Why Write? Exploring the (lack of) Desire

From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books. – George Orwell. 1946. “Why I Write”.

The question of why we write is something that writers debate constantly, and working in Higher Education as a senior lecturer in creative writing, it’s the subject of necessary discussions I have (had) with student writers on a regular basis. When they are asked, as they always are, ‘Why do you want to write?’, the answer is sometimes, ‘I don’t know.’ In many ways that’s a fair enough answer. Students, often just out of school, don’t always understand their own motivations for their choice.  They know it’s there, that desire to communicate, but they don’t know what they want to do with it. Sometimes, almost inevitably, you get the impression that they’ve chosen what they believe might be the ‘easy’ way – that a creative writing course is somewhere they won’t have to think, that they just have to ‘create’. Wrong. Of course. Writing – along with other creative arts – is very much a subject where thinking, assessing, critiquing, and transforming (your writing by editing, yourself through the whole evolutionary process that writing has on you as a person), is vital if you’re to become in any way reflective and proficient. But I digress…

Most students though (especially mature students, of whom we seem to attract quite a few – I myself was one), when asked the question, answer in much the same vein as Orwell, and the answer boils down to: ‘Because I must.’ And, as I said in my previous post, this is much the case for me too. Or at least it used to be. For me, writing used to be everything. And I do pretty much mean that. Except for being a mum to two wonderful, now grown up people, my purpose in life, I always felt, was to write. To create. To create other worlds, live other lives in and through their creation because – maybe an issue, but hey –  ever since I was a little girl dreaming dreams of gods and monsters, my own reality was never enough. But now…. Ironically, working in HE as a full time lecturer, with all the increasing stresses it brings, as well as having a chronic depressive illness that those stresses impact on, has kind of killed the desire. Part of the motivation for writing these blog posts is to try to rekindle it, to try to find what – in the maelstrom of thoughts that whirl in my mind – is left of that compulsion. I’m hopeful it’s still there, but I will need to dig deep….

I digress.

When I started studying creative writing at university our lecturer at the time told us that no-one cared if we wrote, that our work didn’t really matter to anyone else.  My initial – defensive – thought was: she’s full of it. I care. But, although it was a tactless, almost throwaway remark, and for someone like me, quite destructive, I think in hindsight that it was a valuable thing for her to say, for various reasons.

In all honesty, it’s a fact. Apart from yourself, no one really cares that much. Friends and family can be very supportive – I was always told by my parents that it was a ‘nice little hobby’ – but often don’t understand the drive that consumes those of us who live in our heads, in our own worlds. In essence, if you stopped, unless they’re as passionate as you, unless they’re driven by the same engine, they’d probably say, well, that’s a shame, and that’d be that. Writing creatively is still often seen as a luxury, a privilege that many people can’t afford to indulge in an increasingly money and ‘success’ driven world. While it’s kind of true, I find that sad; writers I know find that sad. Without art, we’d live in an entirely utility driven world. Is that what we want?

Publishers and agents don’t care either. This is maybe a throwaway remark – but why should they? They don’t know you, don’t know if you’re writing, and probably wouldn’t much bother about you if they did. Unless you have something they want of course. Is this cynical? On reflection, I still think, not really. I think it’s fair enough, in the end. The publishing world is an increasingly hard world. They are feeling the hard pinch of the economic crisis too. They do not owe anyone a living – they publish because they love good writing, never believe otherwise, but they are businesses. They are not charities. A lot of writers feel entitled to publishing, and I understand that too, if they work hard at their craft, but actually, they’re not entitled to anything. None of us are, beyond the basic human needs, which are, of course, becoming increasingly complex. This is a hard lesson, I think, in these days where everyone is encouraged by the media machine to believe they’re entitled to everything, because we’re sold the dream of ‘you have the right to be… whatever you want to be.’ And that’s another debate.

