Why Write, OR The Loneliness of the Long-Format Author


“We use words to tell stories for different reasons, all of us.  Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas said that he wrote for revenge.  My friend Linda said she writes because it is either that or vomiting.  Because it wells up inside of her, fills her, threatening to burst from her if she doesn’t first disgorge it in the form of words, clicks on her keyboard.  My daughter Kate said she writes to make things more real.  A flower that would otherwise be shriveled, decayed, lost forever; any moment, perhaps the first tentative smile that suggests a flicker of interest between a boy and a girl; any gesture, perhaps when he nervously reached up to scratch the side of his face in his shy hopefulness.  Any of these, all of these, can be detailed, described, made to last forever, made real when they would otherwise be lost, gone.”

That is a quote from YOU, IN YOUR GREEN SHIRT, my first novel.  I have been thinking a lot about this again, this business of why we write.  I am brand new at blogging, and have been browsing through other writers’ blogs, many of which have names such as “The Joy of Writing” and “Ecstasy of Words.”

Really?  I mean: really?  Am I that different from so many of my brethren?  Am I alone in thinking that writing is, generally speaking, one very small step away from torture?

This reminds me of when I began running, more than ten years ago now, and knowing my newbie status, everyone kept asking: “How about that runner’s high!?!”  “Don’t you just love that rush you get!?!”  So for weeks, which turned into months, I thought I must be doing something wrong.  I waited for it.  I watched for any little sign.  Mostly I felt like I was going to keel over or vomit every single second, but was pretty sure that neither of those feelings qualified as a “high.”

What I did experience was this: jubilation when it was ALL OVER!!!  When the run was complete, and I had LIVED (!) and could feel an enormous sense of relief and a slight feeling of accomplishment.

So, yeah, that’s pretty much what writing is like for me.

The process of it, the putting forth or words onto a page (ha-screen) is something I find arduous (and can I just mention here that I went through 40 HOURS of labor with NO MEDICATION, so I KNOW arduous), soul-sucking, lonely, grueling, and yes, at times, truly torturous.  So why in the world do it?!

Because when it is done, when the words are on the page, and you know, really know, that you have managed to say exactly what you wanted to say, there is no better feeling in the world.  None.

8 Replies to “Why Write, OR The Loneliness of the Long-Format Author”

  1. Oh crap! I remember those 40 hours of labor…and, yes…I do know what you mean about the feeling AFTER ward….I am not a runner, but I do some pretty strenuous exercise…and I have been writing publicly for thirteen years (not a published author of a book, however) and totally get this.

  2. I’m so glad you wrote that! After hearing Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, talking on NPR the other day about the “pure pleasure of writing” and how ecstatic he feels as he loses himself in the world of his characters (for hours at a time) I thought, “Shit. Well, that’s it then. The final nail. If successful writers actually luxuriate in the process like that then I’m certainly not one of them. But hell, at least it explains why they actually keep at it and I don’t.”

    Just for the record, I also marveled at his description of how he develops his stories. He gets an image of, say, people crossing a desert, and he asks himself who they are and why they are crossing that desert. And this leads him to discoveries.

    I wonder, could the fact that he is imagining the lives of others account for why he enjoys the process so much more than I do? My “fiction” is really more of an attempt to capture my own life exactly right as poignantly and profoundly as possible AND still make it interesting to others AND somehow make it fictional. Of COURSE that’s torture—it’s impossible!

    What do you think? Do you think the process of fictionalizing real people and events while retaining/capturing what is true about them and making them compelling is, by its nature, just more difficult than exploring imagined characters to see who they might be? Is it intrinsically easier and more pleasurable to invent characters and plot twists? Are we freer when we write about imagined beings?

    1. I think those are truly excellent questions. And ones that clearly merit real discussion. I suppose I think that reaching very deeply down, into oneself, which is always part of any creative process, is hard hard work. Always. Perhaps some people find joy during that process, and I can understand that in the abstract. Just doesn’t work that way for me!

  3. Yes, writing is a remarkable act. We all do so for reasons that may or may not make sense to us. Sometimes, we can even describe why we take it on. Khalid Hosseini speaks of the joy he gets from writing (thank you, writingwithwine) while Barbara mentions forty hours of labor and getting sick on the running trail. Which of course brings to mind William Styron’s succinct description, “Let’s face it, writing is hell.”

    Barbara, I hope that your tortuous and arduous bouts with the screen to say exactly what you wanted to say bring you many lasting moments of joy (and if I may, a “writer’s high”).

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