Discovering Why You Write
Around 2001 I started working for the college paper. The setup was great. We had almost total freedom to publish what we wanted. We had some PR material that had to go in, and we did a service to clubs on campus who wanted to advertise events, which left a lot of room for random articles, poetry, and reviews. I loved it.
But I never really thought about why I loved it. When I took a journalism internship a few years later, I learned damned quick why I loved writing and publishing, and why that meant I would never be a journalist for a small-town paper.
Back to writing for my first college paper. When I look back on my articles, they essentially boil down to me being a smart ass as eloquently as possible, and then throwing a couple shoddy poems into the poetry section for good measure. But even now, as I re-read some of those articles, I see that my concerns were legitimate. I saw people around me fighting for the right to wear shirts with profanity. I heard people talk about fighting censorship, which to them meant that the Howard Stern show should be played on E! with full frontal nudity. Meanwhile public officials were telling us that we better watch what we say, and equating constructive criticism of policies with treason. The years following 9/11 were a frightening time, especially for writers who liked to complain like myself.
Since the age of fifteen, I knew I wanted to write. But I never knew what I wanted to write. I dabbled in horror first, then shifted towards poetry because it took less time to write a poem and get a sense of completion out of poetry for me. When I started writing for the college paper, I finally started to think about the things I wanted to write, and some of the reasons I wanted to write. I wanted people to see the world the way I did. And like most of us when we’re young, I thought my views were right and was terribly distraught at how shallow some of the people around me seemed to be. I’m not going to say many people because that’s unfair, but back then that’s how I felt. I wanted to believe that the world was flawed and needed to be changed and I selectively listened to the people around me to validate my sentiments. Intelligent conversations overheard in the coffee house probably went in one of my ears and out the other. But when I heard someone utter something I didn’t agree with, or something that sounded superficial, it flipped a switch and I took it in, crafting my own subjective view of the world which I mistakenly took to be absolute truth. But enough of this Robert Anton Wilson business. That’s another day, another discussion.
The point is, one of the reasons I wanted to write was to change things and change people, perhaps even to project my subjective reality onto others. Essentially, I wanted to persuade. That’s not why I started writing. I started writing because I was extremely frustrated with high school and a failed relationship, my house burning down, and one of my close friends leaving for the city. Guitar just wasn’t enough of an artistic outlet for me at the time. I still played, but I needed something else. I needed not only to express my feelings, I needed a way to express my feelings and reflect on them simultaneously. When you play an instrument, you lose yourself. You escape the pain or it moves through you to your fingers or whatever part of you plays the instrument. When you write you can lose yourself, but the pain moves through your brain and becomes encoded by language and then connotations and denotations enter the mix. Writing, thinking, language, it’s a messy business. But what a beautiful mess.
I started writing to express myself and to construct a sense of understanding from my emotions, to make sense of them. Looking back on some of my old e-mails, I see what a failure that was at times. Most of the time I made little sense and wrote straight from the subconscious. I like to think that I was playing guitar with a type writer, and it took a long time to break out of the hard wiring I had as a guitarist and learn to write for an audience.
Back then I was writing for myself. That was before I thought about writing poetry for journals or anything. When I hit college that’s when I really became conscious of writing as a tool for persuasion. But when I started my internship for a local paper a few years later, I think around 2005 perhaps, my passion for journalism dwindled incredibly fast. I learned first that there is no such thing as objectivity. There is only the illusion of objectivity. I learned a lot about how communities operate, i.e. I learned that it was unfortunate when a church goer got busted for a DWI, but it was disgusting when someone outside of the boundaries of community was arrested for the same thing. I learned that these community sentiments would be reflected in the paper, and that it was generally an unconscious thing. I learned that people were afforded a lot of leeway for schmoozing with others, and finally understood what social veneer really meant. And I watched these things bleed onto the page. The persuasion I saw here was a darker kind, less direct than the kind I wanted to engage in. It was passive aggressive at times and at times seemed like the call to action was a call to others for a communal shunning of outcasts, a reinforcement of the power dynamic, eh . . . I’m getting Foucauldian. I’ll stop.
I wasn’t responsible for writing articles like this. I wrote a lot of feel good articles about charities and community services, but that wasn’t what I wanted either. While in the above paragraph I write about the dark underbelly of journalism, there was a good side too, and that was the side that reinforced the kind nature of humanity, and rewarded people for doing good things, but I’m a skeptical one and sometimes wonder if even that is self serving and yet another element of social veneer. Robert Anton Wilson rears his head again.
