Writers often answer the question “Why do you write?” with “Because I have to.” I get that. If I go too many days without writing, I become cranky and snappish and uncomfortable with myself. No one wants to live with me in that state, not even me. Best if I sequester myself in a quiet warm room and put a whole bunch of words down on paper.
But that doesn’t quite explain it, does it? It’s a symptom, not the cause. Why do I have to? What does it do for me that is so important that I cannot live without it for even a few days?
I’ve been working on two main projects lately: addressing the editorial comments for my novel The Flight of the White Crow, which I’m planning to self-publish in 2016, and doing my own hard edit of another book I wrote, about how to write a novel in a systematic, day-by-day way while still having a full-time job. While working on the introduction to that second book, I realized that the first draft feels chintzy; it moves too fast and doesn’t let the ideas breathe. It makes too many connections without the intervening steps that the reader needs to understand how I got from one place to the other. This is often the case with my first drafts. I need to open it up, slow it down, and add some deeper truths.
This got me to thinking about the question of why I write, because there seemed to be something important in that process that I had not previously considered.
As a means of explaining, let me share with you some history.
Writing has been my top priority since I was a kid. It was a lifeline. It often seemed like the only thing worth doing. Though I liked learning, the series of public schools I attended seemed designed to favor bureaucratic rules and authoritarian commands over the actual acquiring of knowledge. As an introverted, bright kid who had very specific plans for her life that parents and teachers did not always understand or agree with, I chafed at not having control over my life at home or in school. I was nothing if not determined.
Nearly 25 years after I first decided to become a writer, I am only now beginning the process to self-publish a novel. There has been nothing easy about getting to where I am now, and I still feel like I am so far from where I want to be. At the same time, every step has been worth it.
Writing is what gets me out of bed every day; it is what makes me live. Even on days like this one, when I can hardly make myself put words on the page.
As I sit here now trying to relax and let the words wash over me, on this wan, gray day, with the background un-music of the construction crew pounding from the apartment next door, when I have forced myself with everything I have to rise from the bed and make these words, even though most of me would far rather remain in the cozy cocoon of my bed (oh, how I love that bed, with its infinitely touchable sheets and comforting heavy blankets and mattress shaped just for me … never have I loved it so much as lately, when I want to be in it all the time, when I could be in it, when I mustn’t be in it, and it’s all down to me to not be in it), I think, distinctly: No one cares.
You are not a writer. You do not have even one book out. Therefore, no one cares what you have to say. Especially no one cares why you write. Why would they?
This is not true, and there is another part of me that knows it. There are Kate Williams and Mary Ann De Raad and Ashna Sharan and Anthony Johnson and Christopher Schlegel and Hanna Wallsten and others too numerous to mention, and they have been following what I write and sharing it and rejoicing over it with me. They care.
But what if they didn’t? What if it were true that no one cared?
I don’t think you can write in a vacuum forever. Writing is communication. Eventually you want someone to read it. Especially when you’re telling stories.
So it does matter to me that they care. It does mean something.
But … it’s not the why. Other people caring is not the thing that makes me climb out of that bed with everything in me and put the words down. Whatever that is, whatever moves me like that, has nothing to do with anyone else. It never did.
I have said, in the past, that I write to tell stories. Stories show us how to be, what to be, what can be, the dream of true greatness we might otherwise lose. They are necessary for knowing how to live. They are necessary for seeing the results of what we value. They give us hope and strength and fuel for our accomplishments and our journey. I will never stop telling stories.
I used to think that meant fiction. I used to think that was all I liked to write. But it isn’t. I love writing this blog, too — especially the more personal essay-style posts and the motivational posts that hit home with you and get you doing something new or changing something in your life in a positive way (those are motivational for me, too).
And those are a form of story-telling, aren’t they? They are a way to tell my own true story and to spin some stories for you about how things might be for you, if you think of them in a new way, if you create new habits, if you consider different ways of doing things.
But what I realized, while working on that introduction, is that telling stories is only part of why I write. Because at the end of the day, telling stories still has something to do with the audience consuming those stories. And what I’m doing right now … well, it’s something different. The truth of it is that writing, for me, is not even about what comes out at the end. It’s about the process. It’s a lifestyle. It’s not a means to an end. It’s simply a means of living.
What I mean by that is: Writing is how I process the world. It is the way I live in it.
I’m intuitive and thoughtful and highly sensitive to the world around me. It’s easy for me to become overwhelmed by sights and sounds and smells and textures. Writing is a way to feel and acknowledge those things without them swamping me. It’s a way to let them exist there, against my skin and in my head, without drowning in them.
Writing itself is even bigger than telling stories. It’s a way of taking in what exists and turning it into something I can do something with, something I can feel and wrestle and make sense of. I write to understand. I write to feel. I write to get inside my own head.
Writing is a way to get meaning out of the everyday. It’s a way to get in touch with the real me. It’s a way to pull out the best of this world and make it into something that speaks to me. And maybe to you, too. But it’s okay if it doesn’t. Because I need it to survive. I need it to live, and that’s why I do it.
Writing, for me, is the most powerful way to understand the meaning of life.
So the next time we are together, and I am not a good talker, please forgive me. The next time you need a response to something, and I seem to be crawling like a caterpillar in getting back to you, please forgive me. The next time you invite me to your party, and I must decline, please forgive me. The next time you offer me your love and kindness and support and I seem distant and thoughtful and not quite sure what to do with it, please, please, do forgive me. For I am not a talker. I am a writer. I am slow to process and to figure out what to say, because it does not come easily — I must write it out to figure it out. I am not a partier; I need to live with my thoughts and the page to feel at home. And I am not good at connecting without the written word between us. I do not know how to live in the world without the words I use to experience and understand it. They are how I make sense of it.
Why do you write or paint or make music? What about it moves you? I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments.