Why We Write

soldier_penHere’s a question for you. Why do you write? Possible answers include:

  1. Easy money
  2. Can’t hold a real job
  3. Just want my voice to be heard
  4. Just sort of feel like I have to

If you answered 1 – easy money – you’re either inexperienced, deluded or perverse…all treatable conditions.  If you answered 2 – can’t hold a real job – at least you’re being honest. If you answered 3 – just want my voice to be heard – you deserve honor and respect, sympathy and prayers. If you answered 4 – just sort of feel like I have to – you’re in the big fat majority here.

Many writers feel like they have no choice. We write because something named or nameless inside them makes us write. We often feel frustration because nothing we write seems to quell or quench the urge within. So we answer 4 – just sort of feel like I have to – but we’re not necessarily thrilled with their selection.

And that’s the war, the writer’s war, the constant struggle between the urge to write and the dread that it won’t go well.

And war, as we know, is hell.

But writing isn’t hell, not always. Sometimes there are moments of pure glory, without which moments we’d certainly walk away, no matter how much have to we had inside. Those moments are the addiction condition of writing; they make us act like rats in a subtle and devious laboratory experiment: press bar, get treat. We don’t try to quit. We have no real desire to quit. We just want to keep pressing that bar and getting that treat.

And choice is the reason why.

Even though we may feel we have no choice but to write, we always get to exercise the choice of what to write. That’s the best part. That’s where the glory lives. That’s where the buzz lives – the buzz of having the pure power to choose. It’s a power that no editor, publisher, producer, partner, loved one, critic, boss, client or buyer can ever take away, not truly. You might modify your choices to serve other people’s needs, but ultimately it’s your brain driving your hands to bring your words to life.

Without you and your choices, it’s just an empty page. With you and your choices, it’s an exciting thrill ride. Or anyway it can be.

So recognize your power and own it from the start. Own the right to start stories you don’t finish. Own the authority to give birth to characters you later kill off. Own the initiative to try forms of writing you’ve never tried before. Own your control over the most basic issue:  What do I write right now? Above all, own your right to be wrong on the page. Be confident in knowing that choices improve as information improves – and that wrong choices lead to right choices in the end.

You get to choose. That’s what makes you a writer, and makes some other poor jlub a muffler installer instead. You choose; you discover and judge; you select. In sum, you create. By making choices.

The writer’s war is the struggle to make choices without going nuts.

The writer’s war is the struggle to make choices without going nuts. Without second guessing ourselves, annoying ourselves, stopping or subverting or diverting ourselves. If we succeed, then we communicate our thoughts in a meaningful way. If we fail…sigh…we try again, because we’re writers and we can’t stop writing. But even if we succeed, we…sigh…still try again, because we’re writers and whatever writing worlds we conquered last week just won’t seem to satisfy us next.

It could be a long war.

It’s best if it’s a fun war. One thing I’ve done lately to make the war more fun is just get out of my own way. I have discovered that a lot of the choices I make aren’t really my choices at all. They’re the choices I think I should be making, according to some vague understanding of what my unknown and unknowable audience’s expectations might be. And they conflict with the choices I want to be making, the ones guided by my characters’ desire, or new information revealed to me by inspiration, or just the delicious where the hell did that come from? sensation that informs the best part of my writing process. By getting out of my own way, I’m making a conscious effort to let my choices make themselves, rather than consciously guiding them for (spurious and often ill-considered) reasons of my own. I am determined to be a writer, not a marketing executive disguised as one. If nothing else, that makes my inner conflict go away and makes writing less of a struggle and more self-entertaining.

If something else, it gives rise to my true voice.

It has been said (by me – I’m saying it now) that the heart of the writer’s path is simply closing the gap between the writer I am and the writer I want to be. What steps or strategies do you use to close that gap – to deepen the understanding and pure joy you derive from fighting the writer’s war?

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About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!

Comments

  1. says

    Love this post, John! I can relate to the writer’s war and point #4.

    There’s a lot of chaos in the process – no less, I’m sure, than what’s involved in creating a universe – and somehow we have to come out in one piece, with every star fixed in the right place and our home planet the right distance from the sun.

    That’s a tall order, but heck…it’s FUN!

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  2. says

    I love the idea of exercising our choice. I can totally see that whenever I wallow, I’m choosing not to choose (if that makes sense). I love the thought of making the choices to close the gap, too. Really inspiring and thought-provoking post, John. Thanks!

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  3. says

    John-

    I once heard someone say that writers living in North America enjoy the most freedom of anyone on Earth. Among other things, they have the most choice.

    What is frustrating to me is that with unlimited choice, many authors choose to tell stories that are safe. You put it exactly right, John: Those choices are the ones they think they *should* be making. The choice is to satisfy what they think are their audience’s expectations.

    Fiction is different than many consumer goods, though. Give the people what they want? Actually, what people want is something only you can give them: stories that only you can tell and tell only in your own voice.

    That’s a hard truth to swallow. It means there’s no formula, no easy way. Writing freely and honestly can be like a war with oneself, as you say. What I’d add to your excellent post is this: Losing a battle can show you what you need to do to win the war.

    If you succumb to a character stereotype or fall back on a genre trope, that’s pointing directly at something you’re resisting. The stumble is telling you exactly where on the path you need to stand up and gather your courage.

    The blissful breakthroughs that you describe happen when you let go of others’ expectations, shed your guilt, embrace your identity and allow yourself to become truly free. That’s when the pre-conscious mind opens and stories–great stories–begin to flow.

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    • says

      I love your response to this post, Donald. Very well said. It reminds me of what Neil Gaiman had said once upon a time.

      “It takes time for people to catch onto something new and to be patient.”

