Why we write – a novel answer

james deanDo you know why you write?

Not the tactical, logical, left-brain reason; but the deep down, can’t-ignore-this-thing, totally irrational reason.

Do you?

Perhaps you don’t need to know why you write. Maybe you are content to take direction from your muse without questioning her motives. You may find exploration of the driving forces behind your work irrelevant.

That’s your prerogative, BUT …

If you unearth the underlying energy that fuels your need to put words down, you can harness that power to infuse your writing with more passion and purpose. Understanding why you are compelled to pick up a pen or set your fingers racing across the keyboard can bring you a higher level of clarity and confidence. It can help you define and prioritize your writing. It can give you direction.

I have often wondered about the “why” behind my own urge to write. I’ve constructed several hypotheses, but have never found the answer that settled into place with a satisfactory ‘click.’

Until now.

I found my click in Letters to a Young Novelist – a slim tome that had crossed my radar a few times, but never piqued my interest enough to prompt a purchase. Instead, it languished on my Amazon Wishlist as a possible future read. However, while Christmas shopping at my favorite indie bookstore, a paperback copy of this unassuming little book found its way into my stack of gifts. It was the last copy, and it was on sale. Merry Christmas to me.

In the days following the holiday chaos, I managed to carve out a few hours of peaceful solitude. Curling up on my couch with a mug of herbal tea and the twinkling tree lights for company, I began to read. As you might imagine, Letters to a Young Novelist is written as a series of letters from a fictional author to an aspiring young novelist. Mario Vargas Llosa’s imagined correspondence attempts to convey the inner workings of the literary novel, imparting wisdom one idea and one letter at a time. The various concepts are illustrated by a great many examples (many of which, I must admit, flew high over my head).

There are many gems to be mined from Letters, but it was this passage that made me say, “Oh!” out loud.

What is the origin of this early inclination, the source of the literary vocation, for inventing beings and stories? The answer, I think, is rebellion. I’m convinced that those who immerse themselves in the lucubration of lives different from their own demonstrate indirectly their rejection and criticism of life as it is, of the real world, and manifest their desire to substitute for it the creations of their imaginations and dreams.



I had never thought about it that way, but when I did it made perfect sense. Llosa writes about a “basic questioning of reality.” I’ve always felt that one of the reasons I write is to figure things out, to learn. I’ve always known that insatiable curiosity is a must-have attribute for any writer, but I’d never made the connection between curious questioning and its obvious counterpart – an inability to accept things as they are.

Looking at my writing – both already penned and as yet unwritten – in the context of this idea, it was suddenly easy to pick out the recurring themes that threaded themselves through my story ideas. Likewise, a quick survey of the books nestled in my many bookcases revealed similarly obvious patterns. Eureka – I have found it!

As you embark on a new year of writing, let me ask you this: Do you know what your writing rebellion is about? 

80 thoughts on “Why we write – a novel answer

      • Your welcome 🙂 I was an aspiring write for a little bit and going to school for it, though I still write, I have changed my degree. Learning, reading, and writing about writing is still fun!

      • I agree. No matter what path you take in life, reading and writing deliver endless value. 🙂

  1. I hope your question at the end wasn’t rhetorical or boy am I going to have egg on my face.
    My rebellion is not just to go rogue by walking in someone else’s shoes, but I’m attempting also to recast my teenage years in a way that explains all of the bad and exacerbates the good. (Which personally I think that’s all anyone ever wants out of life anyway!)

    Thanks for sharing this post!

    • Not rhetorical at all – I love to get feedback! 🙂 Our teen years are such formative ones … SO much of what makes us “us” comes out of the experiences of that tumultuous time. Sounds like a great place to start!

      • Yeh, it really struck a chord when I thought about it. Do you recommend the book after reading it through?

        Thanks 🙂 His name is Mao and he’s 13years old now! Still young in my eyes.