Sometimes writers thwart themselves from achieving what is regarded as success (see more on that later). Let me expand upon that just a little, because it’s maybe a harsh statement, but it relates to the above point. This does not mean that they don’t want to write – most writers I know are passionate about what they do. What I mean by that is that sometimes finding the motivation, to fan the desire by doing the hard work that goes with it is really difficult. Sometimes it’s almost impossible. I really admire (and am pretty envious of, to be honest!) writers who have a full time, demanding job, and who can still dedicate themselves to their craft. Those who still have the headspace and energy to pour themselves into the stories and worlds and people they want to create. Who have the energy to put it through numerous edits, research the market, and  then send that work out to publishers, to face the seemingly endless rejections, so that maybe one day, there’s an acceptance. Those acceptances mean a lot, when they come. But often they’re a long time coming, and some of us just become… tired… and so we don’t do it. Or can’t bring ourselves to do it, and give up. At least, that’s what I’ve found. I’m trying not to be bitter about it; bitterness achieves nothing, and I think I’m learning to accept that too during the time I’ve had to reflect, to understand myself more. But as I write these words, I feel the desire returning, and understand that I have options. We all do. With regard to the above kind of rant about ‘having the right’, which I’m aware is becoming circular, so I’ll stop…. While none of us have the ‘right’ to be a best-selling writer, we all, surely, have the ‘right’ to be creative. To at least try? Because on a personal basis, I’ve found that allowing my creativity to wither, has been a kind of death.

A further note on ‘success’. Does it matter if you don’t get paid for your writing? That depends on your idea of success. In Higher Education, institutions ‘grade’ you, via the Research Excellence Framework, on your output. Fair enough. HE institutions are (meant to be) centres of education, excellence for research. Work done in HE directly contributes to world knowledge. But creative writing, at least in some institutions, isn’t regarded as ‘research’. So while it is quite rightly valued if, say, you get a novel or poetry collection published, or script made into a film, it doesn’t count towards the REF. Is this short-sighted? Should a piece of creative work be regarded as research, contributing to knowledge? I guess it depends on what ‘knowledge’ means to you. In the wider world,  many people still only understand ‘successful’ writers as those who write the bestsellers, the big-hitters. The books we find in chain booksellers. It all becomes – as everything else has – consumed by consumerism. I think that’s sad too. I think it can be demoralizing. Do we have to adhere to market forces to achieve? And again, what does ‘achievement’ mean? For me, just writing this post is an achievement, but it’s making me realise, again, that I want more.

One thing is for sure: It’s not easy. And it’s not supposed to be.



Who is the ‘I’ Who Writes?

‘The house of fiction does not readily admit the self… Your relationship with it, as its creator, is tenuous, complex, subtle, utterly demanding. You are in it; you are absolutely stripped bare in front of it, exposed; yet somehow you are supposed to make sure that, at the end of the day when the lights are dimmed, the fire’s blazing and everyone’s sitting comfortable, it isn’t you they see.’ (Sue Roe. ‘Shelving the Self’. 1994. p51) *

Sue Roe here is talking about her experiences of novel-writing, how a writer immerses her self (as opposed to herself – so I shall treat myself here as my Self.) in the writing process as a piece of work evolves. And yet, as she says, the author must take care not to be visible in the finished fictional narrative, for any number of reasons, both good and not so good. Is this true, and if so, can we really avoid exposing our Selves?

I’ve been thinking about this. A lot. Especially recently, during this latest, long bout of depression, when writing anything at all has been ‘about’ my Self. About my life, and how I feel consumed by it, but am unable to express it in the way I (used to) know how to. Through the written word. Because I think about how exposing the written word is. How we are laid bare, even flayed by our own words. Once they are written, will we not be judged by them? And found wanting? And that’s scary.

Anyone who writes, especially those writers who allow people to read their work, in whatever way, will probably recognize this sense of exposure. This feeling of ‘What if they think this is me I’m putting out there?’ and ‘What if they judge me by what I write?’ As a senior lecturer in creative writing, I’ve found that this is very common in student writers, who are often self-conscious about what they ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ write about. It’s my job to try to reassure them that there aren’t ‘can’s and ‘can’t’s; there are only possibilities and their job is to convert those possibilities into the best writing they are capable of. But I sympathize with them, have been in that position myself, as a previous student of creative writing. Students often think they should be writing for the lecturer, especially for assessments: If they write something a lecturer likes, is interested in, it might get them better grades.

When I was a level 3 student on course for the first class honours degree in creative writing I was later to achieve, I had a conversation with a friend who was in level 2. He knew that I was getting good grades, and he asked: ‘Do you write assessments knowing what the lecturers like to read? Do you write to please them? Is that what I should do?’ I actually found the question quite insulting, although he didn’t mean it that way. But in some ways, it was as though he was questioning my writing integrity. My answer was the same then as it is now, and I stand unflinchingly by it: ‘I would never write to please anyone but myself, if it compromised my writing.’ And I say this to students: it doesn’t matter what I like. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like (insert pet hate here) – it’s what you like that matters. Write what you’re interested in. If you don’t, it will show, and why would I be interested in an piece of work you don’t really care about?’

