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Why Do We Write?


David Dvorkin

  Note:  In all of this, I'm really talking about writing books. To some extent, what I say here probably applies to essays and short stories as well, but books - novels, in fact - are my focus and where I've had the most experience. The investment of time - percentage of one's life - involved in writing a book is so much longer than that involved in writing a story or essay that they really are fundamentally different experiences.  

Why do we write? It's a question writers sometimes discuss with each other, both in conversation and in print. A common semi-flippant answer is that it's better than working for a living. But that's only valid for those few who are able to make a living as writers. Why does everyone else write? Here the common answers boil down to, "I can't not write," or, "It's just what I am, a writer."

George Orwell said much the same thing in his 1946 essay, "Why I Write":

  From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.  

By the way, Orwell's motto was, "Writers write." But by that he meant that writers actually put words on paper rather than wasting their time talking about writing or daydreaming about writing or telling themselves that they're going to write at some vague future point.

Henry James said something like, "The only proper pursuit for the intelligent man is the writing of novels." (I read that long ago in a biography of H. G. Wells but have been unable to find it again, so very likely I'm misremembering the quotation. I'd welcome a correction.)

So writers write because they are driven to do so or because no other pursuit is appropriate to them. This doesn't tell us very much. It's rather like saying that a chair is a chair because it's not something else. Which is a true statement but not a useful one.

Let's see if we can take it a bit further than that.

George W. Bush, the slimeball fake president, once said in a speech that presidentin' is hoard, it's hoard work. Well, Georgie, presidentin' ain't nothin' compared to writin'.

According to movies, the hardest task facing the writer is finding an idea. In such movies, especially if they're comedies, some improbable events, usually involving a sexy love interest, conspire to shove a brilliant idea in the writer's face. Inspired, he sits down before his typewriter (unlike in the real world, few writers in movies have graduated to writing on computers) and very quickly produces a book, which is then quickly published and quickly becomes a bestseller, allowing the writer character to move along with his amusing and improbable adventures.

In the real world, for most writers, sexy love interests are rare but ideas are common. Selecting from among the welter of ideas that constantly flood our minds the one which we think will be fruitful to spend our limited time on, and then converting that idea into a polished book - ah, that's hoard work! It's also time-consuming work. Movies would be far more accurate if they reversed the time they show the writer spending on his two main tasks. That is, instead of showing him sweating and gadding about trying to get an idea, and then producing the resulting book in a quick fadeout and fadein, they should show him getting the idea during the opening credits and then spending the rest of the movie typing. Perhaps the movie could end with every publisher the writer submits his book to rejecting it, followed by the writer sadly saying that maybe he'll have better luck with the next one. "Being a writer really is like being a chair," he whines. "Everyone sits on you." No one would want to see such a movie, but at least it would more closely approach accuracy.

Oh, and remember that the writer is doing all this hoard work while holding down a regular job and, in most cases, trying to be an adequate husband and father as well. In the movies, he's living in luxurious surroundings with lots of money in the bank. In the real world, he's just an ordinary schlub living in a house that needs major repairs and worrying about paying the utility bills and mortgage.

Given this unpleasant and very un-Hollywoodish picture of the writing life, one has to wonder all the more why anyone writes.

The first book is different from all the subsequent ones, and not just in the way that one's first sexual experience is different from all the subsequent ones. Normally, when a writer writes his first book, he's young and filled with enthusiasm, with the delight of manipulating words and characters, with the certainty that this book will take the world by storm and bring him fame and fortune. Along the way, he'll also teach the rest of mankind lots of important stuff about life and human nature and politics and whatever else he's thrown into the book. First novels tend to have a whole lotta stuff in 'em. That's partly because our young writer has learned so much about everything in his twenty-something years, and it's partly because he hasn't yet learned to cut out what he sees as brilliant discursions and editors recognize as fat.

So it's entirely understandable that someone would write a first novel - write the first draft, then revise it, polish it, and start sending it out to publishers or agents, fired by enthusiasm and optimism all the way to the end.

When I finished my first novel, in the mid-1970s, that was exactly my situation, and I managed to cope with rejections from a growing list of publishers because I had the enthusiasm, energy, optimism, and naive stupidity of youth. All of which seemed justified when Pocket Books bought and published the book. The book came out and somehow managed not to set the world on fire. My editor told me it had been "quietly received." It took me a while to realize that that's the publishing industry's kind euphemism for "ignored."

