Back in the early 80s I took a college class taught by award-winning writer Robert P. Arthur. I remember Bob as a big guy, not just in a physical sense with his tall, broad-shouldered self, but with his overall presence. He filled a room, that man. He expected—and inspired—a lot from his students, and to this day I credit him in no small way with instilling in me the love of creating beauty through my words. He told us then that writing for money did not make one a true writer. Anyone can do that, he said. A true writer, one that is smitten with the love of prose, doesn’t write because they want to. They write because they must. Their heart gives them no choice.
I thought I knew what he meant at the time. I wrote mostly poetry in those days, and couldn’t not put my tumultuous emotions and empathic confusion down on paper. (That was in the Stone Age, when we didn’t have computers on every desk, or iPhones in every hand.) But time and circumstance swept like a storm-tide through my life, drifting between me and my poetry until I stopped writing altogether. For years.
In 1994, I started a local newsletter for the Earth Religion community in my area. In its 15 or so years in print, the publication grew and spread to national distribution, and expanded its focus to include topics of interest to the larger interfaith community. As publisher and editor, it fell to me to write an editorial for each and every issue (with one hilarious exception when a dear friend filled in on a humor issue). In addition, I myself wrote occasional content on spiritual matters and issues of living in compassion. My writing bug revived, and I began to dream of penning a book on all the insight I’d gained from my work in interfaith outreach. (That book is still simmering on the back burner.)
A friend encouraged me to write fiction. Pah, I blurted. Fiction? No thank you, I said. I want people to take my writing seriously.
Yeah. I actually said that.
Then I actually tried my hand at a “short story,” and realized the depth of my misjudgment. Seeds of creation in my writer’s heart blossomed into a garden of ideas and images of other worlds, and I’ve never once looked back. Now, after pursuing the improvement of my craft on a serious level (in fiction!), I am more keenly aware of Bob Arthur’s words. They hit much closer to home. And I’m not alone in this. Other writers in my life express similar emotions, so I asked some of them to share their thoughts on why they write.
Janet Brown, author of Entropy: Death, Life, and Everything on the Outside and Celebrate Your Inner Dog, said “My imagination comes up with an idea which is equivalent to an embryo; the final book is akin to a child I’ve birthed. Writing gives me satisfaction that something I thought of may have value to others.”
Dennis Bounds, author of Divine Film Comedies and Perry Mason: The Authorship and Reproduction of a Popular Hero, is working on his first supernatural crime novel. I’ve had the pleasure of reading some early chapters and I can tell you he’s onto something. Dennis said “Unlike reading—which I love—writing takes me into a story that doesn’t exist until I write it.”
Award-winning Cathy Coley (Felix the Comet) says she’s crabby when she’s not writing. For her, “creativity is a spiritual pursuit. I must write or die. I’d rather be writing than soul dead.”
For romance novelist Blake Channels, author of The Comforts, writing is something she never tires of, “which is saying a lot, since I tend to lose interest in things rather quickly.” She loves the escape, the release, and the fact that she can still play make-believe even as an adult. She describes the compulsion to write as both a blessing and a curse—a common feeling among writers, I’ve found. A blessing because of the joy it brings when the muse is flowing and the stars align and the words come easily and pack the right punch. A curse because that sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. Most of the time, it’s a struggle to get the words in the right order on the page so as to convey the story and the emotional impact as the writer intended.
Fellow writer and Pitch Wars hopeful Elaine Panneton said she finds it impossible to be bored when she writes.
Malcolm Massey, author of “The Martin Culver Series,” writes stories hidden in history through the eyes of his characters. “Writing,” he says, “provides travel opportunities to places I want to recall (or want to avoid). I can’t quit until everyone has told their part.”
John McCarthy is a teacher at our local writers center, The Muse. He said, “If I don’t’ write, my characters bitch and moan that I’m ignoring them and don’t love them anymore. Sometimes that’s true, but then I realize I have to keep writing so I can see how it all turns out.”
Author of Drips, Leigh Anne Lagoe said, “Writing gives me time alone with my thoughts. An escape from reality. A chance to play pretend; we all used to do that when were kids. Why’d we stop?” When she wants to quit, she reminds herself that then all her hard work was wasted time. Finishing means she’s accomplished something great—whether or not the book sells.
Kitso Moema (Second Chances), loves being able to create her own world where she can make the rules and “get rid” of characters who don’t follow them. “I’m always making stuff up,” she says, “so why not?”
All of these responses struck a chord within me that most likely resonates in other writers as well. But the one that hit home the strongest was K.A. Doore’s response. “Sometimes I lose sight of why I want this whole ‘being an author’ thing,” she said, “because the anxiety can be [huge]. Then this week a reader said I emotionally destroyed them [with Pefect Assassin] and I remembered. Ah yes. That. That is why.”
I know exactly how she feels… maybe on a smaller level, since my novel isn’t yet published. But I’ve shared out short stories and beta versions of my novel, and had readers make similar comments. That’s a feeling like no other, and unless you write or paint or sing or dance or express creativity in some similar way and have had that kind of feedback from someone affected by your work, words cannot convey its fulfillment.
Being published is something I strive for, true. Because seeing my words in print on the page (or on the screen) feels validating. It also provides the opportunity for my work to affect others as it has affected me. But I will write whether or not I ever publish again. I write because I must. Finishing a story, then tweaking and revising and refining it is a thrill in and of itself. Every word on the page is another step toward that rush of accomplishment. Writers, you know.
There’s a poster on the wall at my gym that says, “When you want to quit, remember why you started in the first place.” It’s the same with writing, especially when frustration takes a toll and makes you want to chuck the whole damn idea of writing. I’ve always found it helpful to stop and articulate why I started, and what it is—exactly—that drives me back to the keyboard over and over.
Next week, I’ll post about self-rejection and that sinister saboteur, the “imposter syndrome.” But for now, talk back, y’all. Why do you write?