Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why do I write?

I've been thinking this quite a bit the last couple weeks, probably because I fell victim to a week-long change-of-season funk, the annoying, lingering kind that makes you get all cerebral on yourself…

Why exactly do I write?

I've been able to come up with simple answers. There's the pragmatic reason—I write because I seem to be decent at it and am getting paid, with the potential to get paid more in the future. There's also the philosophical reason, which so many authors articulate as the over-simplified and frightfully hokey, "I write because I can't not write." Well, no, that's not really true, technically speaking. What they mean is, "I write because not writing feels bad," or "Writing gives my life meaning." Fine justifications, as legit as the money-based ones.

But why do we do anything? For the pay-off, financial or spiritual or social or manifested in our sense of self-worth and purpose. So, what exactly am I getting out of this gig?

Income-wise, divide what I make by the hours I put into writing, and in a good month, I'm making minimum wage, if I'm lucky. It ain't the money, honey.

There's a definite thrill in being praised, but truth be told, a lousy review hits me harder than a good one cheers me, as gloomy and ungrateful as that sounds. A bad review makes me feel more bad than a good review makes me feel good—if temporarily. That's a human instinct, to react more potently to threatening circumstances. Criticism is a threat in our modern society, as visceral a scare as being chased by a predator or attacked by a rival was in ye olde survival-times. It only makes good sense that our bodies manifest threats and criticism more potently than the triggers that tell us, "You're doing great! People like you! Five stars!" The latter is awesome…but it'll never compete, gut-impact-wise, with the negative. Not for me, anyhow, though I wish it would. I just have to keep reminding myself of that, so when I do stumble into a pile of the negative, a psychic foot-in-a-turd, my rational brain can remind itself that no, I'm not in mortal danger, my body's just awash with run-away-from-the-wolverine chemicals.

So it's not for the praise. The praise is a bonus, pretty blossoms worth dodging the turds for. What about success, the carrots of potential accomplishments dangling before me? The promise of the next contract, the killer agent, the big deal, the What's Next…? Those are good. I like those, as I'm very goal-oriented and I love qualifying my own progress. I certainly like the days when I make a new sale infinitely more than those naked-feeling book release days. Plus I've always been a bit of a teacher's pet, eager for authoritarian praise from on high. But that's not why I do it.

What about the characters? Do I owe it to my characters to tell their stories? Um, no. I made those people up. If anything, they owe me. Plus they're so much fun to abuse.

Setting aside the reviewers, professional and hobbyist and Goodreads-casual alike, do I write for the readers? Well, kind of. As a professional author, of course I do. I write stories that I hope strangers will read and enjoy. But I've had the good fortune of genuinely being able to accept Stephen King's advice on the topic of reader-pleasing; you can't aim to please everyone, because no book (or song or film or painting or person or recipe) will ever make everyone happy. Not even close. Not even remotely close.

You can only aim to please your Ideal Reader, as King calls him or her, and that's what I do, now. My Ideal Reader changes from book to book. Sometimes it's my targeted editor, or my avid-romance-reader-friend Amy, or my critique buddy Ruthie. But it's always just a single person I'm writing a story for, and hot damn, that's a huge relief. Especially since I have access to that person, and can ask them to read the story as it's progressing, so I know if I'm hitting the mark for my tiny, hand-picked audience of one. And in the end, as long as they're happy then the book's a success, and on an intellectual level, I can shrug off the knowledge that some people will be disappointed, inevitably. Thank you, Stephen King, for setting my brain free.

But I write for myself, I think, above everyone else. Not in a swoony book-of-my-heart-type way. I write because it puts me in such complete control—a control I relinquish the second the book's published, when it's no longer mine to fuss with and groom, set free to fend for itself in strangers' hands or on strangers' screens. But while it's still being written and polished, it's all mine.

It's no secret I used to be a designer. I stumbled across my penchant for fiction-writing three years ago, and though I was always proud as a designer to be able to say that I got paid to be creative all day…it doesn't compare. Ideal Reader aside, as a writer I spend all day doing exactly what I want, for myself. Even during edits and revisions, I still feel in control, because I trust my editors and I trust their opinions and advice will help me make my books better, which I want far more than I want to be perfect straight out of the gate. As a writer I've had incredibly free reign over my own creativity and process—freakishly free reign. And as a pretty autonomous, admittedly self-orbiting personality, that is fucking wonderful.

I guess I don't really know why I write. Not in a way I can distill into a single pithy line, at least. (Clearly not—look how bloated and gassy this very post has become.)

So maybe I should ask myself, why didn't I write, before? Why wasn't I doing this, four years ago? And the answer to that is, because I had no idea how important it was to me, and how much more fulfilled doing it would make me feel. It's like asking someone who hasn't yet discovered their inherent love of exercise, why don't they take up walking or yoga? Well, because you don't think you need to, to live. It's easier not to, and you'll seemingly have more time to yourself if you don't. You don't know until it's gone from chore to habit to hobby to passion, just how essential it is beyond the basic benefits of physical activity and fresh air. You don't yet know that feeling in your body, that thing inside that nags you to go take a walk, tangible as a toddler or pet whining at your hip. That magic that happens when you discover something that's not only good for you, but that you enjoy doing, that some days you downright love. A compulsive, perfectly selfish love, the kind that gets a marathoner in their shoes and out on the road each morning, through rain and snow and injury, against doctor's wishes, the draw of the punishment for whatever reason stronger than an excuse to stay in bed, warm and unchallenged. It's always easier to leave the page blank, after all. But some of us just don't get off on easy.

I think that's why I write, anyhow. What about you?