Despite my disappointment - and astonishment at the world's obtuseness - I didn't stop. I was already well into my second novel and outlining my third. (Pocket Books bought both novels, but the third one never got published because when the second one was published, it was so quietly received that you could have heard a pin drop.) That foolish youthful energy and optimism, not to mention the fun I was having, kept me going. But at some point, for the vast majority of writers whose books don't become bestsellers, or even particularly good sellers, an acceptance of reality has to set in. That's when many give up and stop writing. And who can blame them?

But many don't give up even then.

I'm not talking about writers who maintain a kind of naiveté about their publishing prospects, convincing themselves that they're still on the verge of the big breakthrough. I'm talking about the ones who accept reality, accept that they may never have a successful book, and yet keep writing. Yes, you. I'm talking to you. And to myself. Why do we keep writing?

For some of us, there's occasional positive reinforcement. That's supposed to be what keeps gamblers hooked - not constantly winning, but winning occasionally, which keeps them fixated on the idea that a big score in the future is inevitable. That could explain why those writers who are generally unsuccessful but some of whose books occasionally do moderately well keep writing.

No, wait, there's more to it than that. Suppose you're the guy in the movies. You have an exhilarating fling with a sexy and beautiful babe, and that gives you the Great Idea you were looking for, and you write a novel (fadeout, fadein, poof, it's finished!), and it's published, and you make a fortune, and you and the sexy, beautiful babe live happily ever after. Why do you keep writing?

Maybe the yacht's getting a bit rundown. "Oh, bother," you say. "Refurbishing the yacht will be expensive. And the babe wants to have the house in Geneva redecorated. I'd better write another trashy, bad, bestselling novel." At some point, the yachts and the multiple houses will all be, so to speak, ship shape, and the babe will have had all the cosmetic surgery she's able to have, and you'll still have lots of money in the bank. And yet, you still keep writing novels. Why?

After all, it's hoard work.

Digression: There used to be a third category of writer, between the failed and the spectacularly successful. This was the "mid-list" author. Such people churned out books steadily and, while no single book made a lot of money, each book performed predictably well enough, and the publisher made a reasonable profit on that author and the author made a reasonable living. So mid-listers kept writing because it was their job and it kept a roof over their head, if for no other reason. Alas, in these evil and declining days, publishers have eliminated the mid-list and such hardworking and generally happy professionals are no more. Except, perhaps, in the romance genre, about which I know nothing and will say less.

In the essay I referred to at the start, Orwell lists what he considers the four primary motivations for writing. I won't bother repeating his list because I think he generally misses the mark. However, his second motivation, Aesthetic enthusiasm, comes close. He defines it as:

  Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.  

That's certainly part of it, but the real allure of writing lies a step beyond what Orwell describes.

Well, for me, anyway. But this essay is really about me. I'm the only writer I know in any deep way. This is all about me, me, me. If you want sociology, you'll have to look elsewhere. So why didn't I title this "Why I Write"? Because Orwell nabbed that title when I was only three years old, the scoundrel.

More seriously, while Orwell may be right about what gets people to start writing, I'm focusing on what keeps people writing. I'm trying to divine a deeper, or at least longer lasting, impulse underlying the desire to string words together.

When I was twelve or so and living in South Africa, I took a woodworking course. As I remember, the idea didn't appeal to me all that much initially, but it was a choice between that class and something worse, so I opted for the lesser of two evils. The course was taught in a separate building that was remarkably well equipped, especially considering how other departments in the school were starved for funds and constantly had to make do. To my surprise, I loved the course - all the big power drills and saws, the stacks of aromatic lumber, the neatly stored arrays of hammers and screwdrivers, the planes and awls, the sound and feel and smell of the machine cutting through the wood in just the right way as I controlled its movement, even the sawdust. I made a decorative dinner tray. It had curves in the wood, and I sanded it and stained it and did other magical carpenterish things to it that I no longer remember and could no longer duplicate. I took it home, and my mother displayed it proudly - a given, since I was her youngest child and only son, so her treatment of the tray says nothing about its quality. I haven't seen it for years and only remember it dimly, and for all I know, if I were to see it again, I'd be embarrassed by its asymmetry and the obvious ineptitude of the kid who made it. That's assuming it still exists, which is unlikely.

