About Writers

Why I Write – Carl E. Reed


For those merry fictioneers past 50 years of age (I am now a member of this august, somewhat-worse-for-wear group) who keep putting pen to paper, hammering on keyboard keys and/or barking into tape recorders as twilight approaches, the question might well be asked: Why do you keep doing this? After all, depending on whose statistics you reference, only 2% – 5% of published writers make their living from the writing of fiction. What are the reasons to continue practicing the craft, then? Speaking only for myself (and in no particular order) my top ten reasons are:

1. I am compelled to do it. There is something about the aesthetic frisson and sublime pleasure occasioned by the fashioning of words into cunning order that scratches a deep-rooted psychic itch in me like nothing else can. (“A word after a word after a word is power.” —Margaret Atwood)

2. I write to save my sanity and calm, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, that “dog’s breakfast, 3½ pounds of blood-soaked sponge” ceaselessly monkey-chattering away inside the “bone housing maelstroms” (this latter phrase from a poet whose name I have unfortunately forgotten). Or as Ray Bradbury commands in Zen & the Art of Writing (close paraphrase): If you’re a writer, you must write yourself sane every day. (Direct quote: “You must stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you.”) When I don’t write I feel vaguely unsettled and nauseous, nerve-jangled and angry, peevish and resentful, churlish and depressed.

3. I write to discover what I actually think and feel. There is no better way to interrogate yourself than to put characters of divers temperament, backgrounds and agendas on direct collision courses with one another in your plots. All you need do then is stand back and record the resulting fireworks as honestly and directly—as devoid of dogma and cant and easy bullshit conflict-resolution answers—as you can manage. (“A writer should be of as great probity and honesty as a priest of god.” —Hemingway)

4. I am never more myself than when I write, so I write in response to Plato’s dictum: “know thyself”. (Or as no less an authority than Socrates observed: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”)

5. Practice of “the spooky art” (Norman Mailer’s numinous phrase for the craft) allows me to better appreciate the hard work and consummate skills of “The Greats”. After all, who better understands and appreciates music—the musician, or the stereo owner?

6. It is the hardest work I’ll ever do—therefore, the most satisfying. (“Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” —James Joyce) It is also, at times—to immediately contradict myself—the easiest, most exhilarating work that I’ll ever do. (“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.” —Truman Capote) This is also most satisfying.

7. I enjoy the tactile feel of fingertips on keyboard and the clack-click clickety-clack sounds my keyboard makes. (“If typewriters hadn’t been invented by the time I began to write, I doubt if the world would have ever heard of Jack London.”) Never underestimate the love an artist has for his instrument, or the concomitant impact such technical idolatry might have on his or her continued enthusiasm for the work. Do you think there are any great guitarists indifferent to guitars; accomplished painters unaware of subtle differences in canvas, brushes and paints?

8. I write for recognition. (In this, I have utterly failed, of course. Heh! So it goes . . .)

9. I write for money. Yes, that is one of the reasons I write, despite the long odds of ever receiving a check large enough to cover a month’s bills. (See rueful comment above.)

10. I write to connect with others, to let them know that they are not alone. (“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.” —Albert Schweitzer. “Only connect!” —E. M. Forster, Howards End)

What are your reasons for writing, I wonder?


26 thoughts on “Why I Write – Carl E. Reed

  1. mimispeike says:

    All your reasons are mine also. Plus this: I have an inciting idea, but no solid conception of where it will take me. I write to find out what my story consists of, for my own pleasure.

    I write verse also, and I love to create unusually worded rhymes. And, unexpected rhymes, hidden in verse structured as prose, that magically emerge as you read it as plain text. It’s a marvelous game.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. GD Deckard says:

    Wonder-full reasons, all 10, Carl. Thank you!

    I especially like “3. I write to discover what I actually think and feel.”
    I clearly remember being 18 and deciding to become a writer at the age of 60, after I had experienced life.
    Little did I know then the discoveries that would come after I began writing.

    (In my defense, I would point out that this decision was made in a bar at the very moment a prostitute was soliciting me. Maybe I was easily distracted at age 18.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. mimispeike says:

    Thank you, Carl, for stepping up with this post. I have been consumed with, and am exhausted by, my Fright piece. I will pull myself together and try to start a new blog post. God knows on what. Something will come to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • GD Deckard says:

      Yes, Carl, thanks for putting this together. I noticed the hopper was empty but even I know that nobody wants to read 2 or 3 of my pieces in a row.


  4. mimispeike says:

    I’ve got it. In keeping with the look back/look ahead of New Year, I will write on fiction as a relitigation of the past, personal or otherwise.

    Something like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Perry Palin says:

    A wonderful list. I wouldn’t have thought of some of these, but I identify strongly with numbers 1, 3, 5, and 8.

    Writing has been an escape, when the time of day or season of the year overruled the other escapes of fly fishing for trout or training a horse to work in harness. Now the kids are grown and gone, successful in their own lives, I’ve left my day job with modest but sufficient economic security, and I don’t have so many responsibilities to escape from anymore. I write less now, but it’s very much fun, and as I grow older I write better.

