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.