      That alone has helped me crawl out of my “safe shell” and be me on the page. But it’s taken a long time to find as well.

      Thanks for the great post John!

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  4. says

    Great post, John.

    Thanks for reminding us to give ourselves permission to fail. The longer I write, the more certain I am that it is the only way to bridge the gap between the writer I am and the writer I wish to be.

    I keep this quote of Beckett’s above my writing desk:

    “Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”

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  5. says

    John,

    I very much appreciated this post. I can really relate. I fall until the last category of reasons to write. It’s a passion for me. I feel compelled to tell a story. I can’t rest until that story is down on paper. It’s interesting how over the years, I write more and more for myself and less to please others. This feels right.

    Thanks for giving insight into writing.

    Steve

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  6. says

    A fun war, gee, I like that, John. I write quiet horror. No bloody severed heads rolling down the stairs for me. I prefer the terror of feeling someone behind me in the dark, hearing it breathe, a cold stab of air, knowing its there and about to strike. Quick, turn on the light. Nothing’s there… except maybe footprints, and maybe not even human prints.

    You said it: where the hell did that come from? I guess there’s a gap that we can access and wow is it ever fun, even the struggling. I write about that kind of terror because I love to explore fear safely in a story that I can believe, but not live as a reality. At least I don’t think it’s a reality. Hmmm.

    Thanks for a stimulating post!

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  7. says

    “The longer we write, the more certain we are to bridge the gap between the writers we are and the writers we want to be.”
    That about sums it up for me and makes sooo much sense.
    Thank you for a lovely post.
    Patti

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  8. says

    You nailed it. Your timing is perfect.
    I write for those moments of pure glory you mentioned. They can be profound, and are always mine to keep — no matter the fate of the manuscript. The thrill of the process is the reward.

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  9. says

    Thanks, John! Ah yes, this is a question I ask myself every time the roiling morass of doubt and self-loathing kicks in. And the answer is number 4: because I have to. It’s really about choices and choices are hard for anxious self-doubting types. Than goodness we have drafts and re-writes. As Donald says, it serves us well to not play it safe, because we’re just fooling ourselves anyway if we think there is any safety. It’s just us and the page, and the worlds we invent to populate it.

    How wise, your suggestion: to get out of our own way.

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  10. says

    #3 is my thing. I want my voice to be heard and to do that, I write because it is next to impossible for me to do it with spoken word alone. Either because I’m shy, afraid to put myself out there because I think people won’t care what I have to say or because the words just don’t come together as well as they do when I type them out.

    Usually I write to scratch an itch. Either it’s a subject that’s been brought to my attention that I have to explore for myself or it’s imagery that comes to mind when I listen to music

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  11. says

    Great post. I needed to read this today. I see the gap … and am trying to cross it, by writing the stories only I can, but doing it well is another matter. It is easier to stay with something true and tried, but my discontent drives me forward.

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  12. says

    “…Closing the gap…” You’re so right. Of course, we don’t have to close the gap, but that’s the road to nowhere. Most people can stumble through a life where closing the gap is simply going from one physical location to another. For an artist, and especially for writers, closing the gap is only possible when we utilize what’s inside, a scary, messy place to go, but the only honest way to write.

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  13. says

    “Get out of your own way” is terrific! How many times have I said, “No, I can’t do that, can’t make that work.,” the whole lineup of “can’ts” that keep you safe only to discover some months or years later that you’re doing exactly what you claimed you couldn’t. I have a thriller that I wrote with Grisham coming out and I vowed not to write another one as it was “too hard”, “I’m not that good at it,” and all that hokum. So then a good friend read my book and told me I had a series (which I had never realized) so now I’m outlining the next book in the series. Go figure! So stand aside writers and let your creative self come forth.

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  14. Tina says

    The writer we are now, and the journey toward becoming the writer we want to be. This sounds very much like a character’s arc.
    Thank you for the inspiration!

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  15. Marcy McKay says

    Wow, John. This is a deep & heady post. I’ve learned over the years to LEAN INTO THE FEAR. The more AFRAID I am of writing something means the more IMPORTANT this peace. Fear isn’t a bad thing. It’s part of the creative process. Now, it scares the hell out of me every time, but then I remember and go write anyway.

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  16. Cal Rogers says

    I think it’s true that we choose our own fates.
    What’s frustrating to me is that the gatekeepers only choose to champion, publish or produce in film the stories that are safe for them. The ones that follow their rules. The ones they know will sell.
    Maybe if they were more open to risk, we would be?

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  17. says

    Definitely #4 for me. I’ve been a writer for long time, I just didn’t really know it or recognize it. I’ve written dozens of songs, and I have notebooks full of scrap lyrics etc. It should have been obvious to me. But when I started to define myself as a writer was when I realized that writing is my go-to when I need to think something through or work something out. I think that’s how you know—when it’s an everyday tool that you rely on.

    I’ve been inspired to write a lot more lately, here’s why: http://bit.ly/why-i-write. I feel lucky; inspiration means more practice, which is the only way to “close the gap,” as John says.

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  18. says

    Thank you for the inspirational words. This is the kind of advice that keeps writers at it and striving to get better even during rough times.

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  19. says

    John,

    So much wisdom in this post. It’s a war all right, which includes long marches and not sleeping. And I took a licking today (which isn’t as nice as it sounds, now that I see it in print.) As you say, it may never be won, though there are victories. Getting out of our way and being confidant that wrong choices lead to right ones become our best allies.

    That, and Don’s view that losing balance IS the way to find it will get me up and eager in the morning. Thanks.

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  20. says

    I am totally owning it. Have no choice! I have quit writing at least once every since since 1992. Failure, I tell you. Thanks for the post!

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