W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 16, 2005

No 25. Why do we write?

What drives us to spend hours trying to create formations of words that resonate with others?
We can rule out wealth. For every rich Stephen King or Anne Rice there are another 5000+ writers toiling below the poverty line. We may make money as freelancers, journalists, or corporate communicators, but our creative work is much harder to sell. Even when a check arrives it usually gives an hourly rate of less than a person toiling on the land in a developing country.

I asked several writers the question: Why do you write?

A woman writer who has published a series of short stories in various literary magazines says, "I can't not write. Words pound in my head. Stories pop up all around me. I have to get them down."

A writer, one who is wonderfully talented but only submits her work to top commercial publications has a large stack of rejections, said, "People say I should build credits with the little presses, but I want my first publication to be a big name. I am good and sooner or later an editor will see it." This is a person who spends at least two hours daily writing despite the heavy demands of a family and a part time job. She has Erica Jong's poem about wanting a clean house but not enough to sacrifice writing time, taped on her refrigerator. Woe to the family member that interrupts her at her computer. They didn't even knock to tell her about 9/11.

"I don't know if writing makes me happy, but not writing makes me miserable," a poet told me. He scribbles his poems during his subway rides, at lunch, and when the boss isn't looking. A few have been published in literary magazines, and every time he sees his work in print he says,

"Knowing I've shared that moment with others makes it worthwhile."

A writer who writes for the Christian market said, "I feel God gave me a gift. I can't deny it by not writing."

"I love language, manipulating words on the page until they carry the exact meaning that I want," a writer in her 50s said.

"For me it's therapy. I've had so much pain in my life, that it is one way of getting it out. Cheaper than a shrink," said a man who seemed much too young to have suffered as much as he did.

"If I don't write, I'll shrivel up."

"I've stories to tell. I just hope someone will listen."
And on and on and…

Does it matter when we start to write? I don't think so.

At four I knew I wanted to create stories. The writing compulsion came to my writing mate late in life after realising that the corporate ladder and MBA was not what she wanted to do. Both of us take the same pride in our work ever searching for ways to improve ourselves in our craft.

Does it matter what genre we write in? I don't think so. A student in my creative writing class apologised that she liked to read romances and hoped to write one. A genre writer needs to work just as hard on technique. The need to tell a story in the best way possible is true regardless of genre.

Energy is the operative word. Whatever we write, when our work takes on energy, we experience an incredible rush. Sometimes the rush is for us alone. If we are lucky the rush will extend to a person who buys the piece and finally to an ultimate reader.

Years ago writer Pamela Painter, who was teaching at a Simmons College writing program, defined a writer as someone who writes, not someone who is published. Others believe you aren't really a writer until you are published. Under that definition if Emily Dickinson's poems had never been published, she wouldn't have been a poet. Although her words would have been lost to the world, would they have been any less moving? Is it a variation of if a tree falls in the forest and if no one hears it does it make a sound?

Last night at Les Flowers, a restaurant in Argelès, after we had satiated ourselves with magret de canard, I asked the same question of my two female friends, both excellent communicators.

"No, if no one reads the writing, only half the process has been completed," the anthropologist said. "I agree," said the photographer.

It is one of those issues that could be argued endlessly with no clear result. We write.

What we do with our writing is another thing. We may keep it for ourselves, share it with our
families or seek publication. One woman I worked with is writing her life story for a friend. Another is trying to capture the Baghdad of her youth so the world can see another view from that portrayed in the news. Many, many writers are working on peace issues whether through letters to the media or world leaders. Others work with International Pen to free writers in prison, feeling they need to use their writing to give back. For some it is a need to look inside to touch something hidden: call it a soul, heart, etc. Others want to find the universal in the detail. Some admit they want to see their names on the best-selling books list.

Writing makes us writers. Work makes us good writers. Why do we do it? Because we must.


Example 1
"' Success at any price' is not my motto. In particular I don't urge what Virginia Woolf called 'adultery of the brain.' Prostituting one's talents to the highest, most prestigious or only bidder is not ultimately satisfying. .. if we define writing with integrity as remaining true to one's own values, what counts in this respect will differ from person to person…Aim to find your own path to success as you define success and keep in mind that you'll probably feel your way through by trial and error."

Example 2
Anyone who has struggled to teach a creative writing course and explain to a bunch of would-be writers just what makes a piece of writing come alive, what makes it heat up and burst into life, will know what an impossibly slippery thing it is to define. What is that enviable, indefinable something that makes a piece of fiction fizz? What makes you believe in it absolutely and without question right from the start?
Julie Myerson reviewing ZZ Packer's DRINKING COFFEE ELSEWHERE in The Guardian.

Example 3
"My work and my art, it is life."

Example 4
"The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it immediately or in the long run."
Henry David Thoreau.

I included this sample because everything in life has a price and whether it is the time we devote to writing, earning a living, or anything else. Hopefully we will all make these decisions wisely.

Example 6
Lots of people want to be writers; just about everybody talks about writing a book someday. Most don't know about the typical annual income and the isolation; they know about only the cocktail parties and the bylines. Of those who wouldn't mind being writers, relatively few really want to write. It's work.

Talent is potential. Develop it and you have something; let it atrophy and you squander it. Talent is not ability.
Art Spikol

List all the things about writing that frustrate you.
List all the things about writing that make you happy.
List what you would do if you didn't write.
List what you've discovered about yourself by writing.
List observations you have made because you write.
List the things you want to write.
List what stops you writing.


When I moved to Europe I discovered different nationalities use different terms for punctuation: an American period is a British full stop. Because W3 has an international audience (14 different countries), I arbitrarily decided to use semicolon for ; in this note.

An editor once said he never bought a manuscript unless someone used a semi-colon (;) correctly on the first page; probably not a good way to find the next best seller, but I thought just in case you submit your work to that editor, I'd review their use.

Semicolons separate the clauses of a compound sentence that have no co-ordinating conjunction. Ex: Harry ran to the store; he did many errands.

Semicolons separate the clauses of a compound sentence in which the clauses contain internal punctuation when the clauses are joined by a conjunction. Ex: Harry, who is often late, ran to the store, stopped at the dry cleaners, washed the car; and he rushed home.

Semicolons separate the elements of a series in which items already contain commas. Ex: Many people attended: Dr. John Jones, president; Irene Dunn, ghost and actress; Jason Haskell, architect and artist; and me.

Semicolona seperate clauses of a compound sentence joined by a conjunctive adverb (nevertheless, therefore, hence, etc.) Ex: The electricity was off for several hours; therefore the play was cancelled.

Write in Italy
The Centro Studi Pokkoli, a non-profit organization, makes available to individuals or institutions, for a small fee, workshop space for up to 15 people, free lodging for instructors, and arranges housing and meals for participants. We are located in a historic building in the old center of Vitorchiano, a medieval town one hour from Rome. For information: contact Linda Lappin md2948@mclink.it

Write in Southern France
I will work with students either individually or in small groups for up to a week in my French-Catalan village, Argelès-sur-mer, in intensive workshops designed to your needs. The workshop includes an in-depth analysis of your manuscript. For more information contact me at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr or call +33 4 68 37 90 11.

To the many people who commented on the article about Lee Gutkind and passed me information, thank you. Creative fiction has also been called the new journalism as many pointed out to me.


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