Why do we write?
I ask myself this question all the time for all kinds of reasons. I ask myself why did I want to be a writer when I procrastinate for far longer than I actually spend typing, when I’m frozen on a scene, or when I’m overwhelmed by the magnitude of the story nuggets that have yet to be the rough drafts, rewrites, revisions, and edits of gold mines. Writing is so much work with very few tangible, immediate rewards. It is not a “fun job.” It keeps me in my head. It keeps me solitary, sometimes even isolated. There is no way to be a writer without being a watcher. That role of observation keeps me out of the active participation of life far more often than I would like.
A perfect example of this watcher/player dynamic can be found amongst the Beat Generation of writers and poets. “On the Road” was not about Jack Kerouac so much as it was about Neal Cassady, a friend Kerouac found fascinating. Apparently, Neal Cassady also had a talent for writing. A “Joan Anderson letter” written to Kerouac from Cassady featured the stream-of-consciousness writing which inspired Kerouac, and he write “On The Road” in that style, this book that made him famous. What Cassady did not have was the discipline or the drive to become a great writer himself. He was too busy playing on the stage of life, being a muse, an inspiration, the Holy Fool who lived on the edge until he self destructed right before his 42nd birthday. He died alone on a railroad track in Mexico from exposure, after mixing powerful drugs and alcohol.
Kerouac wrote his story down. Allen Ginsburg probably enjoyed a lot of inspiration from Cassady as well. Ken Kesey further immortalized him in the Merry Pranksters as the manic bus driver of “Further.” In the lives of these writers, they were both players and watchers; but ultimately, they had to be watchers to sit down, reflect, and write it all down. It’s hard work. It’s painstaking. Writing needs a lot of patience. And in my case, writing comes slowly.
I had so many dreams. Why did this one stick? It would have been so much more exciting to have a dream of dancing or skydiving or mountaineering or snowboarding. I’ve done a bit of all of these, some more than others. But these were passionate hobbies, not callings. Even being a geologist or biologist would have left some room.
Writing is an exacting taskmaster. So why do we do it?
In my case, I suppose I write because I’m called to. When I don’t, I can’t shake the feeling that something is missing. When I do, I feel at peace.
Writing does help me sort out my thoughts and ideas. Writing can upset me, but it can also bring me clarity. When I write a piece I can feel in my bones is special and just right, sweet gratification follows.
As far as the stage of Life is concerned, I’ve sought out unusual and extreme experiences, knowing that there would be a story in there somewhere. So oddly enough, writing goaded me into being a player on plenty of occasions – even if I watched the entire time.
I must admit I like playing God. Writing stories and novels makes that role inevitable. So when I finally arrive to that sense of finish – knowing I’ve done all I can do for this novel and this world I created without an editor – and write “THE END” on the last line, it feels f*cking great!
The anticipation of that satisfaction keeps me going. What works for you?