Friday, December 30, 2011

Why Do You Write What You Write?

            Boiled down to its essence, the most common answer I can find to the question Why do you write? seems to be: Because I can’t help it.  (Nowhere did I run across one answer that I personally know is true.  It must be just too crass to mention that – gasp – at least some writers write for money.  I’m not sure how it came to be an embarrassment to admit that writing is a job; so long as one crafts a solid story, I don’t think a writer’s grand or base motivation makes any difference to readers.)
            This piece started out titled “Why Do You Write?”  A bit of research revealed that almost every periodical having to do with writing, every website dealing with writing, and every blogger writing about writing has asked that question.  Answers from writers about why they write have ranged from the pithy to the lyrical: less than a month ago featured a lovely letter from Terry Tempest Williams in answer to WHY WRITE, from the Summer 1998 issue of the now defunct magazine Northern Lights.
            But why do we write what we write?  When I was learning to write, one of my teachers, a realist, said a good writer can write anything – and that means anything from an owner’s manual to literary fiction.  How can that be so?  Literary writers are quick to defend their niche: they may not make any money but they make beautiful sentences. Others of my teachers, upon learning that I wrote genre fiction, generally let it be known that they thought I was wasting my time attending their classes.  It was amusing to watch the expressions on their faces when they had to admit that after sitting in on their lessons I was capable of handing in passable literary short stories.         
            And the short story was where I started writing.  In those days my favorite reading was the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  Reflecting my own circumstances, the acerbic, disaffected writer Harlan Ellison was my hero and I wanted to grow up to be just like him.  (And never mind that we had not much in common outside of palpable unhappiness.  I never said that the urge to write had to make sense, and I doubt that Mr. Ellison ever made that claim either.)  My short fantasy pieces won a few awards and I sold a few stories to quarterlies of minuscule circulation that paid in copies reproduced on the editor’s dad’s office Xerox machine. 
            Then I paid for a writing course through the mail.  My teacher had published moody detective fiction and was horrified that I wanted to write not only fantasy, but fantasy short stories.  No, no, no!  I must write book-length fiction, detective if possible.  So I, who had been training myself to tell a story in as few words as would fit a proper magazine submission, now had to learn to expand into the thousands of words.
            Which I did.  It was a struggle, but I learned to surpass 60,000 words to tell one story.  There was a critique group starting in my town at that time.  We had poets show up, and creative nonfiction writers, and a few novel writers.  It was wonderful.  But the poet soon chafed at imposing any structure on the group, such as scheduling meeting times, and quit.  I missed her talent for searching out just the perfect word.  The creative nonfiction writer chose journalism instead, and quit the group.  I felt she had sacrificed a huge talent for “who, what, where, and why,” and I missed her. 
            Some left town, and others just drifted away.  And then there were three, all novelists.  Two of the three were romance writers.  Historical romance writers, since that was what they were reading and what was hot at the time.  So if I wanted to sell, they said, I must emulate them and write historical romance.
            Okay.  I could do that.  Time passed and I had no sales of my historical romance, but I placed in a few contests.  Which would have been all right, except my personal life was falling apart and I really, really had to start selling some writing or else give it up and get a job – or preferably two or three jobs.  At that time, Christian romance was huge so I tried to squeeze my stories into that new corset.  By the time I discovered the Christian romance sub-genre has very strict rules on what activities are allowed inside its pages, I had an unmanageable mess of unmarketable manuscripts and was barely surviving financial drowning. 
            I had to face the fact that I taken a ton of bad advice and wasted years of my writing life by changing directions so many times.  Now I didn’t even know if I wanted to put the effort into writing anymore.  Turns out, just because a writer is capable of writing anything doesn’t mean she should! 
            It took a long time to straighten out my life.  Eventually I also came around to the decision to fix my work.  These days I think any reader of historical, romance, or even Christian genre novels will find Willow Vale a satisfying tale – but the only fantasy involved came in making up the character of my Wyoming rancher protagonist, Kent Reed!

1 comment:

Alethea said...

For a newer take on the same subject from Anne Ashby on Babette James' blog: