Why Bother with the Writing Life?


6a00e54ff9f2cf88340120a786bd73970b I’ve wanted to write this post since before WEbook was kind enough to give me a forum for it. I should probably wait a bit longer for everyone here to get to know me, but judgment has never been my strength. So here goes: I want to talk about why we write. I know—it’s an impossibly giant and tangled topic, one that’s getting more and more complicated by the business of publishing, the state it’s in, the growing blogosphere that covers it, etc.

So, deep breath, I’m going to offer my take by explaining why I keep doing it, along with a few links to some great recent essays on the subject.

Put simply, I write because doing anything else makes me unhappy. I didn’t start out as a writer. I wasn’t much into reading as a kid. Didn’t even major in English at college. I fell into book publishing when I quit a PR job in a fit of post-adolescent petulance. By the time I worked my way up to editor, I’d already grown tired of paying non-fiction writers advances only to have to fix their sloppy work. I figured I could do it better (my second fit of post-adolescent petulance). I got my chance when I was relieved of my job by a boss who found out I felt this way. Recently, I came across an essay that paralleled my experience. In it the writer—who has also been relieved of her job—postulates that living her writing dream is turning out to be far more expensive than it would’ve been to fulfill her childhood wish of owning a pony. I sympathized.

Since 2004, I’ve intermittently held full-time jobs (thanks, WEbook!) and done a mix of freelance writing and editing. As a freelancer I’ve been wildly successful, which is to say that I’ve been able to live hand to mouth (barely) while depleting whatever savings I had. But I did it. Mostly because I couldn’t help it and because having no money and being able to write everyday made me happier than having money but neither the time nor energy to write as much as I wanted.

So have you read my book? Have you seen it on the NYT bestseller lists? No? That’s because my first manuscript—a memoir about life and death that I wrote, grief-stricken, at the age of thirty-two—wasn’t good enough. And now I’ve spent the last four years (on and off) writing a novel that I’m terrified to finish because that would entail the possibility of it being deemed unworthy (read: I am unworthy) of publication. But here’s the thing: I already have another idea for my next book, which I’ll start researching and developing the moment this one is done. Why? Because I refuse to give up.
Here are some reasons why I should give up (fyi, I could write more but ultimately I’m trying to inspire here):

  • The book industry has been trending towards out-of-the-box commercial bestsellers for years, and my novel is a small literary satire about a man who reluctantly returns to his hometown upon his father’s death.

  • As a “small” novel, if I do get a publishing deal it will likely be for little money. Certainly not enough to 1) cover my expenses for the amount of time I spent writing it or 2) cover my expenses while I write my next manuscript.

  • I’m almost forty, currently writing this from an apartment on a hillside in a South American capitol where my girlfriend is looking for work and I don’t have a back-up plan.

  • Writing is hard. If I don’t get enough time to write, I can be mean to the people around me. When I get too much time to write, I get weird. And regardless of the amount of time I get to write, I always think my writing is lousy.

Scared yet? Didn’t think so. (If you are, keep reading—it gets better.) At some point I realized that my passion—nay, my sanity valve—might not pay. And that allowed me to pursue it with more freedom than I’d ever known. This idea was expressed in a recent entry on the NYT’s Paper Cuts blog where the writer essentially declares modern poetry inconsequential (boo!) then concludes that we’re all poets now (prose writers, too) and we should write for ourselves because it’s the only way to make sure that what you create is authentic. (Read the last couple paragraphs—they’re the payoff.)

To be clear: I dream/wish/desire/strive for publication. Every word I write, every hour I sit in my uncomfortable chair and every cell in my body wants my manuscript to be published. And not just because it would validate all the work I’ve put in—I want people to read my story. I want to make others laugh, cry and rage as I have while writing it. And sure, I’d like to earn a few bucks for the effort. But I’d take publication without compensation. It’s not much less than what I currently make off my writing. (Disclaimer: I reserve the right to change my mind about this.)

Ready to give up yet? No? Good. And that’s the point. It’s been said in countless ways, but it’s worth reiterating. You might get lucky with your first manuscript or you might just be that talented, but the rest of us need to be dogged. Check out the following essay by Dani Shapiro, who (eventually) gets to the idea of why it’s important and necessary for writers to stick with it, especially now.

