Why I write*

Why do people write? Is it natural talent making the path easy for them? Is it that some people have so much to say? Or is it a compulsion, akin to a need to wash one’s hands early and often?

I don’t know. I doubt natural talent. I’ve known too many naturally talented geniuses who never seemed to understand that they should study the craft or even apply some rational thought to their work.

I also doubt people who write to send a message. Oh, certainly, writing like raising children are ways to pass on a certain way to look at the world. In fact, it’s almost impossible to do either without transmitting to others certain ideas about how the world is organized or works. Mind you, both are an uncertain deal. Both are as likely to make people determined to oppose you as to make them believe as you do.

Compulsion probably comes closest. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t feel a strong need to write.

But by itself compulsion is not enough. Compulsion can be satisfied by writing snippets and bits and “fun parts.” A writer can easily spend her life hiding away to write and produce nothing of more interest than the “fun parts” of books. Since the rest of the book remains in her head, this amounts to a “cut scenes” reel, without the story to lean on. Watch those for any movie, and tell me what you’d have got without the movie.

Look, I’m going to level with you. Writing, real writing, the sort that produces a full novel, particularly the sort that produces a novel that someone – editor or a significant number of readers – will pay for is hard. REALLY hard.

Is it as hard as ditch digging in the hot sun? I don’t know. They’re completely different skills. Speaking as someone who has always enjoyed heavy, sweaty work outside, there are days that ditch digging appeals infinitely to me. When that need gets too strong I go play with power tools or dig up my long-suffering garden.

It’s tough working with your hands, under the sun, and it leaves you sweaty, hot and achy. But it doesn’t leave you worrying about how plausible this character you made out of whole cloth is, or whether readers will run screaming from your fight scene or… It doesn’t make you worry obsessively about things that exist only inside your head, which, frankly isn’t a safe endeavor.

Worse, writing to sell involves constantly playing chess against yourself, being both players in a single move. Or more plainly, it makes you second guess how total strangers will view your work. You might have lived months or years with these people, this civilization, this murder mystery, in your head; you might know everyone in your made up small town AND their little dog too, but you have to present them in such a way that a stranger will understand the story and get introduced to these people naturally. It’s not as easy as it seems.

When I was young my mom designed clothes. Then she retired and designed clothes only for me. Since she retired when I was about twelve, I remember that second phase better. Mom would sometimes dream up, draw and start building something, and forget some major detail where the work intersected with real life. For instance, in the late seventies, she was trying this body-suit on me, and pinning it in place and a problem occurred to me. Took me a while to ask her about it because, well, she was the professional. Surely she knew what she was doing. And then I said, “Mom… uh? How do I get out of this?” I’ll never forget her stricken look.

Yes, that’s right. After weeks of drawing the suit, planning the construction, etc. She had forgotten it needed to somehow open and close so I could get in and out of it.

If you have that sort of major design fail with your novel – which trust me, I’ve seen very often and committed once or twice – it’s usually not that obvious. People don’t read into the novel far enough to tell you, “You idiot, your character doesn’t want anything. He just whines and has stuff happen to him.” They just read the first chapter or the first page and go “blah. This didn’t engage me.”

In fact, depending on how much talent you have, people might not know what’s wrong. Or if they know what’s wrong and tell you, you might be incapable of hearing it. If I had a dime for every time I’ve had a conversation with a newby that goes something like this, “It’s not a bad concept but you don’t have a plot. Your character is feasted, adored, loved and patted on the back.” “Oh, but you missed how he had a horrible childhood. I mentioned it in three paragraphs on page three.” “Okay, but compensation for a horrible childhood might be good therapy. It’s not good plot.” “Oh. Well, I’ll have an anvil fall on him on page ten. That will fix it.” “No, you don’t have a plot.” “Maybe he’ll go mad and kill his cousin on page 348 and then spend the rest of the book lamenting it.” “Er… what?”

Without going into other major pitfalls of learning how to do the thing – which would become a manual on how to do the thing – let’s establish that writing novels is hard. It is not as depicted in books, movies and the occasional TV series all about “gathering the material” which involves fun adventures and looking cool. Writing involves a lot of time alone with yourself. It involves a lot of time cursing the keyboard and stalking the house muttering that “Why couldn’t they just fix the spaceship? And what’s with the three legged horse?” while your family members jump out of the way. (Or if they are my family members – two of which, my husband Dan and older son Robert are writers, and the third of which is a writer-in-denial right now committing poetry [and he’s not even apologetic!] – trying to stop you and going “Okay. Tell me why they can’t just fix the spaceship. And what the heck is with a horse in the spaceship? You know that’s been done, right?”)