  2. Looking back on my first short story written in the 8th grade during a creative writing unit, I can certainly see how I was indeed rebelling. Rebelling against where I was and how I got there. Thanks for this little gem.

    • You’re welcome. I have to thank Llosa, of course, but I’m so glad to be able to share this tiny bit of “Letters” to get people thinking early in 2013. I’m still mulling, but the idea has me buzzing a little.

  3. I’ve questioned myself about this very thing. I think the reason WHY is dependent on what I’m writing. It could be simply that the characters tell me their story and I am the only the scribe that brings it into the real world. Sometimes I write for self-expression – based out of frustration or melancholy, appreciation or joy. The answer for why lies in each piece of work and the reasons are as nuanced and compex as human behavior.

    The WHY is also the question I ask myself when I begin to write something. I suppose I’m a tad ritualistic like that because I feel it’s the most important question at the start. Why am I writing this? What compels me? What is my intent? How does this make me feel? Where am I going with this and why do I want to go there?

    Shoulda been a psychologist for all the analyzing that goes on. But then, after a few minutes of contemplation, I feel myself being drawn in. I am better able to focus in on the crux of what I want to write and start the flow. Zen mode! A turning inward so I can write outwardly. Does that make sense?

    • I think it’s wonderful that you give the “why” so much thought, Laura. “Why” has always been my favorite question – when you can reveal the answer (or even just ponder the possibilities), you learn so much.

      I’m going to be asking “why” more often in 2013 – I want each piece of writing to “count.” I want to tighten up my focus and my purpose … while still having FUN, of course! 😉

      • I think my contemplation of the art of writing has increased tenfold since I’ve been a regular follower of this blog – all you ladies give me lots to think about every time you post a blog about your own experiences trying to manage your own writing journeys!

  4. It is so special that it was the last copy AND on sale! I agree about the rebellion thing – although I like to see it as a kind of fighting for justice and “telling it like it is”. Don’t we all??

    • Hello, Lynn! Happy New Year!
      Yes – I took those two factors as a sign from the Universe that the book was meant for me. 😉

      The rebellion can definitely be about fighting for justice (rebelling against a world that is unjust) or truth (rebelling against a world that is full of lies). It can be a very calm and even kind rebellion. It doesn’t have to be violent or even angry. It’s more about recreating the world the way you’d like it to be – whether the world of your dreams has more monsters, adventure, love, peace, super heroes, magic, nature, or whatever else your heart desires.

      I’m wondering how my love of children’s and young adult fiction plays into this idea. More to think about! 😉

  5. I have always been the black sheep of my family. My rebellion has helped me to understand there is more to the world than the “green” they seem to revolve around. Adversity brings a clarity that otherwise would not be seen. Great post, I am going to get the book. Thanks!

    • “Adversity brings clarity …”
      I love that! It’s so true. When we know what we DON’T like/want, we can get a lot more definite about what we DO like/want. It’s all about that negative space.

    • It was well worth the read. I’ve underlined all kinds of things and will definitely be going back to “re-study,” but just this one idea has given me a lot to think about!

  6. Interesting post as always. I think I write as a form of escapism or avoidance of reality ~ into a world that exists in my mind. Free of sadness, corruption, conflicts, financial crises, injustice, unfairness, my world is thriving and filled with light. There is beauty in all things and miracles happen every day in the natural world. We just need to take time to observe them, take pleasure in them, and be grateful and at peace.

    • Aren’t we writers lucky that we have the power to build a world to our exact specifications? 😉
      Here’s to beauty and miracles AND to taking the time to enjoy them.

  7. How best to be misunderstood (=misunderstood ‘towards’ an intention) and (re)channel expectations. Rebellious on the surface, but rebellion towards what? I ‘d still like to find out, and that ‘s why I ‘m still writing.

    Cheers to a clear(er) self-concept.

    • It’s always a journey – never an end in sight – and that’s the best part of the whole adventure! 🙂

  8. Great thoughts here. I have often thought that I have not chosen to write anything, but rather that writing has chosen me. Thanks for the thoughts! I am definitely following your site.

