Saturday, August 17, 2013
My Top Eight Reasons for Writing
Why do I spend copious amounts of time searching for my story, rearranging words, fiddling with dialogue — isolating myself until my wife threatens to leave me for someone who pays attention to her?
For help in answering this mystery, to calm my fears and restore peace to my family, I undertook research into what motivates authors, including those far more famous than me.
“Writing is its own reward” – Henry Ethelbert Miller
“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it” – Truman Capote
“A wounded deer leaps the highest” – Emily Dickinson
“There is no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write” – Terry Pratchett
Can’t say I agreed with everything I uncovered through research. But it did get me thinking about why I sacrifice so much time and goodwill from family and friends to rearrange dictionary words “into the right sentences,” as British novelist Somerset Maughem puts it.
Here’s those top eight reasons:
1. Obsession With Perfection. I cite the sage advice of Leo Burnett, the advertising guru: “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.” I’m so far from perfect it’s not funny, but in writing, perhaps, I’m a little less imperfect. Writing is where I’ll struggle until it hurts, hit my head against the wall until I bleed. All that self-punishment has, over many decades, made my sentences crisper, my plots sharper, my characters more credible, my themes wackier. In other areas of life, my skillset has stagnated. I’m a mediocre pool player, an OK ping pong player. I can roast a chicken, but I’ve never braised anything or cooked eggs sous vide. But writing stands out.
2. Fear of Humiliation. I think of asking a Doubting Thomas to read my work, or emailing a manuscript to an agent. The image that comes to mind is of dancing buck-naked on a stage with the crowd laughing, perhaps throwing tomatoes, at a big hairy mole on my buttocks. And yet: dance I must. For here I am with my blog, dancing again. Risking humiliation. To ease my fear of humiliation, I strive for perfection (see Reason No. 1), even as I fall short.
3. Hunger for Glory. Beyond that pile of rejection slips rising Katmandoo-like from my desk, to mix cliches, is a vision of the golden ring I’ll clasp when my ship finally comes in. Here’s what I’m fighting for: to be published. Recognized. Respected. To feel less self-deprecating.
4. Everything Else Feels Boring. It’s true. Often I’m watching a movie, window shopping, sitting at a restaurant, or whatever, thinking: I could be writing. I could be dreaming up new worlds. I could be making up jokes for my characters to tell. My characters, in short, spice up my ho-hum life.
5. My Most Terrifying Reason. That my life is less interesting than my fiction. That my characters are nicer, more complex, funnier, and braver than anyone I know. That I’ll die from boredom if I don’t write. That every day is a retreat from the gray monotonous death I fear for myself in a world without written words.
6. My Least Terrifying Reason. We’re all familiar with the “runner’s high” that long-distance runners feel after they get over “the hump.” For me, it’s the state of meditative excitement as I get swept up in the writing process, the hours flying by. I scarcely remember the rest of my life is on hold, bills unpaid, dinner uncooked. This pleasure comes too seldom, however.
7. Flashes of Recognition. The joyful happiness I feel when a reader laughs at a comic moment in my story. Or gets misty-eyed after reading a poignant passage.
8. Cleaning My Plate. When I was a kid my mother always made me finish dinner. Similarly, I get anxious when I’m surrounded by unfinished pieces. I think of broccoli sitting untended on my plate, going to bed without TV. That’s why I feel relieved, right now, finishing this list.