Why do we write?
January 8, 2012 § 1 Comment
I realize this is a bit of an abstract question, but I can be a bit of an abstract person. So, why do we write? What draws us to the page? What do we get out of writing that we don’t get somewhere else?
There are, obviously, a lot of different answers. I personally find “to express myself” a bit simplistic. What does that even mean? What exactly are we expressing? Is Stephen King “expressing himself” in Carrie? Maybe, maybe not.
Writers do, in my opinion, feel the intense need to say something. We feel it important to get our message out there. We both write for ourselves and for others. Whenever I sit down to write, I want to explore something-maybe how lonely the human experience can be, how we connect to others, how people come to know themselves in relation to the world around them, how we make sense of our life situations, what we fear, what we cherish, and why. I always have so many questions, questions I discuss with people close to me who are also prone to wondering. While I have a deep appreciation for these conversations, there is something about actually connecting pen to paper that I value even more. I feel as if I’ve done something with all that thought instead of just getting lost in it. I’ve created something, made the confusion in my head into something with substance.
Often what I ponder I have difficulty articulating, but when I write, when I get into that oh-so-highly-prized “zone”, suddenly the words are flowing better than I could have imagined. Right before my eyes ideas are manifesting themselves, ideas I am sometimes startled to see because I wasn’t consciously putting them there. I don’t know if this is something other writers experience, but I often start writing about one thing, and then, very subtlety, the control shifts. The piece begins to hold the authority, and I choose to follow where it leads. It is possible to redirect the way, but every time I have done this, the results are messy and unappealing. Stephen King wrote something similar regarding this phenomenon in On Writing, arguing that writers set the stage and then essentially sit back and watch what happens. You start out with a general sketch and then once you start writing, things inevitably change. Why? You could say your ideas have changed, but I find it is more likely that you are realizing what exactly your original idea was. I start writing and suddenly I realize what it is I’m saying. It’s sort of magical. I read over what I’ve written, what’s come from my own mind and heart, and it’s like I’m learning something I never knew…but part of me most certainly did.
But that’s not good writing! That’s rambling! That’s a lack of focus, that’s riding on a train to nowhere! Your inner trained writer panics. I used to have these same concerns, and often still do. Each time I started a new piece, I fought to know exactly what I was saying. If my story started to lead somewhere else, I pushed it back on the first path. The more I continued down that first line of thought while my story tugged in the other direction, the more confused I became about what I was saying and the harder I tried to make it look nice. I’d lose my reader, lose my characters, and lose my confidence. Don’t be intimidated. Liberate yourself. Go where your story leads. Believe in yourself enough as a writer to let go. Wonderful things can happen! When you’re revising, look for crucial moments where you may have hesitated about where to go next. Did you go by instinct, or by Plan A? Write two drafts (or multiple) and compare. What works?
So maybe what we get out of writing, when you boil it down, is understanding. Deeper and more complete understanding of what we wish to communicate to others. Deeper understanding not even of the answers, but of the questions. Maybe “expressing yourself” really means watching that secret part of you, secret even to yourself, unfold so easily on the page. We are drawn to the magic of writing, of not knowing what will happen when we sit down at the desk today, of what will be discovered. There is thrill, there is excitement, and there is undeniable wonder.