This was the question written on a scrap of paper put forth for discussion in a Vancouver writers’ Meetup group to which I belong.
I’d previously made the suggestion that a possible method of stimulating conservation among the group would be for everyone to write down potential topics of discussion on bits of paper which would then be randomly drawn from a hat. In truth, the members of this group are already sufficiently comfortable with each other to freely converse without assistance. Still, we tried the activity anyway for the thrill of something new.
Hence the question: Why do you write?
While various group members brainstormed their responses, one woman gave the quasi-Cartesian reply of “I write because I am a writer”. When I teased her for her rather linear – not to mention circular – answer (which indeed was something of a “pot” and “kettle” moment), she refused to back down, stating that the rest of us were over-thinking the question. She then presented me with what she considered the definitive test of whether one is a true “writer” for whom there is no choice but to do because you are:
If you knew that everything you ever wrote would be taken from you and burned, would you still write?
I have to be honest: my immediate answer was not a resounding “Yes!”
Neither was it a unequivocal no. Rather, my thought process went something like this:
Well, I would definitely still write in my journal because that’s not meant to ever be shared anyway, and it helps keep me sane….
But I don’t think there’s any form of self-expression meant for public dissemination I’d engage in if I knew it always be destroyed. That just seems masochistic.
Which perhaps proves right there that I’m not a true writer. Or else, that I’m unduly practical, linear, left-brained, and rigid. I have never tried to deny it.
Still, the original question of why I write warrants further consideration. Motivation is one of my writing touchstones, and what better practice for identifying the motivation of characters than doing so in myself?
And looking inside myself, I’m somewhat surprised to admit that the reason I do so today is not the same reason I had six years ago.
Not that I should be that surprised by this, for it has been oft stated by an authority no less illustrious than Dr. Phil that “Behaviours often begin for one reason and continue to another.” There is truth nonetheless to these words. Six years ago, I was writing primarily because it was cheaper and more socially-acceptable than therapy. I was exorcising demons from my soul, elaborately disguising true situations from my life and replaying them as I would if I could but couldn’t and thus didn’t.
But eventually, all of that ended. During the last six years, I’ve lain a lot of demons to rest, and my original reason for writing went right along with them. That wasn’t the actual reason I stopped writing (that happened because I was busy (unsuccessfully) pursuing/obsessing over a boy), but citing once again the wisdom of the good doctor from Texas, a behaviour is often continued for reasons very different than those for which it started. The absence of a behaviour is no different.
My reasons for writing today are not new ones, but rather ones that were always lurking in the background and now have the opportunity to come to the fore. Curiosity is one of these reasons: I am interested in how my characters react in the situations I put them in, because I believe it opens a partial window on how real people would react if similarly afflicted. How people respond to the hardships that befall them – what they allow themselves to become as a result – is fascinating to me. I observe and study people extensively throughout the process of character-making and breaking.
Another reason I write is exploration. Writing allows one to pose those “what-if” questions – to create settings and circumstances that exist only in his/her wildest imagination – and investigate what might happen if they were real. It is no mistake that my favourite genres to read and write are historical and sci-fi/fantasy, for it gives me the chance to experience in living colour worlds long dead that we’ll never experience again, or ones that never were to begin with.
I write to educate, and because I have something to say. Every story I compose has either some sort of moral, personal view, or little-known fact I’m trying to bring to light. I am not a natural teacher in the conventional sense: whenever I convey information, it is very, as I like to say, “informational” – that is, well-researched, totally comprehensive and comprehendible, yet not especially captivating unless one has a pre-existing interest in the subject matter. I just don’t have that gift. But when I write, it all comes out differently. I try to create in-depth, engaging plots out of dull, academic facts and complex, non-preachy characters to live and speak my opinions. It is enthusiastic, entertaining, and a damn sight easier for me than standing up in front of a class.
Finally, speaking of imagination and entertaining, I write for the fun of it. My own imagination is endlessly amusing to myself. I tell myself stories in my head all the time. Some of these have been ongoing for months, soap opera style, with countless peaks and troughs of dramatic tension. These tales, and their associated characters, keep me diverted while commuting to work, while in line at the grocery store or just about anywhere, even while lying in bed waiting to fall asleep. It’s less expensive than cable, more attractive than earbuds, and more accommodating than any handheld form of entertainment, for I can even do it during takeoffs and landings on planes.
Of course, once I decide to actually start writing one of the tales swirling around in my brain, storytelling becomes a little less fun and a lot more work. Still, my efforts don’t go unrewarded, because I end up spending so much time with certain characters and getting to know them so well, occasionally they talk to me.
It might be crazy, but it’s certainly not lonely.
Good thing I know a form of cheap therapy.