Wednesday, May 13, 2009

We Write: But When, How, and Why?

Thanks to my Type M for Murder colleagues for the warm welcome. You have a great blog site. I’m thrilled to be invited to join.

We Write: But When, How, and Why?

I told a colleague at work that I’d been offered this exciting opportunity—the chance to write a weekly blog (remember when we called them columns?). He asked, “Where are you going to find the time?”

He made a good point. I live and work at a private boarding school (remember when we called those prep schools?), and teaching at a boarding school isn’t a job; it’s a lifestyle. Cliché, I know. But it’s the truth—24/7, six (sometimes seven) days a week: teaching, coaching, and dorm responsibilities. And, for me, writing.

Always writing.

Writing doesn’t pay the bills, but I can’t call it a hobby either because if I don’t write, you don’t want to be around me. I woke up one night last week at 1:22 a.m. with an idea for a novel. When characters and storylines come at you from all directions and at all hours, what else is there to do but write the stuff down? Definitely not a hobby; rather, an obsession, and also a lifestyle.

Ah, there’s the rub. Two lifestyles?

Yes, and I’m not alone. The tighter the fiction market, the fewer the number of full-time writers. So how does one balance the day job with the obsession? I can only speak for myself, but I’ll offer what works for me.

First, we all seek time. Richard Russo once told me that when he was teaching, he never changed jobs unless the new post offered more writing time. Given my job, carving out writing time (even time for a weekly blog) is difficult. My optimal writing time is between 4 and 6 a.m. I can usually write three or four rough pages in those two hours. If I can get to bed before 10:30 p.m., I try to get up early the following morning. I’m finding 10:30 sandman more and more elusive, so I finished my most recent book writing from 9 to 11 p.m. Family comes first, and by 9 p.m., my oldest daughter, Delaney, 11, is in bed. And my wife doesn’t mind reading or watching TV alone before she turns in if it allows me time to write.

Next, we need to consider how we write. How does one find the cerebral stimulation and energy to write novel-length fiction when working full time? I forget which poet said it, but the quote is, “I write 23 hours a day. I type for one hour.” Isn’t that what it’s about? All we need are characters and conflicts. The two Cs. Even better when you find both—a character in conflict. Whether you realize it or not, you meet or work with human beings in conflict daily, regardless of your profession. This is the human condition, and it is the lifeblood of a writer. If that sounds like I’m desensitized, it’s really the opposite: Empathy drives writers. It explains our ability to notice the external and internal turmoil of our fellow man.

Finally, we come to why we write. My wife often reminds me that I chose this path, a path that offers rejection and criticism far more than it offers success and glory. That’s not really true. The path chose me. If I had to give an abridged version of why I write (and I don’t know if I can articulate it, don’t know if I’ve ever tried to do so before), I’d say that I would like to think I notice the world around me and have something to say about it. I’d say that I loved Robert B. Parker novels as a teen, still do, and want to create worlds as true and accurate as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (and probably haven’t come close yet). But I can honestly say I didn’t choose to do this. I started writing at age 7, when I wrote a story one weekend, made a cover for my “book” with paper and crayons, and brought it to my elementary school librarian, asking that she put it on the shelf with the other books.

Truthfully, there is little to say regarding why one writes. Most writers love books and read that one book (maybe more than one) that changed them, made them stop and say, I want to impact a reader like author XYZ impacted me; or maybe it was, I can do better. Eventually writing just becomes what you need to do, and you probably can’t explain why you do it any better than I just did. It’s not exactly ego; it’s not exactly a compulsion either. I go back to: Obsession and Lifestyle.

In the end, it comes down to a few Charles Bukowski lines from his poem “Air and Light and Time and Space”:

“…baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on

And I’ll conclude with another Bukowski quote, “If you have to ask why I do it, you won’t understand the answer.” This sums it up for me. I hope it does the same for you.


Vicki Delany said...

Take my advice - retire!

Vicki Delany said...

more advice - have adult children who live on their own.

Rick Blechta said...

Why don't just rub a little more salt into that gaping wound?

Harvey said...


It's like mountain climbers trying to explain what they do - they simply climb mountains "because they are there". We write novels because they are not!