In the end I think we write for many reasons. Publication is certainly one of them, but it’s not what keeps us coming back. It can’t be, methinks. For me it’s about happiness. Which leads me to this week’s question:

Why do you keep writing?


JMHammock1 John Meils is currently finishing a first novel, tentatively titled The Warring House. He has written for Elle, Men’s Health, and MyTango.com, among others. To learn more about him, visit johnmeils.com.

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  1. From the time that I was just a small child, the need bubbles up inside of me. It builds and grows until I feel like my whole body will burst. Then I start the project, whatever it may be.
    It's like channeling lightening. I feel a shock of energy come out through my fingers. I lose track of time, and become oblivious to my surroundings. The whole experience is at once as delightful as orgasm, and as excruciating as childbearing.
    I am a writer. I wake up and I write, I write all day long, I dream new stories to channel tomorrow.
    It's who I am.

  2. The reason I write? Thats an easy one. Its because if I didn't, all the characters I've already created would beat the sh*t outta me. I haven't told their story yet. And I keep promising them I will.
    I write because there are some stories that need to be told, even if they aren't very pretty.
    Lets not forget that its an adventure every time I sit down to write ^_^

  3. Megan Marie Gallup24 May 2010 at 09:39

    I like the "why do you write?" question. But I find that I get stuck much more often on the "why are you not writing?" question.
    I write because other that speaking it is the only thing that makes me feel like I am in the right place instead of wandering in some fog of someone else's design. So it seems that it would be a no brainer that I would write and write every day. But I struggle to find my way to my characters even though I miss them terribly. I leave presentations until the last possible minute and then I scramble while beating my self up for procrastination. But I don't write because I am almost as afraid of it as I am afraid not to write. I can find a millon things to do that give me little satisfaction,like turning dirty socks right side out for the laundry, that give me an excuse. it breaks my heart nearly every day and yet the longing somehow does not get me where I need to be. writers block? no not really. More like writers quicksand.

  4. Exactly, Megan Marie. I hear you.
    I prefer this article to the Shapiro article linked above.
    Shapiro gets all angst-ridden about the process, whereas I just want to say, write me a story already. Get your therapeutic jollies out while you do it, but all I really care about (as the reader) is the story. I want to lose myself for a little while. I want to live in someone ele'se shoes.
    And I want to make someone else lose themself in my story.

  5. Dang it, should have previewed first.

  6. When I moved away from my best friend in 2nd grade she said she would always hold on to my letters because someday I would be a famous writer. Don't know what she saw in my writing skills in 2nd grade except that it shows my desire to write has been with me nearly forever.
    Like others I do enjoy writing and find when I open up my mind to the creative side the ideas flow - mind you not the full story just the ideas. It is fun to watch them go from just the seed to the finished or continual rewrite process.
    I went full bore on this 10 years ago and wrote a non-fiction book called "Have You Hugged Your Realtor Today." Friends loved it and told me they would buy the first copies. Then I sent it out to publishers - around 30 - who gave me the thanks but no thanks routine.
    Finally got a positive response - someone wanted to publish my book! I was elated that is until I read the fine print. I had sent out my book to a self-publishing press who said they would gladly publish my book if I would send them $6,000. This greatly bummed me out and I stopped writing for publishing.
    Today I'm ready to push for publishing again. I like the idea of being paid. So I'm back in the and feel overwhelmed as to where to go instead of just in circles.

  7. I always ask myself this.
    I've been writing ever since I can remember, my first story was about an obese elderly woman who got stuck in a barn doorway and all her barn animals had to pull her out together.
    Of course, then I was quite younger.
    I write for different reasons, according to different stories.
    First, it's a way of pretending I could have the life I wanted, to go through it all, or what I wished would happen.
    Second, it's a way of expressing different emotions and being excited to wake up everyday and not wait to continue.
    Finally, it's just me. I get inspiration anywhere and everywhere, and I need to put it somewhere. It's apart of who I am and what I want to be.

