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?

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*

10 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.

  2. What David said.

    To which I would add we make sense of the world through story and we remember important things better because we heard them in a story and cared about the characters.

    I’ve just done an interview where I talk about this. Am thinking of doing a blog post about it.

  3. I long ago gave up wondering if I write because I am, or I am because I write. Either way, if I don’t write, Bad Shit happens.

  4. When I don’t write my imagination takes over my dreams. And I find myself getting up at Oh dark thirty and writing it all down, because it was such a strange and cool idea. So, not writing doesn’t last long.

  5. I’m not sure I have a choice. My imagination has always been one of my greatest assets – and SF&F just seems the ideal outlet. If only it would pay, damnit!

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