The Root of “Prolific”

photo by Flickr's Hartwig HKD
photo by Flickr’s Hartwig HKD

People ask me about my prolific nature and I have different answers. I’ve said that each novel teaches me how to write it. The term prolific novelist dredges up the notion of a formulaic writer; my prolific nature, however, comes from the opposite impulse. I get tired of myself. I get tired of Baggott being Baggott – which is my last name and increasingly how my own growing kids refer to me. I’ll do anything to get away from my own obsessions, to somehow convince myself that the mother in yet another novel isn’t my mother, etc… You know the drill. You have your own damn obsessions.

And I’ll do anything to convince myself that I’m a rank amateur again – that I’m in some new genre, one in which I’m an outsider who’s got no right to be there. In other words, a literary territory in which I’m free to … muck around.

And although I’ve been married to my husband for almost twenty-one years (I’ve come to consistently refer to myself as a child bride so the endurance of my marriage doesn’t date me so … hard), I like to have the novel under deadline and the novel on the side. I’m very Catholic about my wedding vows, but no novel ever asked me to be steadfast and true.

What I’m saying is that I find ways of taking myself – the author – out of authority. Each novel teaches me how to write it because I force myself to make it new – even if that means writing with some new kind of psychological blindfold, some new kind of genre-terrain, or some clandestine way of writing a novel with no one else’s eyes upon it.

There’s the old wisdom of, “Write what you know.” I write what I want to know. I write what I need – certainly the page doesn’t need me the way that I need it. I write to be known, to know others. I write to breathe this world out. I write because I’m scared and weary and because suffering surrounds us. Suffering is the instinct that drives my post-apocalyptic trilogy but also the force behind my domestic comedy.

You want to know the truth. When I talk to writers who put off writing, I marvel. I don’t know how they do it. I sometimes want to tell them the awful truth that they seem unaware of. Time is ticking. One day, they’ll die. How do they not feel that ultimate pressure, the finite limitations of life itself?

I don’t tell them they’re going to die because one must assume they know it, and because, of course, they might be living with that reality and deciding – quite deliberately – that they’re going to do other things with their precious time on earth than write.

But I write because I’m going to die. And I write because it’s the only way I know how to live.

The truth is one day you hear a story on the news where 234 school girls were abducted by a militant group in Nigeria, and there’s nothing you can do.

And I write because you don’t have too look far for tragedy. It’s always close to home.

I write for the same reasons I sometimes fall down on my knees and pray. I write because I’m helpless and it’s something – one thing – I can do.

I write because it’s a bridge from my humanity to yours.

Sometimes that’s all the writer can do. She says, I’m human. And the reader responds, So am I.

What more could you ask?

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About Julianna Baggott

Julianna Baggott is the author of over twenty books. Her most recent, Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders, was just published this month. Her other novels include Pure, a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, and its sequel, Fuse. She writes under her own name and under pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode -- most notably, National Bestseller Girl Talk, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies Trilogy and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, Best Creative Nonfiction, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now.

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Julianna.
    Yes, well we all know we are going to die, but we don’t really realize it. If we did, we would all be more like you! Even when we are 60 or 70, we behave like we still have lots of time. When we are young we never think that we may be the one dead suddenly in a car accident or with cancer.
    I notice I am on the death ‘track’ so to swerve over to writing. Your post touched me with your sense of urgency to write. It made me feel that urgency which I currently don’t have but am heading towards again.
    Thank you

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  2. says

    Yes Julianna (or is it Baggott?)! I quit writing for about two years and it was as if a part of me had been cut off. I love writing. So if I love it, there’s not such thing as “not enough time.” I love it more than watching TV, so why would I sit in front of the tube when there’s something better to do? It’s not even a matter of publication any more. After 5 novels, I can see proof of improvement. It’s undeniable. Writing that first novel is easy. It takes faith to know that the second, and the third, and the fifth will be better. If you keep going, you’ll succeed at this. Thanks for the post. Be kind to the cradle-robber. I know what it’s like to marry out of my league.