But the points is that I still remember the delight of making it. From wood and glue and stain and nails, and using saws and files and brushes and hammers, I made something that had a special nature of its own. It was a thing with its own character that transcended its components. This is more than saying, "The whole is more than its parts." The final object had a nature that was fundamentally different from the combination of its parts.

Years before that, we lived in a different area of South Africa where it was much wetter. The yard had some patches of muddy clay that were wonderfully sticky and hard - perfect for molding into shapes, in my opinion. One of my favorites, which I made repeatedly, was a wolf's head. The nose was easy; any small, round pebble would do. But the ears, which I molded out of the clay, were really tough. I never gave up on them, though. I went through a period of making lots of clay figures, which I then stored in my bedroom. (I can remember my mother's look when I brought those things into the house. I didn't understand the look then, but remembering it, I do now.) Those shapes, too, had a special nature to them, a solid, material reality that set them apart from, and above, the vague shapes I had imagined ahead of time and which I was trying to reproduce in solid form.

All of this is a common childhood experience. Children of every type are drawn to the arts and have the urge to create. For various reasons, the urge fades away or is suppressed in most of us. Some of us, though, are bedeviled by it for the rest of our lives.

Hold that thought.

Above, I said that ideas arrive in multitudes and the problem for most writers is choosing which ideas to spend time working on. What form those ideas take, how detailed they are, how they feel in the mind surely must vary greatly from one writer to another.

In my case, the ideas are almost always gimmicks, as I call them. What would happen if the sun vanished? (Which became my novel Central Heat.) What would it be like on a world where huge mines extended beneath much of the surface and most of the population spent their lives underground? (Pit Planet) Suppose you pretended to be channeling the spirit of an ancient business executive who lived long ago in a galaxy far away, and you wrote a book filled with business clichés supposedly dictated to you by this spirit, and zillions of silly people bought the book and you got rich. (Business Secrets from the Stars)

At that stage, the gimmicks are jostling around in my head with a bunch of other gimmicks. I may like some of them more than others. I may feel that some seem more promising than others. But they're all still just vague ideas. None of them has any sense of texture or character or solidity.

The next step comes when I decide to spend some time playing around with a particular gimmick. At that point, I start thinking about a plot. How does the sun vanish, and what happens to some specific individuals as a result? Why does our protagonist find himself in the underground mines, and what happens to him there? What zany and satirical adventures befall the guy who writes the bestselling book of supposedly channeled business advice?

If I feel I'm getting somewhere at this stage, I start writing some sort of plot synopsis. These synopses tend to get long and detailed and include some scene descriptions. The aim is to end up with enough detail so that I can start writing the novel without worrying about running into major plot problems along the way. The scene descriptions aren't required, but they tend to pop into my mind as I'm writing the synopsis, so I include them so that I'll have them for later use during the actual writing. Somewhere during this synopsis-writing process, I stop seeing the idea or gimmick as just an idea or gimmick and start seeing it as a novel. It has taken on a character, a nature, a solidity of its own in the same way as the dinner tray did, but in this case, it has become something real, even with a personality, before it has any kind of physical existence. It's just a synopsis, but in my mind, it's already a novel. At that point, I have assumed an obligation.

It's a cliché that writers regard their books as their children, but its a cliché with a lot of validity. A lot of writers, including me, do indeed feel that way. Of course my books are not on a par with my real child. At the same time, because each book seems to me to have a distinct personality, or at least to be imbued with some kind of elementary life and personality, and because each one is my offspring in an admittedly vague and abstract sense, I do feel toward them a need to protect and nurture them.

Just as with a human child, the parental role doesn't end with the act of procreation (appearance of the gimmick/idea), or gestation (inventing the plot and writing the synopsis), or the first day in school (completion of the manuscript), or even high-school graduation (acceptance by a publisher!).

Parental role? I should have said, parental responsibility. Once the idea has progressed from being a gimmick to being a mental image of a novel, a proto-novel, I have an obligation, a parental responsibility, to protect, guide, and nurture this child of my mind until it is mature enough to enter the world on its own. I feel that I am required to bring it from this embryonic stage to full, complete existence - novelhood, rather than personhood. This is a very serious and very real moral duty: to enable the idea to achieve external reality.

