A friend of mine recently asked me why I write. She found she couldn’t answer the question herself, not anymore. She’d lost the love, and she was hoping something I’d say, as well as the other writers around her, would trigger an awakening in her. She wanted to find her path back to the career about which she had once been so passionate. I think we all go through this at one time or other, when life at home becomes difficult, or when everything in your writing career goes wrong. The rejections become unbearable, you lose an agent, your editor leaves and you’re left orphaned. Your sales aren’t what you hoped and there’s question as to whether or not your next book will be picked up at all. Then there’s the dreaded: “Sorry, you’ll have to take a pen name because Jane Doe is dead.”
I’ve recently suffered a painful rejection from someone I didn’t expect. A reminder that no matter how many books you have in print, no matter where you think you are in your career, your books, your ideas, your style are subjective and you can be rejected as easily as someone who has never sold a book before. I don’t think “established” authors talk about this enough. How often we still suffer various forms of rejection. Each book is like an audition, and your work may or may not be selected for the competitive publishing schedule. (This is why it must be about the writing, but I digress.) In any event, one never really grows accustomed to rejection, not really, and when it happens, I think many of us find ourselves asking the same question:
Why do I write? Do I write for the money (*guffaw*), or fame (*Still laughing. My stomach hurts*), or do I write just because I love stories? Perhaps it’s because of some other buried reason.
In any case, I knew I had to give my friend a real answer—not a cheerleading, manufactured thing that glosses over the pain.
The pain is almost always where the answers lie.
That’s where I began. My own, deeply buried emotional motivation for writing.
It all went back to the books. Why had I always loved books so much? They were such an integral part of my history.
I went back in time, deep into my memories, to my pre-school self at age five. This was the year my birth mother left my dad, sister, and me. She sent a few packages and postcards in the mail, made an occasional phone call, but that was it. She was gone. For some reason, she hadn’t found time with her girls very important. I bet you can guess what age I learned to read? By the time I was six, I could read at a fourth grade level. And then we moved. You see, my dad was in the military, so we moved every couple of years. Psychologists say that the emotional fallout from a move is akin to a death for a child. I moved seven times before I graduated high school. All of that loss as a five year old compounded by more loss; loss of a mother, of friends, of the stability of home and school and environment.
It was a hard way to grow up, but also in many, many ways a blessed one. (With a happy ending, but that’s a story for another day.) My story is harder than some, easier than others, but what matters is the books.
What happened during those years, with all of those books? I visited foreign lands. I learned about love and empathy—and murder. I found friends.
I found the perfect mother.
My answer to my friend’s question was this: I write because books are my home. They are my stability, they are the roof over my head. I relish their lessons. I take comfort in their music. I write because it helps me make sense of the world. And we’re good at that as writers, aren’t we? Excavating the layers of defenses in our characters to get to the heart of things. But it’s so much harder with ourselves. In fact, I had no idea how emotional my answer would make me.
I write because books have always been my home. My shelter from the storm. I write because it gives me joy. It gives me pain, too, but OH, THE JOY. It’s intoxicating and can make me euphoric.
The publishing industry is very difficult. (That’s an understatement, right?) It’s easy to lose sight of why we’re here, putting ourselves through the grueling process of becoming published—and staying published, and weathering the various forms of humility flung our way. We think things like, “If I can just get an agent…if I can just get a book deal…if I can just sell another book, or sell this many copies…” Our measures of success shift constantly. We compare ourselves to others. And the worst thing of all—we question our self-worth over and over again.
But I say stop comparing your journey to someone else’s. Stop becoming consumed by everything you don’t have. Stop placing your value on whether or not someone else likes what you have to say. It is your art—your words—not theirs. Remember that your stories illuminate the lightest and darkest corners of human nature and give the smallest facets of life meaning. They bring beauty to the world.
That’s the thing. We can drown in our disillusionment and disappointments, sink to the bottom of a dark sea, or we can hold our breath and paddle like hell to shore. We can look the fear and rejection and hopelessness in the eye and laugh, because those emotions don’t hold the power. The power is in the words—it’s in the passion—and that’s what every single writer in the Writer Unboxed community has, or you wouldn’t be here, reading this. Absorbing a bit of advice and inspiration so you can weather the next storm with all the strength you’ve built inside of you.
So when it’s very dark and there have been more rejections and let-downs than you think you can bear, do this: Go back to that moment in time when you knew you must write. What did it look like? How did it feel? Why did it fill you up? How can you nurture yourself—your creative being—to get back there? Find that love again. It never left you. It has been lying in wait.
I leave you with a quote by an early twentieth century English author named Enid Bagnold:
“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
When did you know you had to write? What did you love about it then? Has that love changed?