    Liked by 2 people

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  7. “When I don’t write I feel vaguely unsettled and nauseous, nerve-jangled and angry, peevish and resentful, churlish and depressed.” Currently not getting half as much done as I’d like – you sum up my state of mind entirely!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Rosa Ave Fénix says:

    I’ve entered in your blog trough Curtisbause, who I’ve been reading him from perhaps a year. I’ve told him many times I don’t envy anything in our world… but… I’m completely jelaous of those who, like you both, can write lovely entries.
    I`m Spanish living in Barcelona, though I´ve travelled trough many countries, so… I called myself “Citizen of the World”.
    Go on writing!!!!!
    Regards from… Rosa

    Liked by 3 people

    • GD Deckard says:

      We need you here, Rosa! Not being a writer, you will bring us fresh insights.

      Welcome, and please feel free to comment anytime. I look forward to hearing more from you.


    • Ah! I see. Well, without readers like you, Rosa, our craft would be rather pointless: a solipsistic exercise in talking to ourselves. So . . . welcome! (And never forget: all good writers are great readers FIRST.)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. atthysgage says:

    I ran into a bit of analysis on our old friend Chip Delany the other day from a blog post by a fellow named Damian Murphy. He says, speaking of Dahlgren:

    “Somewhere in the depths of the 3rd chapter, the poet Newboy pontificates upon the ‘shield of the poet’ as he calls it. On one side of the shield is written ‘be true to your art so that you can be true to yourself,’ and on the other, ‘be true to yourself so that you can be true to your art.’ The shield, he says, first appears as a mirror, then becomes a lens, and then a prism. So does the poet’s narcissism slowly transform into the means of observation, at length refining into an instrument by which the very nature of light itself may be analyzed.”

    An interesting thought. I found it relevant to this discussion, ya know?

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s an interesting observation, Atthys. (And nice job working in a Dahlgren reference.)

      May I riff at 90-degrees to this point? You’ve triggered some thoughts regarding this word “narcissism” I think is worth unpacking in some depth.

      I would like to point out that there is a world of difference between

      narcissism, which the site Dictionary.com informs us is “1.) inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity (synonyms: self-centeredness, smugness, egocentrism) 2.) Psychoanalysis: erotic gratification derived from admiration of one’s own mental or physical attributes, being a normal condition at the infantile level of personal development”;


      self-awareness, which is “having a clear perception of your personality, including strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions. Self-awareness allows you to understand other people, how they perceive you, your attitude and your responses to them in the moment.” (definition drawn from the site pathwaytohappiness.com)

      Narcissism is entirely inward-directed and infantile; self-awareness comprises an element of metacognition. (Vanderbilt University’s center for teaching defines metacognition as “. . . simply, thinking about one’s thinking. More precisely, it refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one’s thinking and learning and b) oneself as a thinker and learner.”)

      When Thich Nhat Hanh says: “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness,” and “My actions are my only true belongings,” and (one more) “The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy,” we recognize that these statements are moral and relevant to our own lives because Thich Nhat Hanh has first practiced self-awareness in his own: He speaks from the wisdom of live-lived experience and thoughtful reflection and observation.

      When Donald Trump, on the other hand, bleats “The beauty of me is that I’m very rich,” and “I know words; I have the best words,” and (one more) “My IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault,” we–that is to say the intelligent, empathetic, moral community–laugh out loud because of the jarring gap between “The Donald’s” preening narcissism and our self-awareness of his utter failure to practice even a modicum of metacognition.

      Those writers we feel especially close to, I would argue, reach us because we are first attracted to their own highly idiosyncratic and individuated capacity for self-awareness (demonstrated to us—in the case of those who write fiction—by their deft handling of character motivation, thoughts and actions) and then only secondarily to their voices.

      Artists are not necessarily guilty of narcissism simply because they are self-aware and practice metacognition; they are only guilty of being (psychologically-speaking) eternal, inward-fixated infants if they demonstrate through art and action a psychotically-inflated sense of their own egos’ self-importance and permanence.

      As I say, all of which is at 90-degrees to the original observation: a poet’s “narcissism” first manifesting as a mirror, then lens, then—in its final form—becoming a prism through which the very qualia of light itself may be separated and appreciated. It’s certainly an arresting metaphor, isn’t it?

      Liked by 3 people

      • atthysgage says:

        I’m so glad you zeroed in on that word, because it bothered me a little too. It truly isn’t the right word, and it distracts from the blogger’s analysis. I very much appreciate your unpacking of precisely why.

        In truth, it wasn’t the analysis that appealed to me so much as the original metaphor itself. Those chains of mirrors,lenses, and prisms are wrapped around every limb and digit of that novel. Like most really compelling metaphors, they bray out for explication while, at the same time, refusing to accept the limitations of any one specific meaning. Sometimes a metaphor is bigger than the things it supposedly stands for.