    • Thank you, Jonathan. You would love what Llosa has to say about the “servitude” of a literary life … his chapter called “The Parable of the Tapeworm” speaks to that idea of being chosen by your work … and having no other option than to serve that cause. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment, reblog, and follow. Glad to have you here!

  9. Rebellion rings true. It’s what coloured my years in school, my adolescence and continues to frame how I approach everything.
    You’ve made me think, and I will have to add this book to my list.

    • Thinking is a Good Thing, Katja! 🙂 Glad to have sparked a little internal exploration. Happy journeys and happy reading!

  10. Rebellion!! Is it easier to create words if one is rebellious? Interesting…why would it not be just as enabling as to be inspired by,say beauty or magnificent accomplishments? The human mind has many facets and leaves so much unexplored.What works for one person may not for another.I know that reality sucks at times,but it is still reality.I am not a writer,but occasionally I get an inspiration,so I write it down,sometimes . Perhaps defiance describes some of my scribbling,maybe rebellion to.I wonder…………good food for thought.

    • As I said to hillarysangel above: “The rebellion can definitely be about fighting for justice (rebelling against a world that is unjust) or truth (rebelling against a world that is full of lies). It can be a very calm and even kind rebellion. It doesn’t have to be violent or even angry. It’s more about recreating the world the way you’d like it to be – whether the world of your dreams has more monsters, adventure, love, peace, super heroes, magic, nature, or whatever else your heart desires.”

      Good food for thought, indeed.
      Thanks for sharing your perspective!

        I loved everything about that girl. Her name was Misty. Her beauty was thrilling both in physical terms as well as her mannerism.It was exciting just to be near her,to hear her voice.It was like music,very romantic and charged with an electric spirit that lit me up with lightning bolts of pleasure.Misty wanted to be close to people,especially me.We could do just about anything together and be so delighted.Happiness was every moment together.Nothing could possibly get in our way
        She had eyes that could melt the coldest of hearts,a smile that could disarm the strongest of men,a spirit that could touch my heart as if she had reached inside me and gently soothed away all my pain and sorrows.Sweet hands,loving hands,healing hands were the hands of Misty. Misty could have any man she wanted,this I knew,but she wanted to be with me.I was a social misfit,yet that did not repel her,it seamed to empower her love for me all the more.Her love was surprising in her childlike way of giving of herself ,so cheerful,so willing to draw close to me,so eager to comfort,,,,,her warmth,her gentleness,her simple charm!……….Then I woke up!!! Son of a BITCH!!

      • Sounds like you have a pretty clear picture of the world as you’d like it to be. Having that vision is a great start. Now, what are you going to do with it?

  11. I’m just starting to read and review “Writing Well: The Essential Guide” by Mark Tredinnick. I really like his reason for writing the book – to make beautiful sense. I first became passionate about writing afer reading “The Catcher in the Rye”. Holden Caulfield’s indictment of all the “phoniness” in the world (and in myself) gave me a mission to unmask lies presented as truths and cast down false idols whether it be in writing sermons, poems, satire, fiction, essays, or reviews. I suppose you could say that is the source of my rebellion.

    • “… beautiful sense …”
      I love that.
      I also love the idea of getting rid of/past all the “phoniness.” The world would be a much better place without all those facades, deceptions, and all that posturing.

      Sounds like the best kind of rebellion to me!

  12. Thanks Jamie, your blog brought a huge smile to my face, you spoke directly to me tonight and i wanted to express sincere gratitude, for bringing this to my attention, if you ever wondered if you reached through time and space and made someone say…”Damn.. that’s it, Holy S… did she say that? Did she just answer a question that has rattled through me for nearly a half a century?”
    I had to laugh, this is difficult to get a hold of, I know you have no idea what just happened, because i don’t, but it’s like a psychological breakthrough, it’s a bleedin’ Satori, …may God richly Bless you in your work and your life, and may you always Recreate the world in the Image that is Given to you and may you always be available to Receive more…it looks like i am goin’ back to work, Thanks Lady i will never forget this day…Keys and Puzzle Pieces, Mathematics and some stuff that just doesn’t add up… Thanks!

