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Why Do You Write?
#1: GUEST AUTHOR MIKE FARRIS
Abelard wrote, “Against the disease of writing one must make special precautions, since it is a dangerous and contagious disease.”
Dangerous? Writing? Surely you jest. Heck, it’s not even hard, much less dangerous. You just pick up a pen or pencil, or sit at the computer, and put words down on paper or screen. That’s all there is to it, isn’t there? See? Easy.
Do you ever get that from your friends or family? You know, the ones who just don’t want to hear it when you talk about how hard it is to write, or how much trouble you’re having with your latest project. After all, it’s not like it’s really work, is it? They would probably agree with Russell Baker in his autobiographical work Growing Up, where he wrote: “The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any.”
I suspect Russell Baker, himself, was quickly disabused of that notion the first time he actually wrote, instead of just thinking about writing. No, we writers more likely share the notion that Gene Fowler was talking about when he said, “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
How many of you can identify with that?
Or with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote: “All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath.”
“Ohhh,” your friends say. “You’re talking about good writing, not just writing.”
Well, duh! And that’s one of the things that separates us as writers from the hoi polloi, the great unwashed masses – when we say “writing,” it’s synonymous with good writing. We don’t really need the qualifier.
And we all know that good writing doesn’t come easy. It may come easier to some than to others, but that’s not the same thing as coming easy. As Alexander Pope said, “The ease in writing comes from art, not chance.” Along those same lines, John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, wrote, “Of all those arts in which the wise excel, nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.”
Yeah, writing – good writing, is hard. It’s part storytelling, part putting words on paper. I’m not sure which is the hardest – coming up with the storyline, the characters, the dialogue, and the plot twists, or manipulating the English language to create a sensory experience for your reader. But I do know this: Both are essential. Because what’s your end goal?
Anthony Trollope said, “Of all the needs a book has, the chief need is that it be readable.”
But I like this from Hemingway better: “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one, you will feel that all that happened to you and afterward it all belongs to you: the good, the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
To master the art requires work – hard work and lots of it. The stories of successful writers prove that. And in virtually every case, it would have been much easier for those writers to have become discouraged and to have quit – to quit writing, to quit dreaming. Had they done so, we would have been the poorer for it. As Francois Rene de Chateaubriand said, “Achilles exists only through Homer. Take away the art of writing from this world, and you will probably take away its glory.”
I think of what happened to one discouraged writer – and the world’s loss because of it. Some of you probably already know this story, but I’ll pass it along anyway. Novelist Walker Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans when he started getting these strange, but persistent, phone calls from a woman who wanted him to look at a manuscript. Her son had written it, she said, but he had killed himself because he couldn’t get it published. An intriguing hook, certainly, but not something that inspires confidence in the quality of the manuscript or the stability of its author.
After a while, her persistence paid off; he agreed to look at the manuscript. So, she showed up one day at his office with, as he described it, a “badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon.” But by that point, he had no choice but to read it.
Percy says he hoped it would be bad enough that he could give up on it after just a few paragraphs, but he kept on reading when he realized it wasn’t bad enough to quit. Soon, he found himself interested, then excited, finally incredulous. As he said, “Surely it was not possible that it was so good.”
The novel was A Confederacy of Dunces, the author John Kennedy Toole. Toole had first submitted it to Simon & Schuster in 1963, spent the next two years revising it, then slipped into a deep depression when he feared he would never get it published. He disappeared in January of 1969, and was found two months later, dead in his car outside Biloxi, Mississippi at the age of 31.
Percy was ultimately able to get Toole’s novel published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and has since been translated into more than 10 languages.
Sadly, we’ll never know how great Toole might have been as a writer because he gave up. It’s ironic that, when the powers in the publishing world seemed arrayed against him to shut him out, he couldn’t take comfort in the quote from Jonathan Swift that had inspired his novel’s title: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
How do you deal with the discouragement? How do you deal with the disappointment? How do you deal with the rejection letters from agents and publishers? Better than Toole, I hope. But it’s a legitimate question – one each of you needs to deal with: How do you fight the urge to quit, to never finish what you started?
I guess what it really all boils down to is this simple question: Why do you write in the first place? Good question, huh? After all, there are not many things in life that are more frustrating. Trying to find just the right words to give your sentences a punch. Trying to find just the right traits to give your characters depth and make them jump off the page. Trying to shape the right attitudes to make your dialogue crackle.
It can’t merely be to indulge your ego. Before it’s all over, you’ll find that your ego has never taken such a pummeling. And it can’t be for fame and fortune – those elude most writers.
So why do you write? I heard a screenwriter once answer the question this way: “I think we write because we’re all damaged in some way.”
Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe there’s something deep down inside of us that we need to expunge. As Hemingway described one of his characters in Winner Take Nothing, “If he wrote it, he could get rid of it. He had gotten rid of many things by writing them.”
But I like to think it’s more than that. Maybe it’s a need to immortalize one’s self. Listen to this from Benjamin Franklin: “If you would not be forgotten, As soon as you are dead and rotten, Either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.”
Or maybe you write simply because you have something to say. Because make no mistake about it, when you write, you are saying something, even though it may be in a make-believe world from the lips of a make-believe character. When you write, you leave a little of yourself behind. Thomas Carlyle said, “In every man’s writings, the character of the writer must lie recorded.”
Now that’s something worth thinking about. So maybe the answer to the question of why you write lies in what you write.
Mike Farris, a retired entertainment attorney and litigator, was lead attorney in the lawsuit in Fort Worth that involved royalties to the Fifty Shades of Grey book trilogy, which resulted in a $13.25 million judgment in favor of his client. He collaborated with his client to write a book about the case, the award-winning Fifty Shades of Black & White: Anatomy of the Lawsuit behind a Publishing Phenomenon. He is the author of four other non-fiction books, including the Hawaiian true crime books A Death in the Islands: The Unwritten Law and the Last Trial of Clarence Darrow and Poor Innocent Lad: The Tragic Death of Gill Jamieson and the Execution of Myles Fukunaga. In the world of fiction, Mike is the author of ten published novels, including thrillers such as The Bequest and Manifest Intent, and the Hawaiian historical fiction Isle of Broken Dreams.