On the road home from WisCon and our post-WisCon writing retreat, Diane Silver asked, “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.
“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 Homer 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.