Worse than that, writing for a living involves navigating a world which until very recently was so loony (and probably will seem even loonier, even if it gets more rational) that I could never get any of my non-writer friends to understand that there was a difference between agents and editors. Heck, the writer in denial in the house confuses them too. (No, I’m not going to insert snark here, mostly because it was a fight I didn’t want to get involved in to begin with.) I tried to explain to my friends about a dozen times, “No, see, the agents work for me. I work for editors.” They would scratch their heads and go “But either can reject you, or say a project can’t go forward. How come?” until I said, “oh, never mind. So, how is that promotion thing at work coming?”

Writing for a living means that: when you’re not actually typing, people think you’re taking time off; most people don’t consider what you do real work; people feel free to project upon you whatever they think writers are “so, you write about women having sex with vampires?” is something I often hear (I can honestly say I’ve yet to write one of those.)

Writing for a living means people assume you’re rich “but why can’t you pay for an $800 a month office? I googled you and you have seventeen books out. J. K. Rowling only has seven and I saw this program…”; people assume you have more control over your career than you did till now “why did you put this cover on your book? It’s ugly.” People want to share their bounty with you “I have this idea for a book” and everyone knows how to write better than you do, “Now, when I write my vampire book, when I retire, there will be lots of hot sweaty sex between chicks and vampires. That will sell. Maybe you’re not J. K. Rowling because you don’t have enough sex between hot chicks and vampires.”

So for most of us it’s an intensive learning curve, hard work, low pay, low prestige occupation. Oh, and it makes the neighbors think you’re weird and possibly a sex fiend.

I have no idea why other people writes. I’m not even sure about why I write, but here it is:

As difficult as it, I write because it is a continuous challenge. I’ve taught and I’ve been a multilingual scientific translator, both demanding jobs. But compared to writing they’re a piece of cake, and they become routine. In writing I invent the job everyday. It’s sort of like building the road and being the first to drive on it. It never gets stale.

As low prestige as it is, I write because I can compete with myself. I never understood status symbols and money beyond enough to be secure tends to leave me cold.

As little as I care for “honors” I write because I want to be read. Story telling implies someone listening to the stories. There isn’t anything more gratifying than getting an email telling me “I was having the worst day of my life, till I read….” And getting five or six of them in a day is better than a standing ovation. These days when I have a few fans, I write because of the pitiful letters asking for more Kyrie and Tom or Thena and Kit, or even “what happens next in the Magical British Empire?” I often find myself putting a note in and going “oh, so and so will love knowing there will be kitty dragons of sorts.”

And most of all, of course, I write because I can’t avoid writing. I write because as far as that goes, I’m a machine for turning world into story.

And this is why I struggled for sixteen years to break in, why I have refused to let the screwed up establishment kill my career, even if it meant writing six books a year (they’d bury my career and it would shove its head out of the grave screaming “Brainz” and lurch merrily on), and why I am now, when the mid century is running full tilt at my face, I am in a way starting anew, in a field that has changed so much as to be unrecognizable and which will require me to learn marketing, as I’ve learned other things in the past – things that weren’t immediately and obviously part of story telling.

Because I can. Because I must. Because I am writer.

And you? Why do you write? And if you don’t, why do you read?

*(Yes, there is another post by that title here – by my friend Tedd Roberts whose Rat Lab is linked from the side bar)

*Crossposted at Mad Genius Club*

11 thoughts on “Why I write*

  1. Interesting. Over on my own blog I addressed the “why write” subject and came to much the same conclusion. The writer/storyteller is a old as human civilization, probably older. It’s a near universal trait among humans, this urge to craft stories, whether it’s “No sh.., there I was,” or “It was a dark and stormy night,” or “Her world exploded. It wasn’t a large world, or particularly valuable; just a rock really, scarcely more than a large asteroid, but it was hers. And now, it was gone.”

    Some people have it more strongly than others. These are our storytellers, our mythcrafters, our writers. And I like to fancy myself in some small way as one of them.

    In the end one isn’t a writer because one writes. One writes because one’s a writer.

    1. David,

      After reading The Bicameral Mind, I’ve decided we’re all descended from the same neolithic madman, roaming the lanscape, hearing voices, weaving stories… I’ll note our civilization seems to always have honored story tellers, so I wonder if it’s a favorable evolutionary trait.

