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?