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  3. says

    Interesting, Julianna, this talk of death and dying and writing. Reminded me of something …

    “An author departs; he does not die.”

    Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, a prolific English novelist and poet during the mid 1800s.

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    • says

      Love the quote. That’s very true. We leave something behind in our words, which are (at least in my opinion) the rawest forms of ourselves.

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      • says

        Michelle,
        I love this idea — will keep thinking about it. Thank you.
        And thanks for all the comments — interesting to see how you all think and approach the page…

        Julianna

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  4. says

    ‘I write because I’m helpless and it’s something – one thing – I can do.’ Writing is how I make sense of reality – how I get the demons out of my head.

    Assuming everyone has demons, but only writers know how to capture and disarm them, scares the hell out of me: all those other people are ticking time bombs. They don’t know HOW to deal with demons. Maybe what I write will help.

    Thanks for the image of Writer, Demon Hunter. I have added a spear.

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  5. says

    I’m not as prolific as you are but I write for the very same reasons. I write to figure out the world, I write because I get bored with myself and my life–even though I LOVE my life and my family, for some reason I need to occupy myself with thinking about others, about the lives of imaginary people. It is a very strange and wonderful thing.

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  6. Paula Head says

    I put off writing because of the risk of
    Imperfection. I know I will not write
    The perfect novel, but what I mean is
    Knowing when it’s as good as it will ever
    Be, that point where I should stop editing.

    I also put off writing because of the numerous
    Stories floating around in my head. One is a
    Children’s picture book, one is a thriller/mystery
    And a new one that is inspired by my mysterious
    New neighbor who hides in his garage.

    I have never had anything published besides
    My photography in local publications. I Enjoy reading Writer Unboxed
    For all the wonderful inspiration.

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  7. says

    Great post and one that many authors can identify with – probably most, judging from the commentaries so far. My only point of contention (if any) is that the urge to write doesn’t necessarily lead to prolific writing.

    I know, I know, some people are prolific, one of the most prolific writers historically is Simenon, the master of Maigret police thrillers, who wrote (if I remember right) over 50 novels and hundreds of novellas and short stories in his lifetime…

    Was he driven by the same urge to write?

    I doubt it. It seems that he would go months on end without writing then suddenly write a whole book in a matter of 3 to 4 weeks. He preferred to spend the time with his adored wife and his children and traveling around (it seems he was a very good father and husband).

    Why did he write so fitfully? Nobody knows, but one thing is certain, he’d sink into a depression after several months of non-writing and the only way out of it for him was to write another novel. So writing was important to him – to maintain his mental health.

    I suspect that’s what it is for us writers: bottom line, writing helps us maintain our mental health…

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  8. says

    Comment on post: COMPULSION TO WRITE is almost without exception a positive contibutor to mental health. Thanks for the well crafted reminder.

    Comment to Ron Estrada: I, sir, am with you. The most successful marriages I have observed have a husband (like me) who ‘married up’ and is profoundly grateful.

    Comment to Alicia Ehrhardt: From my observation, the most prevalent and successful counterbalance to demons (beyond writing) is DENIAL. Those who have mastered it, cope. Those who haven’t howl at the moon, stick a knife in someone or both.

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    • says

      Good to know about denial, Alex – if you can keep it up your whole life. And some people can and do.

      The thing I fear most about dementia, should I get it, is the loosening of the inhibitions that keep people from saying what they really think to their loved ones.

      I’ve heard of some real zingers when Alzheimer’s made prudence a memory – and the unvarnished truth came out.

      Even when people know that it is the dementia, the words carry a huge power to hurt. And the person with dementia would have been horrified.