    • Thank you so much for your beautifully enthusiastic thoughts and appreciation. You’ve made my whole week. 🙂 So glad to be even a small part of any epiphany and happy to pass Llosa’s insights along to any who would like to hear. It was a great thought-starter for me, too!

      Thanks also for teaching me a new word – Satori. I had to look it up on Wikipedia. 😉 I love the meaning and also that the Wikipedia entry included the various language symbols for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (I am a quarter Korean). Marvelous.

      Many thanks for your kind words and wishes and happy New (writing) Year to you!

      PS – TKS for the reblog, as well! 🙂

      • jamie , didn’t know how to reach you again on this site , I write long hand and the computer is still a daily challenge for me , …i wabnted to let you know that i write dily , sometimes for everal hours and read less now , its prtty intersting whats happening artistically /creatively with me right now … its like a natural hit of cocaine puro …no hangersonovers or headaches, this is more pleasure moment by moment … where is the handle to this faucet?
        I have no desire to publish or put a book together anymore and I have thousands of written pages …I reviewed it after years in notebooks …and …a lot of it is actually Good , and I like what I wrote … that is hugely different now … the writer poet matures …incredible. hey …thanks for that crack in the noggin that you administered …it was a true Zen flash grenade that blew out a back window in myskull …suddenly it was Jamie Jammin’ it to me across space … Again. Thanks Ms. you stoned me , like Jelly Roll .

      • You sound so fired up and full of creativity! That’s wonderful. I hope you continue to ride that daily journey full of discovery and adventure and counterculture. It is good to hear that your process is infused with such pleasure. Bring your poetry to life. That’s what it’s all about:

        Write on – and on and on.


  13. Reblogged this on Shimonjames's Blog and commented:
    So, ya think you want to write and ya think about success, and makin’ the money? Think about this…the money will be worthless soon, what will you ever do? So find a higher reason to say somethin’…hopefully you’ll instruct some one, if so, the real reward and privilege is the growing of imagination…and that… needs fertility.

  14. Eureka, indeed! It all makes so much sense now lol…. I can even trace when I first started writing and what it was to rebellion. Wow. Thanks for this! I’m also going to go buy that book…

    • That’s fabulous, Jessica! I also found it pretty enlightening the way this one idea put my whole writing journey in perspective. Very cool.

      I hope you enjoy the book!

  15. OK Jamie, I just got the Kindle book, it is now there with Deborah Lee, Jane Austin and ….your Book? Sorry I am an infrequent reader of blogs, Got a Book to push or suggest? I am still plugging at Jane Austin on Deborah’s recommendation, Llosa’s book appears philosophical, imaginative along with a slice of metaphysics, that’s like inviting me out for Pizza and Beer, Thanks

    • Love your description of Llosa’s book. 🙂 Perfect.
      The other books on writing that I’m currently reading include:
      Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
      The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall
      Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

      Happy reading!

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  17. Reblogged this on Mamihlapanatapai: and commented:
    What is the origin of this early inclination, the source of the literary vocation, for inventing beings and stories? The answer, I think, is rebellion. I’m convinced that those who immerse themselves in the lucubration of lives different from their own demonstrate indirectly their rejection and criticism of life as it is, of the real world, and manifest their desire to substitute for it the creations of their imaginations and dreams.

  18. Pingback: Friday Fun – What are you reading now (non-fiction)? « Live to Write – Write to Live

  19. Reblogged this on Devlon E Waddell and commented:
    Interestingly enough, my the “why” came well before the actual writing. I needed it; it is all that I am concerned with personally. This blog tackles the notion of how the “why” offers the opportunity to add passion to your work with dead on balls accuracy. It happens that the “why” informs every aspect of my work…

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