October 20

Why do we write?

Why do writers write? Other than to get paid, do we really get anything from performing our craft? Is it all about chasing the next paycheck? Is it for that long-shot at fame? Seeing our name in print? Insanity?

I believe that most writers get into the game because they have a need to write, to tell a story or paint a picture with words, and initially we all think we’ll be the next Great Writer. While we’re furiously pounding away at our keyboards or wearing pencils down to the eraser, we see the goal out there in the murky distance, the image of a hardback book at the local bookstore with our name emblazoned on the front cover. It is the proverbial carrot dangling from a stick. We are the mules.

Eventually, however, we come to realize that perhaps that dream is out of reach, at least in the ways we imagined, so we push it to the back of our minds and continue our work with words. Some of us get lucky and pick up jobs where we can actually write for a living. For the others, it’s a monotonous nine-to-five job and late nights spent in front of the keyboard. Either way, we continue because we can’t refuse The Call. And still, even when we are blocked or feel like giving up, that vision of success persists in the back of our minds.

But does dreaming of success make us shallow? While I feel that recognition is one of the driving forces – every writer wants to see their name in print – it isn’t the only reason. Some writers do it for money, some just because they have to, but in the end we all want to see our name on that book jacket. We all want to open the newspaper or go online and see our name on a best seller list. It’s a noble dream. To be known, to be read, to be remembered.

What drives me to continue writing is a desire to connect to people, to make them think, to make them feel, to give them an alternative view of something. This isn’t to say I’m opposed to getting paid or receiving some sort of recognition. That’s just gravy. My main goal will always be to have a reader out there somewhere who enjoys what I’ve written, who will pause afterwards and think to themselves, “hey, that was pretty good.” I don’t think that’s too much to strive for.

Even when I worked as a full-time copywriter I continued to work on my fiction and poetry. Why? Because I have to answer The Call. I may work for months on a story that no one will ever read, but that’s okay. The point is that I wrote it. I transferred that story, those images, and those characters from my imagination to the page. I took smoke and made something substantial out of it. Writing is in my blood. Other writers can understand that. We have to do it, regardless of whether we want money or fame. We write because we have to write. That’s all there is to it.

In the end, all I really want is to know that my words are out there, that someone has read them, and that they enjoyed what I wrote.


October 9

A Writer’s Junk Drawer

Everyone has a junk drawer in their house. It’s that spot in the kitchen or laundry room where you toss all those bits and pieces: rubber bands, twist ties, old keys, found buttons, maybe even some loose change. It’s a collection of things you don’t know what to do with but you don’t want to throw them away in case you need them later.

I think writers have junk drawers, too. Probably a folder on your laptop or in your filing cabinet where you toss those incomplete drafts and half-formed ideas. Maybe you had an idea you didn’t know what to do with so you scribbled down a few lines and filed it away. Or maybe you started a draft with the best intentions of writing a damn-fine story, but somewhere along the way you lost momentum or the story hit a roadblock. It happens to the best of us.

I like my writing junk drawer. It’s like going into your attic and rediscovering things you’d forgotten about. All those bit and pieces I wrote and set aside for another day. Some I remember once I begin reading them, but others are little hidden treasures, like finding a coffee can full of cash when you’re digging in the garden. Well, maybe not THAT good, but close.

I read somewhere that writers only complete about seventy percent of the stories they start writing. I question that assessment. While I do have an abundance of scraps, drafts, and one-line ideas, I wouldn’t say I’ve abandon them. I revisit that junk drawer every once in a while and I always find something to work on, something to polish up and show to the world. I may read through five, ten, maybe twenty files, but then I’ll happen upon some tidbit that hits the right button. You know what I mean? That feeling you get in your head and your gut that this is something you can build on. This is a story that needs to be told, and it’s all there in your head. I love that feeling.

And I continue to add to my junk drawer. I keep a spiral notebook and a handful of pens in my backpack so I can always jot down some idea or fragment that pops into my head. When I get home I’ll type it up and file it away in that file folder on my hard drive so I can rediscover it later. At some point it may become unmanageable because for every story I pull out of there, I probably add ten. Of course, it could be argued that I simply need to write more to balance things. I guess I should work on that…


October 3

Those old, familiar friends…

On average, I’d guess that I tend to read anywhere from ten to twenty books a year. Not a bad number, by any means. But the other day I got to thinking about all the books I’ve read. I mean, the total must be in the thousands, but out of that number, only about a hundred or so really stick in my mind. You know the ones I’m talking about: the stories that resonated in your memory for days afterward, that changed the way you thought or felt about something, the ones that you had to go back to and read again, and again.

I still have a few favorites that I go back to when the mood strikes me, books that still resonate with me after repeated readings. One of the first books I ever read on my own was Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. As a kid, the poems seemed borderline adult, so there was a sense of doing something wrong while reading them. I mean, poems about eating boogers and eating babies and hugging (gross!) were not what a six or seven-year old should be reading, right?

Shel was able to make me laugh, make me think, make me dream…and I still read that book every so often. It reminds me of the wonder of being a child and the power of imagination.

A few other early reads that I can’t shake are The Hobbit and Siddhartha. Obviously, The Hobbit was the first fantasy book I ever read, and it set the tone for the majority of my later readings (including the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Middle-Earth is embedded in my imagination, the Shire, Mirkwood, Smaug…it’s still as clear as day, and I bet I could draw a map of Bilbo’s journey from memory.

Siddhartha, on the other hand, was the first grown-up novel I read. Believe it or not, but I read this book when I was ten years old. I won’t claim to have understood all the themes, but the story of the Buddha’s awakening was fascinating to me, and was the catalyst for my questioning of everything spiritual. I read the book several more times through high school, but it was in my mid-twenties that the story finally hit home for me. I think I somehow knew there was more to the story and that I just wasn’t getting it, so I kept coming back to those (now) yellowed pages. Buddhist philosophy changed how I see the world, how I embrace life, how I deal with tragedy. It was a game changer that I continue to read on a fairly regular basis.

There are other books and stories that have touched or inspired me, of course, but far too many to name them all here. However, a few that bear mentioning are: Night Shift (King), The Wind from the Sun (Clarke), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig), The Nose (Gogol), Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Poe), At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels (Lovecraft), Catch-22 (Heller), Slaughterhouse Five (Vonnegut), 1984 (Orwell), Leaves of Grass (Whitman), and Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury).

Again, this is only a few…and it sometimes amazes me that I’m able to read anything new when I still go back to these old friends. Yes, even though I know how the story (or stories) end, it’s the magic of the prose that brings me back time and time again.