Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rachel: Reasons I write.

I’ve heard other writers say that when they get a rejection letter, they post it on the wall of their office. A well-known poet I know says his walls are just plastered in them. I have never understood this; it’s one of those things that fly over my head and I’m too ashamed to admit I don’t get it. My own office has hand-painted cards from people I love, art books and poetry books open and propped up. Do the rejection-plasterers find punishment inspiring? Maybe it proves to them that they exist, that at least they’re trying, seeing their name written over and over in print like that, on letterhead from coveted presses and magazines. I assume, maybe incorrectly, that writers who plaster their walls in rejections actually do so because they are in the what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger camp. It makes you stronger like a callus makes your hands stronger when you’ve worked with them awhile. But a callus of the soul or heart isn’t supposed to be a good thing.
When I receive a bunch of rejections (an inevitability as a writer) I am always left facing the reasons I’m writing in the first place, so I can know why to keep going. And I’m faced over and over again with the somewhat uncomfortable fact that one of the reasons I write is to get approval. But the reasons I write change, depending on which one I need. I’ve written them out below, and I’d love to know if anyone has anything to add to this list, especially those writers on who are further along in their careers, and know the feeling of holding their own book in their hands. Anyhow, here’s the list:
1. I write because I like the way it feels. I mean this literally, physically. I came across an old notebook of mine from the time I was around 5. I didn’t know to write in cursive yet, but there are pages and pages of completely unintelligible swirls and dots and lines that I remember intending to be script. I had attached a meaning to it somehow, but it wasn’t English. I had done it for the pure pleasure of putting pen to paper. I do that now, write aimlessly in the morning, simply because the way a certain felt-tip pen feels against a certain texture of paper gives me no end of pleasure. Not just that, I love the way the letters look after I write them. Typing is the same. I love the report of a typewriter keys, the way it is a letterpress in miniature. I love the speed and ease of a computer keyboard. Sometimes when I am composing on a computer I feel I’m a concert pianist, and this obsolete clunky laptop is my finest instrument. Hell, it’s easier than drawing.
2. I write because the books and stories I most want to read sometimes don’t exist yet. When I was around ten I wrote a book that consisted entirely of extending that part of the Babysitters’ Club books that I loved the most and wished would go on for 90 more pages: the detailed descriptions of each character’s outfit. At the time it is most what I wanted to read. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized the value in literature that reflects the things I observe in the world, rather than just lets me escape, and the stories I try to tell now are stories I don’t see anyone else telling, the books I would most like to read. In some ways, this is my most inspiring reason to write because then I can treat it like improvisational reading, my own compulsion unfolding before my eyes. I think this is what people mean when they say they are “in the zone.”
3. I write because it’s the only thing I’m really good at, and the only thing that I have gotten consistent love and approval for my whole life. Or, maybe, admiration that has been an adequate substitute for love. Teachers, parents, relatives, friends, classmates, lovers, all. It’s been hard to separate where the love for the writing ends and the love for me begins. You might call this reason “vanity”. It is the reason most easily eschewed, especially when faced with rejection. It’s a fair-weather friend, a reason I would rather not admit to myself. But it’s one to watch out for. I have continually gotten swept up in the syrupy good feeling of having someone admire me for the emotional havoc I could wreak on them with words. This admiration is fickle. That’s why the other reasons are so important to remember, and to use as a firm foundation. Vanity is the empty calorie of artistic inspiration.
4. Another good, yet somewhat elusive reason that I write, is that it makes life meaningful. When I write stories I make patterns, little crescendos in the joyous, boring senselessness of life. I want to quote Toni Morrison here, although there are two reasons that is embarrassing: One, to compare my creative process to hers is nothing less than ridiculous; and two, I first read this in O Magazine at the doctor’s office. But it stuck with me. Here it is:
After I finished The Bluest Eye, which took me five years to write, I went into a long period of...not deep depression but a kind of melancholy. Then I had another idea for a book, Sula…and the whole world came alive again. Everything I saw or did was potentially data, a word or a sound or something for the book, and then I really realized that for me writing meant having something coherent in the world. And that feels like...not exactly what I was born for, it's more the thing that holds me in the world in healthy relationship, with language, with people, bits of everything filter down, and I can stay here. Everything I see or do, the weather and the water, buildings...everything actual is an advantage when I am writing. It is like a menu, or a giant tool box, and I can pick and choose what I want. When I am not writing, or more important, when I have nothing on my mind for a book, then I see chaos, confusion, disorder.

Has anyone else felt this way? Do other writers have more reasons to write? Do your reasons change once you have an audience of readers that you’ve never met? I’d be interested to know.

14 comments:

  1. Love the Toni Morrison quote. I feel that way too.

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  2. "I have continually gotten swept up in the syrupy good feeling of having someone admire me for the emotional havoc I could wreak on them with words."