Of course, writing what interests you brings back the idea of self-exposure, of showing everyone who reads what goes on inside your head. Of being ‘absolutely stripped bare’. Students often worry about writing about controversial subjects; and I guess in these troubled times, they’re wise to be wary, but…. I worry about that. Quite a lot. For example, I teach writing horror fiction (a subject often sneered at by Literary Writers, but which is its own way of writing about the (sometimes) otherwise inexpressible) , and for one of my sessions, I sometimes teach extreme horror (Splatterpunk), in which I invite students to be as explicit, uninhibited and gross as possible. And even then – even with that permission – some students still worry. Again, it’s wise to be wary. It takes a lot of reassurance that I won’t judge them. That I’m not there to be a moral barometer. The only judgements I make is on their writing, the quality of their writing, and are they saying what they want to say in the best way to say it. But what they say is up to them. And that we have to get used to exposure if we want to communicate. Once they accept this permission, students often find that their writing becomes liberating, rather than constraining. Watching this happen is, I feel, one of the best things about what I do. It’s one of the few reasons that keeps me in the job when everything else in Higher Education is becoming consumed by… consumerism.

Still – who is this Self that writes? And are we always the subject of our own work, even though it’s disguised as fiction, or poetry, or drama? My personal opinion is that we almost always write about what goes on inside us. We write about what we care about, and this reflects our Self, to a greater or lesser extent. Again, as a sometime writer of dark fantasy and horror, I write about what scares me, and what I think is relevant to my (inner and outer) world. As a one-time poet, my poetry often seemed to want to talk about women’s issues – fertility, abortion, maternity, although it has dealt with themes of horror too – death, dying, and, especially, the futility of our existence – but in very different ways.

If we look at the work of some other writers, we can see recurring themes running through their work. Stephen King, for example, in his book about writing On Writing (2002), talks a lot about how his childhood, and living in a small town, influenced his writing, and when we look at his work, we can see it. Childhood – its horrors as well as its innocence – is constantly explored. The settings are almost invariably the small town, or enclosed spaces, exploring the claustrophobia that such places evoke. And his characters are often writers who are troubled. Possibly the best example of all of this (for me, at least) is The Shining (1977), in which we get the motifs of The Child, The Writer, and The Place, all in one truly frightening book. Likewise with his vampire novel Salem’s Lot (1976), which mostly deals with The Writer and The Small Town. It (1986) deals with The Child(ren) and the Small Town.

But the writing persona we employ when we’re writing is just one of the many masks we wear and we wear different personas for different kinds of writing. We are complex organisms,  and the idea of the single self, the unified self, is no longer accepted. We are fractured beings with many facets reflecting those fractures  – writing is one facet of who we are. And yet, it’s everything too. For me, recently, it’s been everything and nothing. Part of why I want to write this blog is to explore that.

Of course, as mentioned above, we are sometimes judged by what we write. People often assume that what we write is who we are. They assume that people who write horror or about psychopathic killers must be that way inclined themselves. They assume that people who write comedy are constantly laughing and funny. We know both are far from the truth, and yet the myths linger, as myths do, albeit they evolve.

I remember doing a reading of a very dark piece in which a cheating male character gets stabbed and killed by his psychotic girlfriend. One of the audience, who I thought knew me, came up to me afterwards and said: ‘But I thought you were such a nice person…’ I said, and still say, to that kind of comment – ‘My writing reflects my interests, maybe sometimes my issues, but if I was that person, or the characters I’ve produced, I’d have been a long time in prison, or a secure wing, by now.’ I am NOT my characters. But I do facilitate them.

On our course, we encourage self-reflexivity, something that every writer, in my opinion, needs to develop. Every student writes a contextual study along with their creative pieces that explores their aims and intentions for the piece they’ve written, how they’ve created it, and – because we must never forget where our writing comes from – what precursors they have researched. And – importantly – does their work succeed or not? Writing these studies gives insight to their writing Selves – we’ve found them very valuable, and students usually do too. I’m not saying that every writer should do this. Of course not. But I believe that good (value judgement, but hey!) writers are truly aware – as far as it’s possible to be, because there’s always a hidden something you can’t explain to yourself or anyone else – of who they are when they write and what goes on inside them that produces what it produces.

This is, in part, what this blog hopes to do.


Works cited.

Roe, S. ‘Shelving the Self’ in S. Roe et al, The Semi-Transparent Envelope (London and New York: Routledge: Marian Boyars, 1994, 47 – 92)