For this month’s Writer’s Ask Writer’s Blog series, we are plunging our hands into the soil, trying to discover the wiry roots of why we pursue writing in the first place. I feel the compulsion to write all the time, but explaining why or where that comes from feel like explaining why I walk on my feet and not my hands. So here are a few reasons I could come up with, and then I will pass you over to my fellow writers, whose answers this month gave me goosebumps.
1. To Understand and Preserve My Own Experiences
When I started writing, as many writers do, I kept a journal. Writing was a way to commandeer my own experience as a young woman: to try to condense and understand all the things I wanted for my life. When I began, my life didn’t feel very interesting, but I wrote small things down because I wanted to preserve them, like pressed flowers long-forgotten, so that one day, my future self might look back on them and understand how I had changed (or remained the same).
2. To Experience a Life Other Than Mine
I don’t remember precisely the first time I sat down to write fiction. I remember the result: a cliched novel about a Maths professor and an artistic dreamer who fall in love. It was inspired by a Keats poem, and explored the clash between the arts and the sciences and whether they can ever be compatible.
The thing I do remember is the joy of being lost in another person’s head. Writing offers you the chance to imagine a life wildly different to your own, and being a dreamy teenager at the time, any life seemed more interesting than my mish-mash of school and home. It also gives an outlet for that overactive part of your mind, which if left to its own devices can become destructive rather than creative. If that latent imaginative energy is trained on my own life, I find that I overanalyze aspects of my life and make myself unhappy. There is a sense of relief in directing that energy towards creating a life for my characters.
3. To Understand Others
I have always been an observer. I like to take stock of my environment and the people I meet. I have always been a big reader as books offer an insight into other people that you rarely get from talking to them. People have so many defences, even against themselves, and fiction is one of the only things I know of that gets beyond them, showing a person’s true motivations (even if they’re not real!). When writing my personal statement to get into universities, I remember trying to articulate this as a reason why I wanted to study English Literature. Reading obviously is a huge part of the job of a writer, and I began writing partly because I wanted to get under the skin of character and recreate this experience for someone else.
4. To Challenge Myself
During the transition from the gawky teenager writing angst in her diary, to the person who writes novels, a remarkable thing happened. I found an immense satisfaction in setting myself the challenge of imagining I was someone far removed from my own experience and seeing if I can achieve it successfully. With my first book, it was Marta, who depending on your interpretation is either deeply traumatised by an experience she has had, or is suffering from a mental illness. With my new book, it is Rook, a photographer who is looking back over his experience covering the Vietnam War. When I begin, I know very little, and the joy of writing for me is in researching to build up a picture of the setting, character, place and time, and then trying to keep all these aspects balanced with the plot, or what actually happens in my story.
5. For the Lifestyle
The final reason why I write is because I love to work for myself: to choose what I pursue and set my own workload. I can be a hard task-master, and sometimes it feels like I have homework all the time. But the flexibility of working from home, of being able to travel, and of feeling free are worth the somewhat stringent boss I can be to myself. Even when I was younger, I idealised this lifestyle and freedom, and it was this that attracted me to the writing life. I knew enough from reading about other writers that it was rare to become rich through pursuing this aim, and all I want for myself is that it is a sustainable career so that I can continue to work at it.
I would be lying if I denied that part of the reason I wanted to be a writer was to be published. I dreamt of seeing my book in a book shop, of holding it in my hands. It wasn’t my main motivation, but it something I held like a freshly laid egg, warm and perfect in my hands, while struggling through How To Be A Good Wife. And all the things that came after it happened were as wonderful as I had hoped they would be.
Reading the other posts of my fellow writers this week has really given my pause for thought. They have all tackled the question head on, and many things they wrote resonated with me. I’m so glad we chose this as a question!
Amanda Curtin provides some interesting background research, before giving her verdict.
Dawn Barker articulates the moment she knew she loved writing was when she was still doing it despite being in the throes of new-motherhood.
Annabel Smith delineates her path into the profession, and how she shifted from someone who dabbled to being unable NOT to write.
Natasha Lester turns to some wise words and explores the links between being a reader and a writer.
Sara Foster gives many reasons, addressing some to you, her readers and how important you are to her.