But Why?

I wonder if I’ll ever be the kind of writer that sits down to write a story and has a clear idea of what the story will be and what it’s supposed to mean and accomplish. But I think that there are writers that do just that, that think, “I’m going to write a story like THIS that is allegorical in THIS way, that draws from THESE inspirations, that employs THIS symbolism, shaped like THIS thing, in THIS genre, with THAT KIND of emotional content, THAT KIND of social awareness, and THIS KIND of voice.”

One of the most exciting things that can happen in writing is to have the story reveal itself, or, to feel that unconscious impulse expressing itself right at the end of your fingers for you to look at. I think it’s also a little psychically risky, but maybe that’s its appeal too.

These things that come forth in that way are like story-shaped dreams. Nobody feels responsible for their dreams, but we should take responsibility for our stories, if we expect others to read them.

I feel like there’s plenty to read about how to write. Some of that advice is so particular that it almost couldn’t be useful; and some of it is so general that it almost couldn’t be useful. Understanding and inspiration come to us in unusual and unpredictable ways. In general, it seems like learning to write comes down to understanding the shared language of writing — the grammar, style, the stories that have come before, the preoccupations that currently hold us. This is why reading is so integral to writing, and writing is so integral to writing. Grammar and style can (obviously) be learned. But gleaning the overall is a very involved process. So, read anything you can find, write anything that comes to mind, know the rules of language. Simple but not easy, like many worthwhile things.

Of course the largest component of writing is all but impossible to advise on: have something to say, have a story to tell. People say, “write what you know,” and that’s perfectly good advice. Something that underlies what we know is what we understand. I think that might be better advice — write what you understand. And I would also add that we should take responsibility for our own understanding of the world.

But beyond even HOW is the bigger question of WHY. Why do we write? That someone would attempt to write presupposes that they know the answer, or that the answer isn’t important.

Are there any successful writers (by successful, I mean actively selling work, not best-selling, necessarily) that write expressly to make a living? Maybe there are as many writers that approach it that way as there are doctors that just want a paycheck. Or maybe it’s a spectrum of motivation. I guess I’ll never know. For me, and I suspect for most people that write, it begins as a thing I love to do. So really the question is why do we write and share that with other people?

I guess my answer is that we believe our writing has intrinsic value to others’ understanding of the world, aesthetically, socially, or otherwise. I think that reinforces that we must be responsible for our stories.

I had a conversation with my dad recently where he told me that he was considering writing down some of our family history as he understands and remembers it for me and my brother. I get it — he’s retired, he’s looking back on his life, he’s concerned that the narrative of our family will erode little by little with each generation. I thought it was a pretty lovely idea, and I told him I’d be excited to see what he did with that. But I don’t think he’ll actually do it…

His big concern? That it would be self-serving or immodest. And that concern just kind of floored me. Because that’s the thing about the WHY of it: If you’re having trouble with that, you wouldn’t even start. I wonder if anyone that’s written a memoir ever really doubted that it was a thing that should exist. It makes me wonder how many meaningful stories die in the minds of those that never get past the question why.

So, maybe the answer of WHY is tied to the writer’s belief in the universality of story. There’s the ego of believing that my story is universal, but there’s also the empathy in my recognition of the fundamental similarity between all of us — that we all need something similar, and that we can get some portion of that from the stories of others. I wonder if it’s also because we want to be understood, and we think that, if we write it just so, make it compelling enough, we might be seen. That we might use the language we all understand to tell each other how we feel and what we think, and that we’ll understand — in the recognition that comes from doing it well — that we’re not alone with those thoughts and feelings.

When I read a really good book, it feels like a conversation I’m having with the author — or maybe even more than that. It feels like a shared dream. That such a personal experience can happen in that context is part of what makes stories so powerful and interesting. Some stories are nightmarish, and it’s comforting to know that you’re sharing that with another mind, that you aren’t alone with those fears. You might have trouble sleeping, but you won’t wake up screaming.

In a way, it feels a little easier, for me, to draw that dark energy into the form of a story. But is that the kind of story I want to tell? Why?

I’m going to try very hard to be thoughtful about the way I construct my stories. And if I can’t quite articulate it all consciously before I start, I’ll try to dream better dreams.

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One Response to But Why?

  1. Skye says:

    I don’t know that I see that much ego or self-absorption in the why question for a lot of writers (or a lot of GOOD writers). You hit it on the head — having a story to tell, or being the right person to tell the story, that rings true. I do think there’s that component of compulsion too — writing because you can’t not write. But that’s also a question of why writing, specifically, as opposed to another form of expression.

    I hope your dad does write stuff down. Stories not getting lost, that’s a good reason to tell stories.

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