  1. Great post. So much of this resonates w/me. Esp the part about asking yourself why you didn't do it BEFORE. I don't like to think about the fact that there are people who haven't connected with their "thing" yet, because as challenging as it is to have your thing be something like writing where the work's never done and the criticism hurts more than the praise soothes, it seems worse not to know what that thing is for you.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, particularly the last paragraph. I'm often embarrassed by how non-lofty my own reasons for writing are, and I think, Hmm, do I have some undiscovered, more noble reason? But no, I guess not.

    I write because if I don't have something to think about -- something to think about ALL THE TIME, something that's new, that's interesting, that offers me unknown territories to investigate and hopefully, eventually, master -- I get depressed. And that something-to-think-about used to be school, and then it was my job, and then it was knitting (which I got very ambitious and mathematical about, never-ye-fear), and then I had a kid.

    And while he's wonderful and I love him, I kind of always knew I'd run into a bit of a problem with needing to feel like I still had a SOMETHING -- a *me* something -- after he was born, so I went out of my way to structure my life so I'd have lots of time set aside for my work, which would give me a sense of identity as separate-from-mom. But it turned out I was bored with work. Because (a) my editing work is essentially mastered, and therefore rarely new and rarely interesting, and (b) it involves helping people, and after my son was bored I spent all damn day helping him, and I didn't want to help anybody do anything in the rest of my time. (Note to my writing buddies, including you, Meg: don't read into this. Fiction help is different.)

    Writing fiction showed up when I needed it, a perfectly new, perfectly selfish thing I can think about all the time, every day, even when I'm being used and needed by my son. I wake up at 3:45 or 4:30 or, today, 2:50, and I think, "I should go back to sleep." But I don't want to. What I want to do is WRITE. Because at 5:45 my son is going to wake up, and the whole rest of the day is going to be mapped out, and even the parts of it that are mine -- the minutes set aside for my run three mornings a week, or the two and a half hours my husband and I get to go out to a coffee shop most weekends -- are obligations. But I can write whatever I want in the dark at three o'clock in the morning, and some of it I'll like, and some of it other people will like, and that's what's keeping me going.

    I'm sure there are a lot of other, more noble-sounding, career-enhancement-friendly ways I could have put that, because the way I did is both depressing and kind of a cliché. But I'm tired, and anyway, it's true. I write because I need it, or else I'll be unhappy. It's the same reason I run, but for my brain and my ego and my sense of identity instead of my body.

  3. P.S. I had no idea that comment was so long. Now I'm embarrassed.

  4. Hot damn, don't waste that primo stuff in my silly little blog's comments, Ruthie! Post it yourself!

    Thanks for your perspectives, ladies, really. I'm totally with Ruthie about needing something to simply think about, to keep me juiced and plugged in, throughout the day's more mundane moments. Great observation.

  5. Yes! The fact that I can simultaneously be more or less present for my kids AND engage my brain in fiction-writing is such a source of joy to me. For the first seven or so years of parenting, I was bored pretty much all the time when I wasn't solving a problem (in which case I was probably exasperated) or socializing with other moms (and even then I was sometimes bored--and exasperated). When I started doing more non-fiction writing, I had periods of time when I wasn't bored, but then there were still periods of time when I had to parent, which meant I wasn't working, and then I was bored again. With the fiction to think about, I'm basically NEVER bored. Which makes me so much nicer to my children. And my husband. And my friends.

  6. "With the fiction to think about, I'm basically NEVER bored." Yes, yes, yes! This is so true. I think back to when I was designing, and I'd have to invest hours a day sometimes, image seaching for just the right photos for a layout. Mind. Numbing. Until I started writing, then I looked forward to that brainless time, because I could do that task with my mind wandering in storyland—could do it better in fact, because I wasn't glazed over with the monotony of it. This is such a good point.

  7. Just noticed I typed "when my son was bored" -- there's a Freudian slip for you. I'm glad to hear the "yes" chorus from you two. I get the sense that there *are* writers who are in it for the praise and/or fame, but many of them might be the folks who aren't getting the book written. Because the actual writing of the book requires all that wonderful/horrible mind-fucking work that you either fall in love with or procrastinate like hell to avoid.

    As for putting this on my own blog, Meg -- *smiles*. I'll let you do the thinky this week. I have a feeling some publicity wonk is going to start telling me to post more cat pictures soon.

  8. A writer I used to know said something to the effect that one writes because there is something within that needs to express oneself through the written word. Some people communicate through music, some through art, some through speaking. For authors, it's writing. As a little kid, I used to write stories on my own. I loved doing term papers. If I wasn't writing as a career, while I might not do it as much, I would still do it.

    Do take more heart from YOUR positive reviews. Your stuff is fantastic. You have a tremendous talent.

  9. Thank you, Cara. I like you so much more than that other Cara, the one who's always janking my body to write her filthy claptrap.

    I hope I don't sound too despairing—I'm not! And do appreciate the hell out of good reviews, and reader e-mail even more so. I think it's just a biological fact that a criticism will always hurt more, viscerally, than praise will feel good. It's super annoying. But luckily, so far my kind reviews have outweighed the not-so-kind ones. I smile every time I see a nice one, and I never bawl my eyes out over a less-than-stellar one. I think I take them as well as a new-ish writer can. And generally, if I see a bad one coming, I don't click on it if I know I can't handle it that day and also stay focused enough to make my word count or what have you, or just spare myself the sting. Thankfully, reviews preoccupy me less and less as the months go by. Though it does take a while to feel secure in this gig!

    Thanks for stopping by!