What Makes Writers Write
I’ve wanted to be a writer from a very young age. I recall sometime in 1967, when I was 8 years old, our family was in the throes of preparing to migrate to the edge of the desert in Australia from the edge of the Peak District in Yorkshire, England. I didn’t want to go, but Decisions Had Been Made and at the age of 8 one doesn’t have a veto on such matters, so there I was in my living room watching my father go through a whole heap of stuff - literally, a heap, piled in the middle of the floor - deciding what was to go with us and what was to be given away or thrown away. There were toys, books, clothes, papers, all kinds of things in this pile. One of the items was a small red exercise book - the kind of thing handed out at schools to 'do writing’ in. In it, I had pencilled the adventures of one of the earliest superheroes I had invented - a character called the Dart, whose flight suit and helmet had the ability to fire…well, darts. The first tale told of how he had encountered a group of robbers trying to break into a bank and had foiled them using his ingenious gadgets. While I stifled back tears, the book, with all its deliciously inviting blank pages as-yet-unwritten upon, was thrown on the ‘to be thrown away’ pile.
There was no arguing with it: the maxim that ‘we couldn’t take everything with us’ had been drummed into me by then. I just cried inside and grew determined to remember the story and rewrite it one day. In the following decade, I went on to create over 150 superheroes of my own, with over 600 story outlines.
My next major work, though, was about 5 years later when I used to take a folding table, chair and an old typewriter and sit out in my back garden every evening after ‘tea’ (we still called the evening meal ‘tea’ in Yorkshire fashion, even though we now lived in the Australian desert) and type out page after page of a science fiction story concerning a professor's quest to find a lost golden city in the heart of the Sahara. It was science fiction rather than archaeological adventure because rushing to find the city before the professor was a race of evil, gigantic cyborgs. And trying to stop them was a traveller in time and space who bore no slight resemblance to the protagonist of the BBC’s Doctor Who. I finished the book and showed it off at school, where to my delight my teacher borrowed it and read it, then showed it to another teacher who also (purportedly) read it. While I was pleased, this seemed somehow inevitable - of course, my writing would be snapped up and shown around; it was perfectly natural for me to be a successful writer. Why shouldn’t I be? Why should not everyone be successful at what they wanted to do?
Why not indeed?
Parallel to all this, of course, was the society in which I was growing up which was to eventually demand from me that I do something in exchange for money. What we often end up doing in this case is a result of a kind of inertia - we go on up the educational ladder like a vine clinging to a tree, then at some point have to reach out and try to establish roots of our own, from which we will hopefully grow something that other people will pay money to buy. This took a while in my case, and a lot of reachings into infertile zones as far as this metaphor goes, but somehow, usually by lucky accident or through sheer desperation rather than by design, I ended up scraping by commercially in the world. Not through writing though - that idea, that I would inevitably make money by being a writer, had fallen by the wayside after only a few years. I did just about everything else, from office cleaner to counsellor, from business consultant to English teacher, from headmaster to adminsitrator, before I came full circle back to writing. On the way, I learned many fascinating things, one of which was that only certain careers made me happy, and that usually at the heart of that handful of jobs was ‘writing’ in some form or another.
Now that I have some perspective on the whole thing, it’s an interesting question to separate the act of writing from the idea of making money as an intellectual exercise. Let’s say, for example, that you had all your expenses under control, or that you had in some fashion arranged things so that you had enough money and didn’t have to worry about making any in the future.
Would you still write?
Or are money and your writing inextricably tangled?
My guess is that most if you would say ‘Yes’, that you would still write even if you didn’t ‘have to’ or didn’t feel an economic incentive to do so.
So what’s going on there? If writers disconnect their writing from any kind of commercial motivation - and goodness knows it’s hard enough trying to maintain that connection even at the best of times - then why are they continuing to write?
Because writing is an extension of who they are, I suggest.
I’ve seen plenty of writers’ forums and groups where the question of ‘Why do you write?’ comes up, and hardly any of the answers are along the lines of ‘Because it pays the bills’. In fact, 99% of the responses say something like ‘Because I must’ or ‘Because I feel happier doing so’ or ‘Because there is something inside me that has to come out’. In other words, those of us who consider ourselves to be writers have an almost universal urge to be so, almost despite any imperative connected to our economic well-being. If we won the lottery tomorrow, the main implication for most of us would be that we would now be free to write to our heart’s content; the shackles of society’s monetary demands would be removed and we would be free to create.
We don’t even universally write for therapeutic reasons, though many do. I felt no personal gain, no inner healing, after completing my story about the lost city in the Sahara - rather it was as though the story had finally been repotted from my mind into the minds of others, potentially anyway. It is as though a writer is trying to ‘sub-create’, to borrow J. R. R. Tolkien’s term: as though some kind of creative energy is pouring out of him or her continually, finding its anchors in words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters. We hope, either vaguely or more intensely, that these words, these scenes, these stories that we write will find a home with others, but while we’re in the heart of the act itself, I suggest, that hope is only something in the background: our attention is on our creation, not on its future home.
In a way, writers are like parents, putting all their energies into a child or children, not thinking particularly about the moment when their parenting will be done and the child will be living somewhere else. In the act of creation and in the act of nurturing which comes with second drafts and editing, the rest of the world and its needs recedes, withdraws, becomes invisible, irrelevant. All that matters is the creation.
It’s a little bit obsessive, isn’t it? But if it wasn’t, if somehow others were involved in it or if the whole process was less mysterious and more analytical, we probably wouldn’t recognise it. We would want to shut others out, to be less scientific, to embrace more mystery. If writing wasn’t the way it is, we’d reinvent it to be this way.
Like other obsessions, it looks a little crazy from the outside. Even crazier if we factor in that it makes no money. Surely, a non-writer might ask, we should obsess about something that will make us rich? Or only write stuff that we know will lead to wealth? But it doesn’t work like that. The experience isn’t like that. In the same way that a parent doesn’t create and nurture a child in order to produce merely an economically valuable social unit, most writers don’t write purely to make something that will translate into money. Money plays a part in our thinking, but for most of us the act of creating is a thing in itself.
It’s a thing we were born with, like a mutant superpower, something to do with our hearts and our identities. It may not make us rich, but it will make us us.