On more days than I care to admit, I sit around and try to understand why writers write. There are probably as many answers to this as there are internet sites devoted to writing out there, but I still wonder. The fact that many sites title themselves with names such as Writing and Other Forms of Insanity (this is just an example I happened to see today, but many writing sites have a variation on this title) should be a pretty strong clue that even writers aren’t quite sure why we do it.
Is it the fame and fortune?
Sorry, I’m back. Had to stop and laugh. Even writers with a long career and several excellent books to their name, published by the right houses and available on bookshelves aren’t precisely rich. Other than the hyper-famous ones, the lucky writers make about the same amount of money as anyone else does from their job… but with less benefits.
As for fame, I personally know a los of brilliant, successful authors whose names, if you mentioned them to a random stranger on the street, would elicit a single word reply: “Who?”
All right. Yes, Stephen King exists, and so does J.K. Rowling. It’s possible to become rich and famous through writing in a way that you probably can’t by pursuing a career as an accountant. The golden dream is always there, but most writers who start along the path chasing these things exclusively abandon their ambitions for some easier way to make a buck. You may get there through writing, but it will be neither easy nor quick.
So it’s not money and it’s not fame. Recognition, then?
Again, some starry-eyed folk might, armed with their mother’s kind words and their college professor’s admiration, embark on a publishing career expecting unlimited praise and adulation. That usually lasts until the first rejection. If they can get up after that, the next ten usually finish the job.
Then why? (Btw, I have a print of the above cartoon sitting on my desk)
All I can give you is my case. I’ve been telling stories since I can remember. I had a brother who is two years younger than I was who had to listen to a lot of them when we were kids. He still reads my novels because I give them to him, so he is likely to be canonized once his story gets out.
And then, I discovered that, when not sweating blood over a keyboard (yes, this happens), I often enjoy writing. Yesterday, for example, I wrote 1800 good words without even realizing it (this is in no way, shape or form normal). I had fun and wrote a scene which made me chuckle.
But it isn’t all fun and games. Now I have to write the next bit, and I have no clue as to what comes next. Time to sweat those bullets.
So, habit and occasional enjoyment. Is that it?
Probably not. The sheer joy of getting an acceptance email has never disappeared. I no longer dance down hallways as I did when I learned of my first sale, but I still have a nice warm glow that lasts all day. Kind of like when you drink Irish Coffee in front of a roaring fire.
That many writers give up before experiencing this is a true tragedy.
Also, no matter where you are on your writing career, there’s always another hill to climb. You sold a story to a magazine? Great! Now sell another to a bigger mag. Published a novel? Cool, now publish a better one, or sell one to a bigger publisher, or hit the NYT bestseller list. Already a millionaire bestseller? All right, but are you a critical darling? If not, that could drive the next book.
In my own experience, it might have been possible for me to stop when I was just writing for fun – I might not have stopped completely, but I might have just written occasionally for a laugh – but once that first acceptance happened… there was no question of ever giving it up. Worse than crack, better than sex.
So there’s something.
And finally, there’s the fear of death. The fact that our writing, even if it was just printed in a photocopied local rag, has the potential to connect with people long after we are gone. If just one copy of one story survives to be puzzled over by scholars in a few hundred years, it will have left a much greater mark than several lifetimes of accounting or marketing or managing a restaurant.
To incorrectly quote Queen: Who doesn’t want to live forever?
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His novel Outside explores immortality in a much different and less obvious way than this post.