Why We Write

Writers are fairly normal people and live and work for the same reason other artists live and work. It’s pretty simple, Musicians make music because they have to. Singers sing because they have to. Actors act because they have to. Dancers dance because they have to. Artists paint, draw, sculpt, print, throw pots, blow glass, and build things because they have to. And, writers write because they have to.

TO not make music, dance, act, sing, create art, make things and write would be half a life for creative people. Doing what they feel compelled to do, what they HAVE to do, makes them feel whole.

Artists, however, are not alone in their need and passion to do and create. Psychologists have long understood that when life has purpose, most of us find happiness, whether that purpose is planting a garden, raising a child, building a bridge, teaching kindergarten, keeping the world safe, designing houses, or just doing our jobs to the best of our ability.

We all have a need to create. That, and opposable thumbs, is what makes us human and happy.

I often tell people that I write because I don’t know how to sing and dance. This is probably as close to the simple truth of why I write as any reason I could give.

One of my English professors in college started every semester with this anecdote: “The difference between a writer and the rest of the world is simple. A writer is the person who could get up on the dawn of the first day of the universe, watch the first perfect sunrise, be magically transported halfway around the world to witness the first magnificent sunset, then turn to God and say, ‘That was nice, but I would have done it differently.'”

Artists look at the world and imagine it differently. We hear a song and wonder what would happen if we played it or sang it another way. We see a bird take flight at the edge of a pond, and what we see is not just the bird, but the way the underside of the wing of that bird marks a place in the sky and we want to draw what that looks like. We read Shakespeare, and we want to be one of the characters in order to say those lines in the special way that shows how those words make us feel. We want to see how far we can push our bodies to execute a smooth dancing move from one step to the next, bringing the music alive with our arms and legs.

I don’t think there is a day that goes by in which I don’t think about those words: ” I would have done it differently.”

Writing opens a door to: right a wrong; rewrite history; start a riot; challenge an assumption; revise a concept; confirm a belief; explore an idea; and yes, even change the world. Reading allows the reader to look through a portal into a world different than the one the reader is living in. Books are a lot like mirrors that help us see ourselves in a different light. Would we be as brave as the heroine/hero in the book? Would we make the same mistakes? Would we be as forgiving? As loving? As smart? As kind?

Reading is a great way to reflect on our lives.

Writing, on the other hand, I always caution new writers, is not therapy. It can help us understand the world in a new way, but it can’t solve our problems. It can, however, give us a chance to rewrite a bit of our own histories and change the ending to be more satisfying.

For the most part, I try to stay under the radar as a writer when I meet new people. The reason is simple. First, there are those glassy-eyed stares that say, “Really?” Then, there’s the inevitable “I have this great story that’s sure to be a best seller, and it’s perfect for Hollywood. I’ll tell you the idea, you write it and we can split the money.”

And the third response, maybe the most common is “I really want to write, but I just don’t have time because of my job, my family, my sick mother, my dogs, and, and, and….”

Writers write, remember? They write because they have to. If you just can’t help yourself, you write. You get up early. You go to bed late. You tell your family to give you an hour a day to write, and if they do, you promise not to yell at them for leaving their dirty socks in the middle of the floor. You walk your dog then tell him to take a nap while you sit down and write. You might only write for half and hour before the baby wakes up or the telephone rings, but you write. You write because you have to.

With any luck, the half hour here or there is enough to keep you going so you don’t quit your day job. DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB.

There are three very good reasons for you not to quit your day job.

Reason #1: The act of writing is rich and soul satisfying but it rarely pays the bills.

Reason #2: A day job is filled with characters and situations for you to mine.

Reason #3: A day job gives you a set of skills and a subset of the world to write about. What would John Grisham have written about if he hadn’t been a lawyer?

There are very good reasons for you to write even if writing doesn’t make you rich and famous or impress the person sitting next to you on the airplane. Writing makes you feel alive in the same way that singing, dancing, drawing, acting, and building bridges make you feel alive. Writing gives you a way to make sense of the world and to have a voice about what you see around you and what you feel and what you wish were true.

Writing is a wonderful thing to do, but it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s rather hard work. When people start to write, even a half hour a day, they are always surprised to discover that it is work and that it makes them tired. It’s hard work because it isn’t just putting down a few nice words; it’s thinking and digging deep and pulling and pushing ideas until they are as truthful as you can make them.

Some people say that the truth will set you free. Well, let me tell you, trying to write something that is truthful can be just about the hardest thing you’ll ever do. It will make you tired. But, when you get that one sentence, that paragraph, that page or two that is the truth as you know it, it will make you want to get up the next day and do it again.

Writing is addicting. Not exactly better than dark chocolate, but more like that amazing sense of satisfaction you get when you dive into a swimming pool without making a splash, or when you make a béchamel sauce for the first time and everyone raves about it. Bottom line: it’s pretty easy to get passionate about writing once you start.

It’s okay if you don’t feel like you have to write to feel alive. I won’t judge you, and neither will anyone else. If you feel like you just want to write this one story about your grandfather so your children will be able to know something about him before he had Alzheimer’s, then go ahead and write it.

And if, after you finish, you decide you’ve said what you wanted to say and written what you’ve wanted to write all these years, I’m fine with that as well, and you should be too.

But, I hope that writing your grandfather’s story will open a creative door for you and make you feel just that much more connected to the world and yourself. And I hope it will make you feel proud and that your children will treasure what you’ve written for the rest of their lives.


Filed under writing

3 responses to “Why We Write

  1. Oh how true! Thanks for such a great post. It is warming to hear the voice of a fellow writer describe that compulsion we all feel to create something. Well said.

  2. Carrie, good post! When I write, I often find, the very act of writing, of choosing the right words, clarifies my thoughts about something or some circumstance and helps me share with others the things I’ve learned. so, in a way, it is therapy, for me at least.

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