Why We Write

I'm nearing completion on a new novel and the same old thoughts are arising. What have I done? Am I really going to reveal these ugly aspects of myself to the world? (Or to the handful of people who might read it?) I've just spent more years than I care to admit wrestling with a very simple story, one that, when I tell people, they either recoil or look at me with deep concern. It's about a woman who leaves her marriage and ends up in a relationship with a guy recently paroled for committing a horrible crime. She doesn't actually want to know what he did, because the truth is, she's seeking escape from the confusion and loneliness of her recent separation -- but as they fall for each other the narrative thrust stems from his desire to be known by her, and her desire to feel safe.

So here I am, rounding the final turn and wondering why I have bothered to do this, and why this story, which perhaps no one else will care about, holds so much meaning for me. Sometimes I hear writers say that they have no choice, that the writing chose them. I understand the sentiment, but to suggest that we have no choice is nonsense, and frankly, it's a dangerous idea. It's important to acknowledge that we choose to write, or we risk bondage to our creativity. Our work becomes too important and we may, on a subtle or not-so-subtle level, demand a result that may not be forthcoming. Our lack of choice can make us tight and corrupt the process. We get up in the morning burdened by the chore of writing. We get stressed, believing it must be great, because after all, this is our destiny. And then the horrible thought, "What if we've been called to a worthless cause?" At least indentured servants are not required to pour their hearts and souls into their work!

When we truly have no choice, we tend to rebel. We look for choices within our lack of choice, because frankly, everything is creative. Cooking is creative -- and so is shoplifting. Giving birth is creative -- so is a knife fight. While there is a productive, life-affirming aspect to creativity, there is a destructive side as well.

Without choice we become victims. The victim identity sees things a certain way. It is a narrow perspective: hopeless, frugal, and fear-based. Victims live in survival mode and are often unable to see new possibilities and inquire into why things are the way they are.

We all have access to a wider perspective. On some level, the act of creation is a search for love. If we search for love from a victim perspective, which I think is actually fairly common, it becomes a search for what love can do for us. And on a subconscious level, this is what happens when we believe that our writing chooses us. When we choose to create, we take responsibility. We don't seek validation through result, but through process.

Whether we are aware of it or not, our characters are a manifestation of our internal beliefs. The plot is a backdrop, a field on which these characters act out the struggles we seek to resolve for ourselves. (This was very humbling and embarrassing for me to realize.) By acknowledging that our writing is a choice, we give space for our characters to discover what we seek to understand. Our decision to fall in love was a choice. Our decision to get married was a choice. Our decision to get a divorce, stop speaking to our folks, have an affair with a sociopath, abandon our cat, rescue a skunk, drink a fifth of whiskey -- everything we do is a choice.

By approaching our work from this perspective we take our thumb off the scale, and in doing so make conscious what was previously unconscious. And that is the goal of story: to make meaning out of a set of events.

Growth is painful. To make a choice involves discomfort, because it demands that we take responsibility. But it also means that we get to live in reality. To create from a place of fantasy, of groundlessness, is an escape -- which is different than losing ourselves in our work by shedding our ego for a deeper connection to our humanity.

Why we write is more important than what we write because our reason for writing influences the content of our work. It is important to remember that we don't have to do this. The world is not in a rush for more books. There are more great works of fiction, poetry, memoir, history and pumpkin soup recipes than we will ever have time to consume.

If we're going to write, it is because we have a desire to express ourselves, even if we don't quite understand what we wish to say. It might just be an inner yearning, but by making the choice to engage in the process rather than the result, our work has a chance to live. In expressing ourselves, we make what we write essential, if only to ourselves, and by beginning from this place, it has a chance to affect the world.

All right. I better go finish this book.