    This is a most interesting sentence. One I really relate to. Do you find yourself resenting this kind of admiration?

    Sometimes I write to make place, to give place, to embody these pressing somethings, to let them breathe through me and take form. It relieves the haunting. It makes sense. It rescues them from oblivion: I know that I may leave them, and return to visit another day.

    Sometimes writing puts me back in my body, brings the circling thoughts down to the heart, a circling falcon back to my arm.

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  3. I understand the joy of pen on paper, and I own way too many pens for that reason. I also enjoy the speed and feel of a computer keyboard, which helps me move thought to print before the thought speeds through and out of my head.

    I mostly read and buy non-fiction, and I write in the margins of my books (but not library books!) to converse with the authors.

    And I write fiction sometimes for the same reason I read it - to be taken away. If I daydream of myself in a story, I write the story. More like vignettes. I decide where I go and what I do, and it can be anywhere and anything. And years later I can read them and laugh at myself. Or smile in amazement.

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  4. I'm sometimes caught up by the question "What if...?". And if the question is interesting enough I'll keep thinking about it and thinking about it and thinking about it until there is nothing left to do but write its story.

    And I love that quote. Awesome.

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  5. This was a lovely post, and it reminded me that when I started writing as a kid, it wasn't because I had any idea of being a great or famous author - I just wanted to be inside the pages of Anne of Green Gables. So I wrote myself into the story.

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  6. Thank you for this wonderful post, Rachel. It's good to remind ourselves why we write. I write to make sense of the world and I keep on writing because my sense of the world is always changing.

    Oh, and I love office products--pens, journals, stickies, markers, stickers, etc.

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  7. I hate attention. Hate it. But as a human, I need to be heard. Writing is a way to talk (whisper, shout, sing) to that eternal silent ear that has no eyes. That won't talk back. That just listens, without the attention.
    And yes, i agree completely with the obsessions of pen and paper and the clicking of keys (right now!) and like the others, I love the quote you used.

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  8. An outpouring of grief and wrath was the main reason I started to recognise writing as an appendage of my soul. I had lost one parent when I was 6 and the second when I was 15 - so thank GOD for paper and pencils....we didn't have therapy for grief back then...not where I came from anyway. I have recently found some of the notebooks from this rocky period in my life. Writing definitely stopped me going over the edge.

    For any type of emotion - grief, passion, boredom, joy and an endless list long...writing is for a writer what the needle is to the seamstress....we shape, we mould, we enhance...we sew our dreams and fantasies onto our pages and our screens.

    That is why I write. I want to be a great seamstress.

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  9. Yes, yes, yes, to number two! I also think this is one of the best ways to conquer nefarious writers' block. :0)

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  10. I have a lot of classic answers to why I write and I have never really given it much thought beyond them. But your post has made want to define why I write more poetically than just because it feels right. It's something locked up inside me and to put it on paper deepens me as a person. Let's me feel what I otherwise can't without my characters.

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  11. Your reasons resonated so completely with me! One more I'd add is that through writing, I'm able to process events from my past and learn about parts of myself that might otherwise remain unconscious. It's kind of like a dialogue with my soul.

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  12. Thank you for your post. It helped me to consider the reasons that I write. Your reasons, 1-4? Yes, me too. Two more: my love affair with words and my desire to connect with another human being. Here are my two favorite quotes that illustrate the connection I strive for as a reader and a writer.

    "The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours"
    — Alan Bennett (The History Boys)

    and

    "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! You too? I thought I was the only one."
    — C.S. Lewis

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  13. Thanks for posting. It's good to sit back every once in a while and dream about why I write. I resonate with # 2. Some stories I want to read aren't out there yet, so I sit down and begin. Once I'm in I'm really drawn into the Otherworld of the story. Story and characters make me stay. Also #4 -- makes my life meaningful anyway.

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  14. I write because it's something I've always had to do. I, too, began at a very young age. In the early days, I interrupted my parents in read-alouds at night, revising what happened in all our books. I created intense dramas around my toys. I wrote five-page books, then illustrated them. As a teenager, I wrote every day, before school, after school, after dinner, and before bed. The thousands of pages I accumulated made me feel important and creative, and gave me a critical identity during the most challenging part of being a teen. I was a Writer, like Zola and Hugo, my heroes at 17. Later, writing helped dull the boredom of work, took away the sting of loneliness, and broadened my perspective. These days, writing is an addiction. I can never stop. I am depressed when I miss a day thanks to work, illness, or family obligations. I write for young adult audiences now, and my writing has taken on new meaning because it reminds me of what good books meant when I was that age. Writing has the power to help people deal with difficult times, believe in themselves, and learn. Contributing even a little to such things makes the world a better place. I love the concept of making the outside world better with the world of my writing.

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