Why Do You Write?

On the road home from WisCon and our post-WisCon writing retreat, Diane Silver asked, Emily Dickinson“Why do you write?” (This was part of our inspiring writer discussion, intended to keep the driver — me — awake on the road.)

We both said we wrote because we had something to say and wanted to share it with others. That applied to both our fiction and our nonfiction. Diane mentioned the idea of connection — here are some excerpts of her work that deal with the urge to connect. I said something about wanting to get noticed and Diane mentioned that a little fame — not to mention a little money — would not be amiss.

We moved on to other things, but I kept thinking about the subject after I left her in Lawrence, Kansas, and headed on down the road to Austin.

And came to a conclusion: I write to become immortal.

William ShakespeareBy this I mean I want to produce work that will be read long after I have ceased to be a physical entity. If I can’t be around forever, it would be nice to think my ideas will be.

“Forever” is something of an exaggeration, of course, especially if you look at the age of the universe or even the age of the Earth. Writing dates back to the Sumerians — about 5,000 years ago — and while storytelling is much, much older, only those stories that were eventually written down have survived.

We do have rock art from human times before written language. I like to think this art gave the creators a bit of immortality even if we don’t know who they are or, in many cases, what they were saying.

I’ve climbed around in the Arizona desert looking at rock art. I got into reading ancient Greek plays when I was in college. My nephew got entranced with AristophanesHomer and Virgil in high school. Several authors I know — including BVC’s own Brenda Clough — have played with ideas from the Sumerians, which means they’ve read that stuff. Then, of course, there are religious texts: the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Torah, and many others. I’m woefully ignorant of Chinese literature earlier than the Tao te Ching or the Art of War, but I’m sure there must be quite a lot.

More recently there are Shakespeare and others from the middle of the last millennium. In our present day, when we are always clamoring for the new, we still read Emily Dickinson (never even published in her lifetime), Jane Austen (whose career is booming right now), the Brontes, and many others from the 19th Century.

Mentioning all those famous writers makes me sound egocentric when I say I want my work to be immortal, but I’m not. Really. Having my work read beyond my lifetime is not something I have much control over. I can appoint a literary executor in the hope that some work will stay available (“in print” is starting to sound dated in this epublishing world) and I can do my best to bring my work to the attention of people who might fall in love with it. But that’s about it.

My desire for immortal works is more of a spur to me, the writer. I’ve written some stories I like a lot (and that have received some praise) but I always feel like I can do something more, something that will be more worthy of lasting forever. My best work is not yet written and I hope I will still be saying that on my deathbed.

Anyway, authors aren’t always the best judge of their best work. Many have been writing their masterpieces — which sank like stones — and despairing of reputations built on books they tossed off for the money. Staying power in the literary world is not confined to the deadly serious. I’m pretty sure Shakespeare thought he was writing popular entertainment and Jane Austen wrote novels at a time when that form didn’t get much respect. (It occurs to me that contemporary literary critics may not be great guides to immortal work either.)

I will say that I have no objection to a bit of fame and fortune, though I have no great craving for rockstar level fame and am unlikely to work hard in the few arenas in which writers stand a chance of making a fortune.

But if someone is still reading my work in 2113, I’ll be pretty happy. Well, actually, I won’t know about it unless someone invents time travel pretty damn soon. But the idea of it makes me happy now.

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Why Do You Write? — 9 Comments

  1. I write to get the plot bunnies out of my head.

    I started to write when I was twelve and had to return all my books to the library just because we were going on vacation, which meant I was going into word withdrawal. But at that point, I discovered it could chase out the plot bunnies from my head to the paper.

  2. I write for many reasons.

    I write because I love to weave a story together. It’s as if I have a loom and can create a private world. Then I want to share that world with others. Can they figure out that this cipher, while entertaining, tells something about things I have questioned, late at night?

    I write because it is the way I make sense of the universe. As I create story, things I have read, observed or imagined begin to make sense to me.

    I write because my stories are my children. I launch them into the world and hope they find success. I hope they will be immortal.

    Lately, I begin to wonder if, like JK Rowling, I am designed to tell stories (and solve mysteries–I am a good clinician) and everything else will be only partly successful. Which is why I am grateful for Book View Cafe, which allows me to explore that possibility.

    • In reading this, it occurs to me that I also write to understand things. If I write about something new to me, I figure it out in trying to explain it to someone else. If I write about ideas, I figure out what I really think about something in the exercise.

  3. Thanks for the links, Nancy. As you said, I write to connect, but I also second everything Cat says, especially the bit about writing to understand myself and the world. Sometimes I think I don’t really get anything until I’ve laid down words about it. I do love Mary’s comment, though, about the plot bunnies. Very funny and true!

    But Nancy I’m still a tad uncertain about this immortality thing. Don’t you worry that you set yourself up for failure with that approach?

    Thanks for continuing the conversation.

    • I think rather that I challenge myself not to be satisfied with OK work. I know I can turn out OK work, but I crave something more than that. Also, I’ve got big ideas in my head — as in what both you and Cat said about writing to understand things — and I’d like to turn them into something that stretches human understanding just a little farther.

      I’ve been profoundly affected by some great fiction over the years — that’s why I think writing fiction is a high calling — and it gave me the urge to create something that has that effect on other people.

  4. It is not only writers who work for eternal fame. Alexander, and Achilles, were also well known for that same ambition. In the writings of the American founders you can clearly see that they are fully aware of being on an eternal stage. In classical times it was considered worthy and good to strive for eternal fame. Compare and contrast to more mundane goals like sex and money (Donald Trump, I’m looking at you). The consciousness of being watched makes people behave more ethically, and that these watchers are not yet born apparently makes no difference.
    I -suppose- I write for eternal fame, but I never consider that really. I am more like Donald Trump, subtracting the sex and money. I write because I can’t help it, because I’m hooked on it like needle drugs. The crazy rush of writing is such that I will do very nearly anything to continue it. It is at a far lower, more primally Trumpian level.

    • Brenda, I have never before ever thought of you and the execrable Donald Trump at the same time. You may be hooked on writing, but he’s just hooked on being noticed for any reason whatsoever. I don’t think those thinks are the same at all.

      I do think pursuing immortality through art is more peaceful and humane than pursuing it through war. Though I understand that at least 10 percent of the men on Earth can trace their genetic roots back to Genghis Khan. That’s double immortality: not only is he still well-known worldwide so many centuries after he lived, but his genes live on, too.

  5. I write to tell a story, to get that story out of my head and onto the paper and to entertain people… to entertain myself. I love to write to because not all writers know the things they’ve done wrong and I want to correct them (yeah, I nit-pick other writer’s writing… I’m awful like that).

    Truthfully, I write because it’s like oxygen… if I don’t write I feel as though I can’t breath. And if I stop writing (which I have tried to do), the words and plots and other pieces of ideas that bounce around my head drive me insane. They stay in my head and do things to me that I can’t explain. I have been kept awake until all hours of the night by my ideas, by my editings, by my characters talking – nagging – at me all the time until I get up and do something about it.

    Why do I write? I write because if I don’t I won’t get any sleep. 😛

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