  8. I have been writing on and off for countless years. i even POD published one of my novels a few years ago, before circumstances forced me to return to the workplace. At that time writing took a back seat, and after one more novel written and never published I stuck to blogs and commentary and of course note book upon notebook of journalising, musing and figuring out what makes people and the world tick. That's what fascinates me, you see, and writing about it all makes sense of the world for me.
    Now having been made redundant I have returned to calling myself a writer, and am looking for a published for that novel I finished all those years ago. I have sent it out to several agencies and am growing accustomed to rejection. There are also countless ideas all fighting for attention inside my head, but you know what, for the first time in my life, the idea of actually writing another novel feels daunting. I am now 51 and feel an urgency about my writing career that I previously didn't feel. You know, the voice inside your head that says - if you don't get the breakthrough now, then when -

  9. The real possibility of bursting wide open from all the myriad characters and worlds stuck inside my head causes me to write. What keeps me writing is the excitement and satisfaction of a scene or sentence that congratulates me with, 'I am well written. Well done!"
    I have reread many of my works and have been surprised to find myself crying or cringing with fear or entranced. I nearly can't believe that what I read was written by me. Other times I cringe for a different reason. It is a rather sad piece, and very poorly written. Though I have been writing since I was thirteen, (I am 35 now) I am never beyond learning to improve. I have only just begun.
    The memory of playful death threats from friends and family years ago if I do not finish a story/book I dared to let them read before it was finished also tends to inspire me.
    It has been a couple years since I have written with such abandon. I blame that in part to all the books on 'Plot' and 'Character Emotion' and 'Setting' and so on that I studied. I felt my individuality and freedom scatter apart. There were too many things I HAD to remember. I am not saying that these books did not help me. I learned much and I believe it brought my writing self out of infancy into being a toddler full of character and intelligence. I am just now getting to know this new self of mine and have courageously taken my first steps in this new body.
    I had forgotten the true joy and freedom that writing can bring. It is fun, scary, enlightening, thrilling and motivating. This is the true reason I write. I have the ability to create wings for myself and fly away with them to wherever I wish to go.
    When I write I can release the inner me, without threat of scorn or disapproval. When my work is praised and loved, I feel praised and loved. I give birth to myself when I write. It is from the deepest part of me.
    Rejection cuts to the bone because of this. But to those who can withstand the pain and bravely press on, it makes us stronger and we grow. To those who place themselves before this gauntlet of rejection to be given a chance to reach the end goal of praise, I call you brave and courageous.
    I am just now coming to the head of the gauntlet. I am afraid, but I keep writing. To stop would be to die, for that is who and what I am.
    Disclaimer: I do not claim to be a blogger and I am not immune to rambling.
    I do love this subject. It caused me to stop and consider myself in a whole new light. Why do I write? There is no easy answer.

  10. Here goes my philosophical mind - answering a question with a question. My answer to "Why do I write?" is "What would I know about the world if I hadn't read about it?" (Of course, this includes fiction and non-fiction.) A friend of mine once told me he'd never known anyone who was such a combination of intellect and introspection. And, perhaps, on the most personal level, I write because this introversion, introspection, and intellect best express themselves in a written form. And, I cannot help but wonder, will anyone learn anything from what I thought was worth immortalizing in black and white?

  11. Why do I write? Goodness. I don't know. Or maybe I do. I grew up with very few friends, and isolated, as my parents lived practically in the wilderness. So I learned to create imaginary worlds in which I was the staring character, and I acted out all the drama. My mother was a poet and an artist, and she loved to read. When I got older, I also developed a great love of reading. I found I could escape, just as I did in my playacting, and this became a refuge for me when I was sad or angry. And when I re-emerged, I felt better, was more centered.
    In high school, I fell into writing. By now, I had entered into a love affair with fantasy and science fiction. I would experience such a thrill, a shiver of anticipation and wonder each time I entered a new world. I also discovered that I preferred poetic prose, writers who told their stories with a lyrical style. (Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinnley, Peter S. Beagle) And I found my own writing was beginning to take on that style. Then, in the 11th grade, my English teacher made me submit three short stories to a writing competition for high school students. To my great disbelief, I won... the first from my school to ever do so. My goal was certian... I was going to become a writer.
    Now, all these years later (I'm 37 by the way), I actually have a book in production. I was extremely lucky to discover a literary agent who passed the query immediately to a publisher they are partnered with. They accepted it, right away, as a joint venture. And no, they are not a vanity press. I paid a very modest price, which I will receive back when the book sells 1,000 copies. And I get 50% royalties. Furthermore, if the book sells that much, the publisher will take anything else I have, under a traditional publishing contract. (I don't pay anything...)
    So, all that information, and still... Why do I write? I write because I am driven. After failing to write anything for several years, I was suddenly compelled. I had a story that needed to be told. I sat down one evening after work and started it. In just two months, it was finished. When I queried for publication, the book was unpolished. It didn't seem to matter.
    Phew! Eager I am. Thrilled, to say the least. Extremely lucky...maybe. It remains to be seen if the story will appeal to the broader marketplace. My boss read it, unpolished, unedited...she loved it. My boss, who is blunt to a fault, was so enthusiastic, I couldn't help but believe her. And I felt so good, I was on such a high (just as I was when I won publication in a contest, just as I was when another short story was accepted for publication professionally) that no drug, nor alchohol could ever match it. It was better even than being in love. Someone understood. And that, my friends, is why I write.
    GA Lanham
    Check out my blog at http://davey.aegauthorblogs.com/ (Sorry, gotta promote the book. ;)

