“Books are never finished.They are merely abandoned.”
— Oscar Wilde
Why do great writers write?
The question will never be answered only explored — in the context of culture, time, and ourselves. This is exactly what Meredith Maran probes in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do. The powerful range of answers reveal quite a bit about the nature of drive, passion, and the creative process.
Maran starts by introducing us to what authors have historically said on the subject. One of the most well-known is from George Orwell, who eloquently answered the question in 1946 in an essay called 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.
Throughout the book, we encounter this idea that writing is so intrinsically a part of most writers that they couldn’t imagine being anything else. David Baldacci, the writer behind Absolute Power, claims, “If writing were illegal, I’d be in prison. I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion.”
Can you claim that about your own work?
Baldacci notes that even before he was a full time author, he was a storyteller in law, his other profession.
Some of the best fiction I ever came up with was as a lawyer.
You know who wins in court? The client whose lawyer tells better stories than the other lawyer does. When you’re making a legal case, you can’t change the facts. You can only rearrange the to make a story that better enhances your client’s position, emphasizing certain things, deemphasizing others. You make sure the facts that you want people to believe are the most compelling ones. The facts that hurt your case are the ones you either explain away or hide away. That’s telling a story.
Baldacci describes the intrinsic fears he feels as an author, where every new project starts with a blank slate and infinite possibilities. (Something Steven Pressfield calls the War of Art.)
Every time I start a project, I sit down scared to death that I won’t be able to bring the magic again.
You’d never want to be on the operating table with a right-handed surgeon who says, ‘Today I’m going to try operating with my left hand.’ But writing is like that. The way you get better is by pushing yourself to do things differently each time. As a writer you’re not constrained by mechanical devices or technology or anything else. You get to play. Which is terrifying.
It's interesting to note that most of the authors in Maran's book, despite being successful, had a huge fear of not being able to produce again. We assume that success brings a certain amount of confidence but also brings expectations. Nothing is more scary to a musician than a sophomore album or more scary to an author then starting the next book.
One way to solve the problem is to attempt to be ridiculously prolific, like Issac Asimov. But even prolific authors seem to suffer from trepidation. Sue Grafton, the author of A is for Alibi, has written a mystery novel for every letter of the alphabet up to X, and this is what she had to say:
Most days when I sit down at my computer, I’m scared half out of my mind. I’m always convinced that my last book was my last book, that my career is at an end, that I’ll never be able to pull off another, that my success was a fleeting illusion, and my hopes for the future are already dead. Dang! All this drama and it’s not even nine a.m.
For many this fear seems ubiquitous, a shadow that follows them through the process. This is evidenced in Isabel Allende’s description of her writing methodology. (Allende wrote The House of Spirits.)
I start all my books on January eighth. Can you imagine January seventh? It’s hell.
Every year on January seventh, I prepare my physical space. I clean up everything from my other books. I just leave my dictionaries, and my first editions, and the research materials for the new one. And then on January eight I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. It’s like a journey to another world. It’s winter, it’s raining usually. I go with my umbrella and the dog following me. From those seventeen steps on, I am in another world and i am another person.
I go there scared. And excited. And disappointed – because I have a sort of idea that isn’t really an idea. The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.
Experience has shown these seasoned authors that this fear is to be embraced: If the muse isn’t here right now, she will come eventually, because she always does. That time between then and now is an experience that can be used in their writing.
So why write? Why punish yourself by putting yourself through such a difficult process? Mary Karr (author of The Liar’s Club) had an almost poetic answer.
I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money.
I’m almost always anxious when I’m writing. There are those great moments when you forget where you are, when you get your hands on the keys, and you don’t feel anything because you’re somewhere else. But that very rarely happens. Mostly I’m pounding my hands on the corpse’s chest.
With all that said, Mr. Orwell might have summed it up best. In his essay, he listed what he believed to be the four great motives for writing:
Sheer egoism. To be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups in childhood, etc.
Aesthetic enthusiasm. To take pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.
Historical impulse. The desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
Political purposes. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
While every author seemed to have a slightly different motive for writing, they all appear compelled to tell us stories, a burning desire to get something out and share it with the world. Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking…”
Sometimes we can't learn without writing. Sometimes we can’t make sense of our feelings unless we talk about them, and for writers that conversation happens in their books.
Whether you are an avid reader or a writer Why We Write is an insightful work which allows you the chance to visit the minds of some of the most successful authors of our time. Complement this with Maran’s other book Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists On Why They Expose Themselves (and others) in the Name of Literature.