        When I ponder my own reasons for writing, I find myself stymied. There are two deeply felt forces at work. One is certainly a desire for recognition, for appreciation. But there’s also a part of me that wants no visibility at all. When the writing it at its very best, I get to stop existing altogether. I am obliterated by the words on the page. I get to go to a place where ego doesn’t even enter into the equation. I don’t even want the applause, because it would only shatter a far more precious silence.

        That’s what I want to achieve, anyway. Of course, it’s the rarest of things, and probably I have never accomplished it, even a little, but I have glimpsed it. On a good day, I can almost make it out, a luminous figure descried through fog in the early hours of the morning. It could be that’s all we get, but it’s enough. It’s certainly enough reason to keep on trying.

        In the meantime, we hunker down in front of the mirror, or peer through one lens or another—whether magnifying or reducing or distorting or clarifying—looking for something. We don’t know what it is, but we’ll know it when we see it. Or at least, we’ll know we saw something.

        Oh, bother. I am out of beer.

        Liked by 3 people

        • I hear ya, Atthys! When I listed “recognition” as one of the reasons I write, please understand that I was referring only to words of approbation a critic might throw my way. Since many-a-time in the real world, however . . . Heh! Need I say more? I am an introverted extrovert. My ideal fantasized way of getting a story in front of someone (I assure you I’m not kidding here) would work like this: Man walks down road. As he’s passing a large boulder, it lifts from the ground ever-so-slightly and spits out a manuscript. Man bends over, picks up manuscript, begins to read. Boulder raises up again–higher, this time–and a set of eyes peers out from the darkness under said boulder. At the first sign of irritation, confusion or other displeasure manifested by my hypothesized reading man the boulder slams back down again with a thump.

          Liked by 3 people

  10. An excellent discussion above – thanks, Carl and Atthys! Yes, narcissism can’t be right because by its nature it precludes self-awareness. But I wouldn’t reject Orwell when, with his usual honesty, he cites ‘sheer egoism’ as one of the four reasons given in Why I Write: ‘Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc.’ It can sit well enough with self-awareness, and with the exploration of human psychology that leads, hopefully, to that ‘deft handling of character motivation, thoughts and actions’.
    Thank you also for revealing a gap in my education, which I must fill by reading Dhalgren.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. GD Deckard says:

    I tend to agree with everything written above and, of course, I like the idea that a good writer is a good person, that narcissists cannot be, etc. But I’m suspicious of self-definitions that judge success in any calling, writing or politics or medicine or the priesthood as equivalent to good.

    Setting aside the definition of good for a moment, successful writers, like successful politicians or doctors or priests may succeed because they are very good at what they do regardless of personal faults. It may even be that the ability to succeed despite personal failings is more important than the failings themselves. It is clearly a human trait.

    To me, a writer benefits the more they understand the whole, wide range of human behavior. And in the long run, it is this understanding, not the writer, that makes their works last. No one cares what Tacitus personally thought of the Romans’ behavior. We read him to better understand Roman behavior.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Certainly, GD, there have been many successful writers who were classic narcissists in the clinical sense of the term. Hell, many who were outright flaming a-holes, eh?

      Please understand that I made qualified, conditional statements in my reply to Atthys such as “artists are not necessarily guilty of narcissism” and “those writers we feel especially close to” to emphasize that 1.) in the first instance I reject the insulting notion that “artist” automatically equals “narcissist”, and 2.) in the second I am speaking of a subset of writers; i.e. those whom we (I can’t improve on my original phrasing here) “feel especially close to.” Thank you for the opportunity to clarify these points.

      I hope you don’t misunderstand me as arguing that by the mere fact of writing a person somehow vaults to a higher spiritual plane in the scheme of things. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf; Charles Manson perpetrated some truly execrable “poems”; the Marquis de Sade fancied himself quite the pornographer. True, writing well should lead both writer and reader deeper into the real world to confront and better understand critical aspects of the universe and our fragile existences within it. Ah, but there’s the rub–that’s when the writer is writing well. . . .

      Liked by 2 people

      • GD Deckard says:

        Right on, Carl. I do agree with your fine points.
        Well although you know, the Marquis is on every teenage boy’s reading list, so I’ll refrain from any personally hypocritical criticism.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. GD Deckard says:

    Actually, when I think about this discussion, I think that judging misleads understanding. This is a great discussion, as is often the case when Carl seriously writes about writing. So, let me kick the can…

    To me, great writing is true to reality in that it increases our understanding. To understand why one person beheads another we have to feel the horror and we have to know beheading is common to Middle Eastern fighters, Mexican drug cartels, and to the history of many peoples, English, French, etc. Judging it means nothing. The writer who could make me feel that horror and understand why it is part of human behavior might force me to look into Nietzsche’s abyss and see a wound in the human psyche. That would be great writing.

    Liked by 2 people

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