A few days ago I was helping a friend edit a short humor piece she's been working on, and she asked, almost in passing, "What makes the risks and sacrifices we make to commit to this work worth it? When is writing worth it? Is its value mostly the process? But what if the process sucks? Do we ever know it's been worth it?"
It was thought-provoking, and I had a little time to devote to metaphysical questions about the meaning/worth of art, so I launched into it with her. "I think I am a……… nihilist hedonist practical spiritualist when it comes to these sorts of questions," I wrote back. To elaborate…:
The nihilist part of me says, nobody cares if you write or not. The world's a crowded place, and there are a zillion other writers out there who are hungrier than you, and if you don't want to write they ain't gonna cry.
Meanwhile, the hedonist part of me says: if writing provokes thought and enjoyment in the mind and heart of you, the writer, it's worth something. And if your written work provokes thought and enjoyment in others' minds and hearts, maybe it's worth a little more. Pleasure, man, pleasure! If we're not on planet Earth for a reason—and I believe we're not (see: nihilism)—pleasure's all we've got. When it takes a little pain to achieve your pleasure, that pleasure seems so much sweeter. So go ahead and pursue it. When things get difficult, pursue it harder.
But the practical part of me says there's something else here. I don't know if this will make sense, but I'm going to try articulating it. Since you don't know whether your writing will be worth anything until it's worth something, and since, as you write, you become a better and better editor of your own work over time, over the course of your writing career you are continuously working harder and writing more to produce fewer, probably better words. If value is measured by a relatively traditional ratio (work investment to value of the product), as you continue to write harder and spend more time writing, then logically, continuously, and predictably, your writing should increase in worth over time.
In this way I think the process is inextricably intertwined in the worth of the product.
In a last way, though, on a spiritual level, all of the above is bullshit. Because, first of all, there is an important difference between worth and value. And, putting worth aside for a moment, who are we to know what inherent value there is in art—or life, or love, or any of the things that end up mattering to us (sometimes… or most of the time… but never always)? All I know is that I feel better, emotionally stronger, more clearheaded, smarter, humbler, and more in awe of the world around me, when I devote myself to the discipline of writing. I could devote myself to some other discipline, like meditation or exercise or playing the violin, and probably feel almost the same way, but I happen to be a person who gets more satisfaction out of putting words together in a way that makes not just sense but magic—in a way, in other words, that ends up with their meaning somehow more than I ever could have known I would mean before I strung them together (!)—than I get out of, like, running. At its worst, writing is a boring, stupid slog, and it makes me feel like my brain is made out of mush. But whatever, sometimes my brain is made out of mush, and to be spiritually minded about it (i.e. to use a little hokey, inverted logic), those days are there to keep me humble. At its best it's the most valuable of exercises. An exercise in balancing judgment with compassion; utopia with the real world; hope with despair; loneliness with fraternity; clarity with confusion; sarcasm and satire with earnestness and depth, etc., etc. Writing feels to me like not just best but the only way I have of truly expressing myself, in all the frustration and stupidity and awe and fear and confusion that comes with having a self at all.
So keep on sloggin', girl.