The parallel with parenthood goes even further. Just as a parent never stop wanting his child to have a happy life and to be appreciated and loved by others as he is appreciated and loved by his parent, so an author wants his books to have a happy journey through the world and to be appreciated and loved by others. There is egotism in this, of course. I want people to admire my books and to extend that admiration to me. But I also feel - and I know how strange this will sound - that the books deserve the happiness of being loved and that they will be sad and lonely if they are not, if the world ignores them.

Good parents try not to love one child above the others, but they often can't help doing so. The good author wants to love all his books equally, but often one stands out as the favorite. (At least, unlike children, the other books don't know that they're not the favorite. I hope.) For me, the favorite is my novel Business Secrets from the Stars. It's the funny, bright, charming one, the best of all of them, the most beloved child, the one that most deserves to be loved and cherished by the world, and the one whose neglect by the world has hurt me the most. Sometimes I want to grab passing strangers and shake them and scream at them, "Damn you, not only is this the greatest book you'll ever read if you'll just read it, but can't you see how you're hurting it by not reading it?" (Don't worry. I keep all of this well bottled up.)

Let's return to that thought I asked you to hold, the one about the urge to create physical objects with a nature and personality of their own, to give an idea an external reality in the form of an object.

This process of giving an idea, a thought, an external reality, a physical existence, has a great deal of power. A lot of people write journals about their lives as a way of dealing with events and feelings. They could mull those events and feelings over in their minds, but putting them down on paper, externalizing them, in a sense looking at them from the outside, can make the difficult or painful ones easier to deal with. Writers of fiction have always used their own lives as material for their art, and one reason for doing so is that it's a way of dealing with, analyzing, examining, coming to terms with events or experiences or emotions that are unmanageable as long as they remain internal.

What the writer is dealing with doesn't even have to be tragically or melodramatically negative. It may be a relatively small thing that is nonetheless an ongoing annoyance. I've always been annoyed by my tendency to get depressed and pessimistic when my writing career hits a low spot, and I really hate the despicable, poisonous envy that I'm often filled with at other writers' successes. (I guess that's not such a small thing, after all, is it?) I used to lecture myself and try to cast all of that away from me, but without success. So I put it all in a book. That was Business Secrets from the Stars. It started out as a clever gimmick and was intended to be just a comic novel. But as I wrote the book, the protagonist, Malcolm Erskine, acquired exaggerated versions of the very things I dislike in myself.

I didn't plan it that way, but when I realized what was happening, I started giving him those characteristics deliberately - and exaggerating them and making them not just despicable but laughable. Writing that novel - which I should add is utterly, utterly brilliant and everyone in the world should own a copy - was therapeutic. It let me laugh at the silliness of those dark aspects of my character instead of just fretting and feeling guilty about them. I won't pretend that I purged myself of those elements, but I do think they have a lot less power over me than they did before. I don't want to be Malcolm Erskine.

Some time after I stopped making wolf heads out of backyard clay, I started writing stories. "Started" is the right word, because I never finished any of them. Later, I progressed to starting what I projected as immense science fiction adventure novels of galactic scope. A page or two was usually the limit, although I sometimes included full-page illustrations of scenes or ideas from the intended books. All of this was hand written. My handwriting was awful, despite writing classes taught with all the grimness and thoroughness of the South African school system of those days, so it was hard for me to make out the great adventures I had written down a few days earlier. It was also hoard work; I've never been able to write quickly or easily. Despite all of that, I used to look at the one or two pages I managed to write in one stretch and feel delighted at their very existence. They were much more than paper with writing on them. They had become something else, and I had created them.

Still later, in high school in America, I acquired a portable typewriter and started writing incomplete stories and novels on that. Eventually, I managed to finish stories. I loved to hold the finished product. I even loved to hold the papers I typed for school, much as I hated writing those and hated school itself. In all cases, the thin pile of papers was something with its own nature, something I had formed, brought into existence.

Eventually, I produced a complete novel using that portable typewriter. All of the feelings I had had about those other, much smaller stacks of paper - delight about the existence of the physical manuscript and amazement that what I had created, the story, characters, ideas, were somehow mysteriously contained inside - were there again, but much more powerful and longlasting.

I wrote my first few novels on the manual typewriter and then moved on to an electric. The pleasure of beholding the physical manuscript continued. But I was getting tired of retyping pages and of the difficulty of making major changes to a novel after a significant part of it had been typed. I was waiting eagerly for desktop computers to become powerful enough and cheap enough to take the place of the typewriter. (I should explain that I had been using mainframe and mini computers at work for years, as an aerospace engineer and then as a programmer, so I knew what should be possible.) When I finally did get a desktop computer, I still printed out manuscripts. So there was still the stack of papers, the book in physical form, but that was only after the manuscript was complete - proofread, tweaked, fiddled with, word-processed to satisfaction. The paper manuscript had become anticlimactic. It didn't have the same powerful aura of a separate nature.