I started reading a lot about career writing at this point, and freelance writing. I read a lot about writing for money and how to make a career out of writing. Go figure, the high-paying markets dealt with subject matter I didn’t care about in the least. I don’t care about my golf swing or anyone else’s. I don’t want to write about cats and dogs or about the plight of the disappearing red barns of Americana. That’s when I realized I wasn’t going to write as a career. One of my friends shortly before I entered my internship was in college for musical performance and he told me, “I just woke up one day and thought, ‘I don’t want to sing today.’ That was when I knew I had to get out.” And when I woke up one day and thought, “I don’t want to write today” that’s when I knew I had to get through the internship to have it under my belt and then get out of journalism as fast as possible.
I didn’t know all of the reasons why I wanted to write, but I knew one thing: I sure as hell didn’t want to write for money if it meant writing about things I didn’t care about to put food on my table. Words on paper that convey information that has no value to us, it’s just words. I don’t care how eloquent or beautiful the prose is. If the content doesn’t matter to you then it’s not worth a thing, and you shouldn’t waste your time with writing it.
When I started getting older the printed word took on a new significance for me. When I’m gone, my work will be here for my family. If nobody else cares, at least my immediate family will have something to mull over and think about if they miss me. Maybe after they’re gone it won’t matter. I don’t expect my great grandchildren will care much about my writing. But another reason I write is because it will outlive me. Even if it only outlives me by a few years or a decade, that’s worth it. So if that’s all it is, why publish?
Because over time I have adapted multiple reasons for writing. On one level I write for myself. I write for that intimate moment between myself and the ideas in my head and the words on the paper, the writer’s holy trinity. I write also because when I look back on what I’m writing, I’m conversing with myself. I’m constructing meaning, learning about myself and others.
On another level, I write so people can continue to speak with me after I’m gone. It doesn’t have to persuade them. They don’t have to agree with anything I say as long as they are engaged. I’ve said before to my fellow writers that we are not our work, and I believe that. But in a way we’re trying to put ourselves on paper by writing, which relates to another reason I write.
On another level I write for validation. I waver between confidence and insecurity like most people, and there are days where a little validation or a “hey I liked your book” goes a long way. And, almost paradoxically, while I write for validation sometimes, I also write because I think I have something unique to say, or a unique way of saying it. As much as people try to boil things down and simplify them, humans are complex beings and being a disciplined writer requires that we write for multiple reasons, and that we can continue to write despite our disposition. For me, someone who is passionate about and dedicated to writing isn’t someone who sits down to write a 1,000-word article on golfing because it pays the bills and then writes a bicycle manual so he or she can have more time to dedicate to a novel. It’s someone who learns to use every facet of their being to inspire their writing. You feel down, you can use it as fuel to write. You feel up, you can use it as fuel to write. Billy Corgan said ups and downs inspired him, but writing in a sort of “in-between” state was best for him. Stephen King says just write every day. Fitzgerald allegedly wrote in spurts sometimes. Some authors revise compulsively while others just bang it out and they’re happy.
I don’t know why I’m going on about passion for writing. The truth is, you don’t have to be passionate about writing to be a good writer. I’ve met plenty of people who are awesome at things they could give two shits about. It just comes naturally to them. We don’t want to believe it, but it happens. My final point is, essentially what Lorrie Moore already said in her essay “How to Become a Writer.” There’s no formula. The only way to become a writer is by trial and error, which is why it is so unfortunate that many how-to guides are written with a tone of superiority, just declaring “don’t” and “do.” Even this entry is starting to take on a tone similar to that, which is why I’m going to stop in a minute. As I move on over the next few weeks I’ll elaborate on how the “don’t” and “do” testimonials to writing taught me things to look out for, but I didn’t really understand until I lived the don’ts and dos of writing, until I felt it. Next time I’ll jump to what it was like to become a published author. Then it’s time to incorporate the voices of other authors into the mix through interviews and stories about their own experiences. I’m hoping to turn this into a long-term series of blogs featuring different writers every week. Right now I’m pushing through my story so we can get to what I’m most interested in, the voices of my peers.
So, why do you write? Let’s get a discussion going about this.