why we write

The Reasons We Write – Yet Another Take

Writer at a Typewriter

I’ve mused in many articles about the reasons anyone would do something as completely barking mad as writing… and I’m not the only one.  Analysis of the writerly life can be delightfully variable, as witnessed by the fat that everyone has a different take.  Isaac Asimov used to consider writers as a species of supermen, an activity not everyone was cut out for.  He even had fun with it, saying (and I paraphrase from memory) that if, as was extremely likely, you couldn’t make it as a writer, you could be president of the United States (this was written back in the era when that was probably the world’s most respected job).

A more modern take on writing would be more like “O woe, writing sucks” (and then the person who wrote that profound thought goes on to whine about how they never get anything published).

My own take is somewhere along the middle path.  While I accept that writing can be a grind, it also brings about great rewards.  There are few feelings comparable to holding a book that contains something you wrote in it, if it’s there on merit (I have no clue how vanity publishing or self-publishing feels, as I’ve not really had experience there – for all I know, it’s awesome).  The daily grind of rejection, on the other hand, is a very effective counterweight.

In my own case, the balance falls on the side of “keep writing”, so that’s what I do… but I often wonder if there isn’t another component: hope of immortality.

Before I look into the immortality game when it comes to writing, I wanted to say that I, personally, believe that all art is motivated, at least a little bit, by that dream of being remembered after you’re gone.  Whether it be a commercially successful film director making a film to cement his critical reputation as opposed to raking in the dollars at the box office or a small child giving you a drawing (and crying if you happen to lay it on a table for a second), artists want one thing: to be remembered.  Yes, approval at the time of creation and presentation is important, but it’s the legacy that matters more.

It’s deeply ingrained.  A small child probably doesn’t have too much of a fixation on death or a true understanding of the stark fact that, someday, he will no longer be around, but even so, the instinct to live on through a piece of art is there.

And, from the Lascaux Paintings to Moby Dick, that hope is sometimes fulfilled…  more often, it isn’t, but the lightning in a bottle can happen.

Moby Dick - Herman Melville

I mention Moby Dick because, in literature, period popularity doesn’t necessarily track to immortality.  Melville died believing Moby Dick was another failure in a career filled with them.  Also believing he was a failure on the day he died was F.Scott Fitzgerald.  And Poe, of course.  Emily Dickinson’s poetry was, for the most part, discovered after her death (only about a dozen of her 1800 poems saw the light while she lived).  Lovecraft and Howard are two men that the SFF genre anointed well after they were gone.

Of course, critical reevaluation and fame aren’t necessarily the rule.  For every rediscovered author or poet who joins the canon once safely buried, there are ten that are universally accepted to be creating literary history as they write, a million who will never be recognized at all and a thousand whose bestsellers are no longer read by anyone (an amazingly interesting read is this page of bestsellers from a hundred years ago).

But writers who were establishing themselves forever were sometimes easy to spot.  Dickens was writing history and everyone knew it.  Harper Lee cemented her position in the pantheon and retired (well, mainly… let’s pretend Watchman never happened).  Then there was Joyce, who established not only his reputation, but will, now and forever, define modernist literature.

But those are classic writers.  Much more important to those writing today is the question: “So what about MY writing?”

Short answer?  No one knows.  Stephen King might be the next Dickens, a man whose work was wildly popular in its day and had staying power as the best reflection of an era, or he might be completely forgotten.  The same could happen with the writers on the other end of the commercial spectrum (although it’s more likely that they will be forgotten, as there are less people around that would remember them).

Me?  I always have this image of a scholar in 500 years or so coming across a brittle anthology containing one of my stories, a precious relic of the final days of print, and writing a misguided book-length dissertation on the way my characters reflect my subconscious manifestations of my desire to retire to a monastic existence on Ceres.

If that, or anything equivalent, ever happens, my work shall be done.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is called Timeless.  The theme of why authors write is also explored in that one… although the motivations are very different than what he cites above, proving, once again, that you can’t trust writers to keep the same idea in their heads for more than a few weeks.  Timeless can be purchased here.

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Why Write?

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.

What the world thinks of your book

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.