  12. I wish I had a really deep philosophical answer to that question. Everyone above me seems to know why it is they write, what direction they are heading with their writing (or at least want to go) and so forth. Me? I’ve been writing forever. Except mine were “dear diary, I’m in love”
    That, and trashy letters to ex boyfriends I was convinced I‘d marry.
    Hell, I’d much rather spend my time getting gloriously fat eating and baking cake.
    Unfortunately… I don’t like cake.
    Despite every effort I’ve made, (purposely failing English classes, turning in assignments months late, putting something together five minutes before) writing follows me around and stalks me, determined to burn it’s presence onto the back of my eyelids like a lady gaga video.
    I’m twenty-f….well something, now, and I still can’t say with certainty what it is I really want out of my life. I suppose deep down I picked up a pen with a serious face painted on because I got tired of teachers telling me I was good but lazy, professors telling me I should change my major to English, my mother constantly badgering me “to become a damn writer already!”. I don’t see what they see. I don’t understand why I’ve won awards, contest… piles of paper and ribbons stacking up, and I turn around not quite sure how they got there. I’m nine months into my my first novel, my baby, and just like the real thing it’s almost done. I’m an outline kind of girl (otherwise I get lost and unfocused), and I know for a fact I have 5 chapters left. For weeks I’ve sat at this computer getting distracted by nuisances of face book, and hilarious you tube videos instead of doing what everyone says I’m meant to do. Maybe I’m scared. I don’t fail often (not to say that I never have), but I’ve been bred for perfection and glory. Writing can be a dangerous world full of artificial books shaking their money makers in your face. Publishing companies have become pimps of the literary world, and I know I’m just to cool to be a hoe, but then again, failure isn‘t an option either. Sometimes I think it’s better to just stay off the corner.

  13. The first thing I remember writing, expecting something in return, (although I don' remember what that was,I was about nine)were bios, for the "crew" of the starship "Enterprise". Totally un-asked for of course. I wrote one for each of the "Bridge" crewmembers, then had my mom help me send them to the studio, where it was filmed.What I DID get was promotional pictures of the crew. 8x10 glossies! LOL For some strange reason I felt dissappointed! Until recently I hadn't even thought to TRY writing anything; but always have been an avid reader. What inspired me to try this thing called "writing" was not really good. A tumultious relattionship, that at its end, had me virtually blockaded in my bedroom 24/7. My computer my only slavation and contact with the "outside" world. I ran across an international poetry contest, read some of the entries and entered it on a lark. As a joke, mostly on myself, I thought, then promptly forgot about it. The arrival of an "artists proof" left me stunned. I had not only garnered an "Editors Choice" award, but had placed an unbeliveable THIRD in the contest. I looked high and low on that letter for the "catch"(most everyone here knows what I mean)but there wasn't one.That was my first clue I might be onto something that could help me deal with what was going on around me. Well long (horrible) story short -- it turned out to be instremental in my getting "past" all that. So, the reason I write? Then it was for catharsis, Now? because I love it, and it's FUN.It reminds me of "magic".

  14. Why do I write? To keep my sanity in the world I inhabit in which I have an incredibly boring day job that sucks the life out of me. You see, I write for a living, but it's corporate communication, technical and marketing crap. It creates a writing deficit and I pay back that deficit by writing more creatively nights and weekends either for a freelance project or just for myself. They say that most of die with our music within us.


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