews.) Instead, the arts are about interacting with others and creating community. He quotes one major teacher who described art as Bodhisattva activity. A brief definition of a Bodhisattva is one who’s dedicated to helping others awaken and get in touch with their own humanity.
It pays to be cautious when you start talking about big things like this, so I don’t want to make too much of myself. But there’s a reason I write and here it is: I’ve always defended speculative fiction as a powerful way of discussing humanity. I’ve gone so far as to describe my own books and stories (the heavy ones that I write under my own name) as being about people struggling to keep hold of their humanity despite inhuman circumstances. But hanging all that weight on my work sets up a dichotomy: the heavy stuff that takes on big issues is serious, that’s the stuff I really need to be spending my time on, while the light stuff is inconsequential and not as worthy of the effort.
But humanity isn’t just the big stuff, the major existential issues that show up in capital-L Literature. Humanity is everything, including the big stuff and the little, day-to-day stuff. And guess what humans experience almost more than any other emotion, an experience that all humans share and can relate to? Love. So bring on the romance. Yes, realistically, there’s well-written romance and there’s poorly-written romance (see “being a professional,” above), and some examples of the genre (maybe even mine) don’t go much further than the typical courtship story. But that’s okay. Not everything needs to be the capital-L stuff. It does need to appeal to some aspect of being human. And if it does that, it’s worth taking seriously.