Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why Write?

Why do I write?

Writing is the best way I know to look inward.  It's more fun than therapy, more effective, and it has the additional virtue of being free.  In fact, sometimes -- in extraordinary circumstances -- people pay you to do it.

I started writing because I heard a constant babble of voices in my head, loud enough and varied enough to make me wonder whether I had multiple personality disorder.  After writing for a few years, I discovered that multiple personality disorder is something to be cherished, to be watered regularly and taken for the occasional walk on the lawn.

Multiple personality disorder is the short cut to characters, and characters, in addition to being indispensable to fiction, are all slivers of the self.  They may not be especially pleasant slivers, and it may be disconcerting to know that you're harboring a small crowd of Mr. Hydes and Dr. Mengeles, but there are angels in there too.  We all of us contain the bruisers, the bruised, and the healers.  We should buy them cupcakes from time to time.  It's important to know they're all there.

So writing is one way to circle the mystery of who we are.  We bring our warring cloud of inner children to the tips of our fingers and let them do their stuff.  And then, sometimes, something very interesting and slightly mysterious happens.  They create a story, and that story arrives wrapped in its own world, and that world has its own weather and landscape and rules.  And if you nurse it along for an extended period and let the characters have their say and do what they would in the circumstances you've imagined, you have a novel.

A novel, whatever else it may be, is a projection of the person who wrote it.  It's been said frequently that a writer can't create a character more intelligent than than the writer is.  I'm not sure about that, but there's no question that writers can create characters braver, more cowardly, more evil, more saintly, more almostanything than the writer is -- because the writer as a functioning personality is a carefully assembled presentation of the good/bad/beautiful/ugly/wise/immature inner voices in his or her skull.  Part of growing up is to learn to manage our conflicting impulses, to organize them, like a good photographer faced with a motley crowd and somehow creating a relatively attractive group shot.  Sooner or later, we begin to believe (at times, anyway) that that carefully assembled jigsaw puzzle is really who we are.  Writing lets us pick that apart and speak to each of those little imps and angels individually and let them stretch their legs.

keyboard2I've been horrified by what some of my characters do, while others have (embarrassing confession ahead) moved me to tears with their goodness.  I have rarely moved myself to tears with my own goodness, but it tells me something when I create a world that contains such a character.  It's reassuring.  And for some reason (maybe self-protection) it doesn't negate that reassurance that I also created the Madame Wings and Captain Teeth who move my stories along with their badness.

So far, I've said nothing about writing well, nothing about art or even competence.  I write as well as I can because it gives me pleasure, and I'd do it even if I wrote much less well than I do.  I think that writing well is the last thing writers should think about.  The first joy is letting the story take shape, living through the characters and exploring the world they inhabit.  The second thing is bringing it to some sort of completion that's organic and unforced.  If you do all of that -- and if you don't censor or bully the slivers of you that appear on the page -- you'll produce something interesting.  If you write it simply, trying to keep the prose out of the way so the pages are windows through which the reader sees the action, you'll have a working first draft.  Then, if you want to, you can worry about  making it better.

Or you can put it aside as a learning experience, a mountain you've climbed.  If you've decided to climb several mountains, you might not want to go back to the first or the second and try to climb them more elegantly.  Or, if you're me, you might.  But I make it better for the same reason I wrote it in the first place -- I enjoy it.

So the real reason I write is that I can't think of an answer to the question, Why shouldn't I write?


  1. I love that you let your characters live. I remember (and blogged about) the first time one of my characters took over--making an action I didn't know he would. It surprised me and I realized I was only a means to an end.

    NOT that I wasn't in control. I don't believe in ghost forces taking over. But there was certainly an aspect of that multiple personality disorder...Wonderful feeling, strangely.


  2. Tim - You make it seem so simple. The most obvious stumbling block to getting a coherent, cogent story written so that it is understood by most and appeals to at least one is talent. Writers have greater and lesser degrees of that, a distinction we discover every time we open a book. That a publisher has taken the steps to release that book, indicates that someone at that final step agreed that there was enough talent on display to take a chance on the author.

