Why You Write
Though perhaps I should spend less time questioning and more time simply doing, I have always had a fascination with why human beings create art and, in particular, why we write. When you spend as much time as we do putting words down, it’s only natural to be curious about the engine that drives such persistent effort.
In What Your Writing Is Missing and How to Get It, I wrote about finding the “why” behind your urge to write. Based on Simon Sinek’s fabulous TEDx talk about starting with why, that post was a call to arms, urging writers to dig deep and discover the personal beliefs and quests that power their creative urges.
Half a year later, in a post titled Why We Write – A Novel Answer, I shared insights from Mario Vargas Llosa’s slim tome, Letters to a Young Novelist. I was intrigued by his theory that we write as an act of rebellion against the way things are. This felt familiar to me, and for the first time I saw patterns in the themes and characters that exist in the stories I love to read and write.
Though it’s an endlessly interesting topic to explore, I don’t expect I’ll ever have a definitive answer to the question, “Why do I write?” My guess is that the answer is a complicated mixture of elements that have to do with our cultural exposure, personal history, and the fact that creating art is simply part of human nature.
I mean, how can anyone look at the art and mythology of ancient races and, not see that making art is simply part of who we are? Throughout the ages of recorded time – from prehistoric times to contemporary ones – we have always spent precious time and resources making art. We have always adorned ourselves and our habitations with beautiful creations that served primarily to express ideas or aesthetics. We have even brought artistry to the building of our shelters and fabrication of our most basic tools. And, we have always told stories.
Some stories served a specific purpose. A story about a fellow cave man being eaten by some savage beast, for instance, would have served as a cautionary tale. Other stories taught particular skills or morals or the history of a people. At the most basic level, stories have been a way for us to say, “I was here.”
And perhaps that is still, in large part, why we write stories today. We write to make our existence tangible, to share our experiences, and to help us make sense of the great enigma that is life. (I’m betting on the answer to the question being “42.”) We write to connect the dots – in our minds, between events, and between people and ideas. If I think about it too long, the concept begins to feel like a dizzying bit of fractal geometry.
Again, I concede that the main thing is not to know why we write, but simply to do it. Still, as writers, we are naturally curious about what makes people tick and why things happen the way they do. We are compelled to follow the myriad paths of the What If; and we never stop asking questions. Also, there is something to be said for understanding our motivations in order to better channel and focus our efforts.
What do you think? What inspires you to write? What do you find most satisfying about the process and the result? Do you feel like there is some primeval urge embedded in your DNA, or do you think the artistic need to create is something more personal?
What I’m Learning About Writing:
A meditation on the similarities between writing and shoveling snow.
As my fellow writers here have mentioned, we had a bit of snow here in New England earlier this week. The blizzard of 2015 dropped more than thirty inches of snow in my neighborhood and created quite a mess in the process. Although I am fortunate enough to have the support of dedicated snow removal crews armed with plows and other clean-up equipment, there were still places (like my second story deck) that required hands-on attention.
Clearing that deck took the better part of two hours. As I huffed and puffed heaving shovelfuls of the white stuff over the railing, I got to thinking about how writing can be like shoveling. It may be an odd metaphor, but hear me out.
Facing a writing project is not that different from facing a massive pile of snow. At first, the task seems insurmountable. There is so much to do and you have no idea where to start. You’re just one person with a modest tool (be it pen or shovel). How can you hope to accomplish so much with so little?
But, eventually, you realize that there’s nothing for it but to dig in – one word, one shovelful at a time. The work is not glamorous. There is no magic involved. You simply put your back into it and make progress one small step at a time. With each word on the page and each shovelful moved from here to there, you can see a little more of your story or (in my case) a bit more of my deck.
As you surrender to the process, you think less about the ultimate goal and focus more on the work that’s right in front of you. The world falls away until there are only words, only snow. You settle into a groove. Your mind and body ache, but you keep going because this is now all you know.
And then, you pause and look up and realize how much you’ve accomplished. You see the pages and pages of your story or the expanse of snow-free landscape behind you, and you wonder – for a moment – how it happened. It seems like magic, but you know better. You’ve learned that you can move a mountain one spoonful of dirt at a time, and – likewise – you can write a story one word at a time. In fact, there is really no other way to accomplish either task.
Interestingly, after I’d reached the opposite end of the deck and could declare this small piece of my world satisfactorily clear of snow, I went back to where I started and found that my early work had been a bit shoddy. At the finish line of my snow shoveling marathon, my attention to detail had swept the decking free of nearly all evidence of the storm. At the starting line, I had left patches of snow here and there, and the edges were a mess. Despite being exhausted, I set about tidying up the one end to better match the “good” end.
And so it is with revision and editing. Though you may not realize it, each word you write helps you improve your technique and skill, so that when you return to the beginning, you will find things that need improvement. But, this will not be disheartening at all, because part of the fruits of your labor will be the hard-won skill to remedy such shortcomings.
In the end, whether your accomplishment is a clear deck or a good story, you will know that you have earned the win.
What I’m Reading:
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is a dystopian novel that has won great acclaim from critics, readers, and authors alike. Though I’m not usually a fan of the genre, Station Eleven does not read or feel like your typical post-apocalyptic story. Set in a frightening and bleak world ravaged by a fatal pandemic flu, it manages to tell a very human story without resorting to the usual artifices of extreme circumstance or saccharine tropes. Though Mandel strips away the facades that mask the darker sides of human nature, she does so in a way that also illuminates the most beautiful and admirable qualities of our species.
From the book jacket:
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek:“Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
As a writer, I was particularly drawn to Mandel’s exploration of how art might survive in (and even influence) such a harsh world. Though people in her future reality are reduced to the meanest existence and must expend almost all their energy and resources on mere survival, there are still those who live to preserve, create, and share art.
Though the scenes of desolation, cruelty, and heartbreaking loss were difficult to read, I took comfort in knowing that even in such an altered and seemingly ruined world, the artistic urge was not only alive, but ultimately an integral element in the rebuilding of a better tomorrow. Maybe that’s the point, after all.
And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:
The blizzard derailed much of my blog reading for the week, but I managed to take in a few posts that are well worth sharing:
- Productivity For Writers: 5 Ways To Become More Productive by @thecreativepenn
- This Writer is Sponsored by Herself by Kelly Sundberg via @brevitymag
- Here is Your Official Permission to Be a Copycat by Allison Stadd via @99u
- How to Write Faster: The Brainwave Blueprint via @writetodone
- How to Write Better and Improve Your Thinking by @demianfarnworth
- Sarah Bray: Earning a Creative Living with 1,000 True Fans by @DanBlank
Finally, a quote for the week:
Here’s to finding your why and embracing the inevitability of art each day of your life. Explore. Discover. But also remember to just accept that the art is in you.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. i am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.