With time, that feeling passed, and the file or files stored on a floppy disk, and later a hard drive, began to take on that feeling. Even more, the pages displayed in the word processor on the screen now have that aura for me. Well, not entirely. I think that part is due not just to there not being something physical, but also to the fluidity of the book, the plasticity of it; it doesn't have the same sense of being fixed in permanent, physical form as the typed manuscript did. Now it's the published book that has that feeling.

I wonder about sculptors of the future. An old theme in science fiction has to do with sculptors creating futuristic art works out of energy fields or by means of some sort of Star-Trekkish replicator. In other words, rather than chiseling or shaping with hands and tools, they'll design on a screen, just as I write my fiction, and then when they're satisfied, they'll produce a physical result. Or perhaps the result never will have a real physical form, if they're using, say, some sort of electromagnetic medium. Will people still want to sculpt? Will some insist on using the old ways, just as there are some writers who still insist on using typewriters or even on writing by hand? Obviously the attitudes of artists change over time. I know of writers who prefer typewriters or longhand, but I don't know of any who prefer clay tablets.

Does what I've talked about explain the impulse to write? Do we spend all that time and effort because we are driven to convert an idea into a book, a mental image into an external reality? Does it stop there?

Obviously not, for most writers.

When I was attending Indiana University in the 1960s, one of my friends was a fine arts major who insisted that he intended to never sell any of his works. He would keep them in his house. He was producing his art for himself. We didn't stay in touch, so I don't know if he stayed with the arts and, if so, if he did indeed never even try to sell any of his works. I do know that I don't know any writers who feel that way.

Years ago, I occasionally unwisely complained to my mother that I was depressed because I couldn't support myself as a writer and had to work at a regular, full-time job instead. She never understood why I couldn't just treat writing as a hobby. She knew lots of people who wrote and painted and so on in their spare time, enjoying what they did fully and with neither the hope nor the desire to do it as their profession. "I'm not like them," I would answer, jaw clenched. "But why not?" Because a chair is a chair and not something else.

So that's certainly part of it. On a personal, emotional level, it's not enough to produce writing, no matter how brilliant, no matter how perfectly one accomplishes the goal of giving form to an idea. There's also the need to be able to keep on doing just that, writing, unhindered, instead of spending the best hours of the day and the best years of one's life working to pay the bills. Occasionally, I buy a lottery ticket. When I dream of winning, naturally I dream of being able to pay off all our debts and help relatives and friends and go off with my wife on wonderful trips. But I also dream about being able to spend every day writing, about being the carefree novelist.

Still, even that dream includes publishing what I write. I don't want to hoard my novels. I want the world to read them.


I think the answer takes us back to the idea of writing as parenting. Not wanting to see your books published - out there in the world, being read and appreciated - is equivalent to not wanting your kids to ever leave home. I'm not talking about the sick people one hears about on the evening news who keep a child locked in a cage for years. I'm talking about the kind of parents who "joke" about not letting their daughter date till she's 30, or wanting their son and any future wife of his to live in the house next door. They want to freeze time. Such people don't want to fulfill their role as parents, to complete it; they want to abort it.

For a writer, the act of artistic creation isn't complete until his works are read and understood by others. And not just a handful of others (e.g., friends and relatives), but by many others. Until that happens, he can't help but feel that what he has done is, in some sense, sterile.

Making the idea into the externally real thing, the novel, is only the first step in the artistic process of creation for a writer. The wonderful idea, complexly developed, must be communicated into the minds of others. The written novel is a wonderful thing in itself, but it only fulfills its role when it serves as a vehicle connecting the writer's mind to the minds of his readers. That's why it's not necessary to produce a book in a physical form in order to be completely satisfied with it as a book; it can still do its real job. That's also why we feel such a satisfying sense of connection with the distant past and its people when we read something written by some long-ago writer and appreciate it as the writer wanted us to. That marvelous completion of the artistic act of creation can take place across a gap of centuries, or thousands of miles, or immense cultural barriers.

The hope of achieving that, I think, is the real reason we write.

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