    Writing a story also requires, in almost the same measure, the belief that we possess that talent. Having it and believing we have it isn't the same thing. If we get to the point that we believe we have the talent/ability to accomplish the task, we also have to have the conviction that the story we want to tell is worth telling. Once we are convinced that we have that kind of story, then we have to be able to convince ourselves, and the people to whom we have obligations, that the telling of it is worth the time that needs to be given to getting it into the form that is recognizable as a story.

    Blogs have become the everyman publishing house. Writing is therapy. It is often easier to write what we think or feel than it is to speak it and putting it into cyberspace, even anonymously, satisfies the need, for some, to know that it is being read by someone, somewhere.

    Harper Lee published one book, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Did she not have other stories to tell or were all the voices she heard in that story? After writing a perfect book, would an author dare to risk another?

  3. Hi, Michelle -- I actually get a little woo-woo about the characters taking over because there are times -- frequently lasting several hours -- when all I do is try to keep up. In THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, there's a chapter with two women on a train to Bangkok -- one is a bar girl and the other is an innocent who's been forced by economic circumstances to go down, too -- and I never felt for a moment like I was making anything up. I was getting it down as it happened inside my head. This happens to me often, although not as often as I'd like.

    I have a writer friend, an Oscar-winner, who thinks of writing as more like archeology than architecture, by which he means that the whole story exists, perfect, in his brain when he begins to write, and his job is to uncover and unearth it without breaking anything.

    I guess what's involved is getting the "I" that's dominated by the critical inner child -- the one who makes rude noises about everything -- out of the room while the other inner children play.

    Does sound kind of woo-woo. Excuse me while I burn some sage.

  4. Hi, Beth -- I understand what you're saying, but I have to disagree. You talk about "writing so it's understood by most and appeals to at least one," and I'm talking about the simple act of writing: one person, many inner personas, one keyboard. Other people shouldn't enter into it at that point. (This is just me -- everyone else on this blog may disagree violently.) I think it's disaster, in the first draft of story, to let the reader in, unless you're envisioning her as an eager listener to whom you're telling the story -- over a campfire, maybe -- in a way that keeps both of you interested. When you begin to bring potential readers into the room while you're writing, all you do it give all your inner critics a toehold so they can say things like, "This doesn't make sense." "Nobody will like this." "What makes you think you can do this, anyway?"

    I believe that shoving a sock into the mouths of the inner critics is an essential part of writing. A writer will never learn whether s/he has talent until something is finished and, possibly, revised. And it's impossible to finish anything long-range when you're surrounded by an ongoing critical hissy-fit.

    I'd also contend that "talent" is a relative and very tricky term, and that "work" isn't. There are many very talented writers who either never finish anything because they can't overcome their demons, and there are many less-talented writers who turn out wonderful books by writing their brains out daily and always working on tiptoe to try to extend their reach.

    I could go on about this forever. About Harper Lee -- well, maybe she only had one book in her. Maybe she was paralyzed by the perfection of her first. But another way to look at that would be to say, "I wrote that. Why can't I get out of my own way and write the next one?"

    I personally think everyone should write. Even if they write only for themselves. Sooner or later they may finding themselves looking at something that came out of them and saying, "Hmmmmmm." Next step, they'll be writing my website to ask how to get an agent.

  5. My stories don't so much feel like they are a reflection of me as that I am their mother. (Sometimes I feel like their adoptive mother.)

    A long time ago a teacher of mine quoted another writer as saying "I write because, if I didn't, there would be a hole in the universe where my stories should be."

    That really struck home for me. If I don't step up and take responsibility to write these stories, they won't exist.

  6. Hi, Tim

    I really appreciate the permission you give to anyone/everyone to stuff a sock into the mouths of the nasty naysayers, and step aside and let your creativity to take hold. Your ideas are great advice to even those of us who are not writers, or not yet anyway. Who knows, maybe one day I'll give it a try.

    Having spent a fair amount of time practicing other art forms the state that you describe is identical to what I find most joyous about creating something wonderful. While I take full responsibility for having shown up to create something the way it turns out has little to do with anything I've preconceived and it seems like the magic, the beauty of creativity is that it happens in the moment, not in the future, not according to plan.

    Did I mention I'm in expert at letting the naysayers get the upper hand? Currently they sort of have the upper hand but I'm working on getting them to pipe down.