  2. I don’t write because, it usually won’t come out right or something. i do understand the storyteller urge though. At least at the “No sh** there I was level. 🙂
    Sanford

    1. The difference there, IMO, is more of degree than of kind. And the “won’t come out right” is as much a matter of learned craft as anything else.

  3. I don’t write because I’m a talented dabbler.

    No, seriously; right now I’m doing exactly what you described about writing the fun bits. I sort of have a plot, but my GODS does it need work! Once I figure out how to get this thing into something coherent, instead of a series of really boss cut-scenes, then I’ll say that I write. Until then…

    I honestly have no freaking idea what I’m doing, as is proven by the comma abuse I commit when I’m not thinking about it.

  4. I’m a different sort of writer, a journalist. And for years I was a journalist in denial. I’d gotten burnt out and left the field. Tried several different things from rough framing, to various types of sales, to eventually ending up the director of a small museum (which for a history buff was actually kind of fun) and I thought I was happy not being a journalist.

    Then I made the mistake of answering an ad for a freelance sports writer, what we call a “stringer” in the business. Didn’t take me long to figure out I was deluding myself, I was a journalist, a writer. And pretty soon I was back in the business of writing full-time.

    Still, I didn’t really consider myself a “writer.” I was an editor, a reporter, a JOURNALIST. Slowly it began to sink in — Pat, you’re a professional writer.

    Fast forward a couple of years, and I’ve had the honor and privilege to know a few fiction authors and realized there really isn’t that much difference, in principle, between what Sarah does and what I do. We just work different ends of the spectrum.

    All this a long winded way to say, I write because I’m a writer, it’s what I do and who I am. I find it’s so integral a part of me that when I don’t write something for a day or so I get — itchy — and my family starts avoiding me like the plague.

    Plus, it scratches that highly narcissistic bone. It’s FUN to see your name in print and know people are reading it.

  5. I don’t know about that outfit your Mum was crafting; for many parents of teenage girls the idea of outfits she can’t escape of strikes me as at least as much feature as bug.

    More interestingly, one of your comments suggests an question: which film(s) best exemplifies the writer’s life? Romancing The Stone and The Shining come to mind as two possible depictions; any others?

  6. “On A Happening (Why do Writers Write)”

    A friend asked me the other day
    To come with him and go and play,
    ‘A happening’,
    I believe he called it then*.

    Where strangers flock
    to play or mock
    All in a group,
    for reason thin.

    “Foolishness,” I said, “I’ve half a brain
    And I’m smart enough to abstain.
    And stay at home not wasting time
    On activity so vain.

    “Why must you do this?”
    I said, puzzled at his game.
    “Well, why do you write?”
    his rejoinder came.

    I could not rest, the idiocy confessed,
    What purpose served by fools
    Who gather at some fore-mentioned place
    And follow silly rules?

    Why do I write, indeed!
    I create!

    As fish swim in water,
    I swim in literature
    As birds fly through the air,
    I float on metaphor.

    Analyze it all we might
    We writers write because we write
    And that’s the long and short of it,
    Amen.

    And yet…
    And yet….

    …Yet, I could not easily say.
    Do I write for other’s praise?
    To enlighten fools such as he
    Or warehouse warmth for elder days?

    …Yet, rarely do we glorify
    The lone evanescent firefly
    Nor praise a single
    facet on a gem

    Why do fireflies burn at night?
    Why do swallows southward wing?
    Why do salmon swim upstream
    Doing their fishy thing?

    And as the salmon swims upstream,
    Thru noble play of gill and fin,
    It’s not the fact that they do swim
    But that there’s a river to swim in.

    No, then, not I alone.

    There must be those
    For whom my pen doth flow.
    They cheer me on when hope is wan
    And feed my soul with their outflow.

    Yes, I write because others write,
    While what they’ve written spurs me on.

    Every being is a happening
    An atom suspended solitaire.
    Each seeks to belong in bewildering throng
    Though isolated in mid-air.

    Though I may glow
    but briefly in the flow,
    My feeble flame joins with my mystic kin
    A river of fire through the universe,
    An incandescent splinter in the wind.

    The world is there and write I must
    I suppose I’ll keep on striving `til the end,
    The ether of the firmament
    Is where I’ll place my trust,
    Analyze it `til you’re dust,
    We will communicate or bust,
    And that’s the long and short of it,
    Amen.

    “I understand,” I told my friend,
    “But I can’t go with you tonight.
    “Lit happens,” I said. “You go ahead,”
    “I think I’m going to write.”

    (*or a flash mob. I couldn’t remember this when the poem hit. It didn’t matter… I liked ‘happening’, and that’s the way I wrote it.)

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