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  9. says

    Julianna–
    I fall down on my knees, too, but with me it’s mostly a function of age. Your idea of writing to touch and be touched, writer to reader, reader to writer is true for me. Yes, I write to find out what I think (as Flannery O’Connor said of herself). But in the end what I want most is to make moments live through language, to make them clear for others. For me, and for a long time, doing this has been a great way to respond to time’s winged chariot.

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  10. says

    “I write what I want to know.”

    I write about the Long Walk of the Navajo.
    I write about it because, unless it’s a history book, as far as I know, NO ONE has written fiction based around it.
    I can’t NOT write about it. Or them.
    Them. 9500 people captured. 7000 released.
    Why does a white girl from Canada write about Navajo people?
    I have to.

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  11. says

    Sometimes that’s all the writer can do. She says, I’m human. And the reader responds, So am I.

    So beautiful.
    And so true.
    Thank you.

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  12. says

    I wrote a romance for Harlequin in which the heroine was a firefighter. In response, I received a letter from a teenager in Montana who said, “Until I read your book, I didn’t know girls could do anything important.”

    And so I keep writing.

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  13. says

    A lot of heart in this piece, Julianna, especially when coupled with the post you just published on your personal blog. I’d dearly love to know how a 17-year-old had so much tenacity and self-awareness–whether it’s all an inside job or if you had wonderful mentors. Either way, thank you. Your children are multi-blessed.

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  14. says

    A thought-provoking article. Writers are like criminals in that they all have different motivations. As to the matter of being prolific, I think some people associate quantity with a lack of quality, but this is faulty logic. Simenon wrote 570 novels and Balzac wrote himself to death while drinking strong, black coffee. John O’Hara and Mavis Gallant were prolific short story writers. Chekhov was no slouch. Today we have Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Anne Perry, Danielle Steele, and James Patterson, so maybe choice of genre is a clue as to what encourages the prolific contemporary author. Addictive to write? Every author hopes to create that one masterpiece. The other question is whether writers should publish everything that they write.

    Ah, Mortality. Borges said a wonderful thing about authors when they die: “When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.”

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  15. CK Wallis says

    I make no bones about it: stories were my childhood lifeline, and writing has been entertainment, salvation, and nagging friend since about age seven. From age nine, when I received a 1959 pink diary fastened with a little gold lock, my most anticipated Christmas gift was the annual diary. By junior high the writing had spilled over into spiral notebooks. I used to lie to my mother about what school supplies were needed so I could get an extra notebook or two.

    However, I didn’t see myself as “a writer” until about fifteen years ago when, after my first book signing event as a new bookstore owner, the author I had hosted sent me a thank-you note that included registration to a weekend writer’s workshop in a nearby town. At the introductory session, when it was my turn to introduce myself, the first words out of my mouth–even before my name–were, “I’m not really a writer.” By Sunday night, I had a completed short story and a new perspective on the role of writing in my life. I realized that every major event and the feelings that are part of them, whether good or bad, had been memorialized, sorted out, clarified, or made manageable in my journals. And, I realized that I now had stories of my own to tell.

    Growing up, being a writer was something magical, something to dream about, and as impractical to pursue as being an actress or an Olympic athlete. And, even though by high school I had stopped pretending I was receiving an academy award or having a gold medal hung around my neck, I never stopped writing. While I’m sure there are many logical explanations, the truth is that why and how I developed such a strong connection with the written word remains as mysterious to me as the origin of the universe, and I am so grateful to have this connection at the center of my life. Maybe the reason writing humanizes is because written language is a distinctly human trait.

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  16. says

    Coming late to the party. Thanks Julianna for this upbeat post. I appreciate your powerful take on humanity and writing. It inspires the wordplay of — Productivity without Borders.

    Because I was stunned to learn about Georges Simenon’s efforts and there were two very different numbers given in the comments, (I didn’t know of him until today) I checked Wikipedia. If that source is to be believed, he wrote just ‘nearly 200 novels and numerous short works.’ And…he doesn’t even make the list of Most Prolific Authors.

    May you give him and all of them a run for their . . . hmm. . . passion.

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