|Oct/Nov 2003 • Miscellaneous|
Almost every writer, from the best sellers down to the local legends, has been asked the same question: Why do you write? Most writers, in fact, pre-empt this question by writing an article titled simply "Why I Write." The most famous of these is probably George Orwell's, though countless others have taken their cue (and often their title) from his essay. He listed at least four reasons why he wrote: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Most writers have merely expanded on his ideas, though they occasionally add one or two reasons of their own. Joan Didion said that she writes to "find out what [she's] thinking, what [she's] looking at, and what [she] sees and what it means," while Roger Ebert takes the practical approach and says simply that he writes because it is his job to write. Will Leitch lists what he cannot do—fix cars, tend bar, broadcast baseball, to name a few—and, thus, falls back on writing as something he can do. Even people who write bad poetry and post it on their website feel compelled to discuss why they write, usually having to do with a divorce or bad breakup or some other life tragedy that urges them to share their thoughts with the world; oddly enough, they usually feel compelled to do so in verse form.
However, none of these writers ever really talk about why they don't write, which seems to me just as important as why they do. Perhaps they don't struggle with it as much as some writers do. Gore Vidal actually once wrote, "When I hear about writer's block, this one and that one! Fuck off! Stop writing, for Christ's sake: Plenty more where you came from." So, perhaps some writers can write at will and never struggle to sit down and compose. I, however, have reasons why I don't write.
First, writing is simply not easy. This statement sounds obvious, but obvious statements aren't necessarily statements that do not need stating. There is the oft-quoted aphorism by Red Smith (though often incorrectly attributed to Hemingway and others)—"There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein"—that should be taken into account. Writing is difficult, first of all, because putting words down in an intelligible and interesting order is more challenging than it sounds. Most people have no problem with intelligible, but they can't find an interesting order, while there are those few who are interesting, but are far from intelligible. There is the legend of someone asking James Joyce how his writing had gone that day. He responded that he had had a wonderful day writing; he had enough words for two sentences, but now he just had to put them in the right order. Granted, Joyce was a bit of a perfectionist, but his sentences turned out better than most people's.
Also, writing is difficult because there are so many other better things you could be doing with your time. You could be reading a great book, seeing a movie, having sex, hiking, watching your favorite sports team, drinking, or whatever it is you do to pass the time that you find enjoyable. Instead, you're sitting in front of a computer or a pad of paper of some sort, by yourself, making up sentences. Kurt Vonnegut once said that writing was the best practical joke ever, as books are nothing more than black specks on white pages, yet they make us laugh and cry. I'm beginning to think that the joke is on those who spend their time putting the black specks on the white pages while everyone else is out doing something that we would really like to be doing, but are too ashamed to admit.
Writing is difficult because you are trying to create something from nothing, at least if you're trying to write something worth reading. If you can describe what you're writing as a cross between two works of literature, stop now. If we've already read The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, then we really don't need to read anything that is a cross between the two of them. Writing requires the writer to invent a world that does not exist or at least people in a world that does already exist. While this sounds simple—after all, we had imaginary friends when we were children—try sustaining that invisible friendship for months or years and see how much fun it is then.
Another reason I don't write is because I do not want to ruin what I am convinced will be a masterpiece. As long as my novel or poem or screenplay or whatever remains in my mind and away from any more permanent medium, it remains brilliant. I can see actors and actresses already performing my wonderful play, complete with sets and costumes; however, the minute I begin to write the actual dialogue, it sounds wooden and false. Thus, it is easier never to write it down in the first place. I can then sit in coffee shops with friends and tell them my wonderful plots or about a quirk I'm planning to use for one of my characters, and they will think me a brilliant writer; it takes them some time of not seeing any actual pages to realize that I am simply a con-man with a court jester complex fooling myself more than anyone else.
The most realistic reason for my not writing, though, is that I simply don't think anyone will care. Most writers will never get published in Harper's or The New Yorker; the odds are simply too slanted. At last count, Poetry received roughly 90,000 submissions a year, while they publish only a few more than 200, and some of those are commissioned. There are only so many local journals to find a publication outlet, as well. And most writers truly feel that their work doesn't fit in many places, so their options are slim. Most of us will never publish a book of poetry, and almost none of us will ever be a household name (even Billy Collins, one of the most outrageously popular poets in recent memory, is little known in the wider community).
Some writers tell me that there is always the web, the great equalizer in this new age. Why self-publish, which actually costs money, when you can just create a website where people will read your brilliant writings for free (since we know that it's not the money that compels people to write)? And, indeed, I must confess that I have had a website in the past; I still do, in fact, though I long since quite trying to entice people to visit. Most people simply don't search out individual sites to read poetry; I know that I certainly don't.
Thus, it's easy to feel as if no one cares whether or not I write one more poem or essay which may (but probably won't) ever see the light of publication. And, even then, unless it's published in a major magazine, how many people will read it? And how will I know what they thought of it? Writing is like teaching without ever being able to see the light bulb go on inside the students' heads; it is the ultimate act of faith, believing that someone, somewhere is reading something you wrote and enjoying it.
So why did I take the time to write this essay, you might ask. Good question. Boredom? Frustration? The irony of writing an essay on why I don't write? Oddly enough, I've never come up with a good reason for why I write; in fact, I've given it up several times, only to return because I had what I thought was a good idea, and the only way to get rid of it was to write it out of my system. This idea, in fact, has been around for almost a year, I believe. But now it's gone and who knows how long until the next one. In the meantime, I'm sure I've got something better to do with my time.