We’ve been focused a lot in recent days on the challenges inherent in a writing career. Catie, with her usual eloquence and wit and style, has given us a sense of what it feels like to struggle with a book that’s more than half done; to confront that crucial scene that’s screaming to be written but isn’t quite ready to emerge. I’ve been fighting with the opening pages of my own project, trying to overcome the inertia of the blank screen. Misty has been enjoying the brilliant reviews her work has received, but she’s also dealing with the occasional bad review and the emotional cost even one bad critique can exact from a new writer. And two days ago Faith wrote a wonderful post about the physical toll of fighting one’s way through a book.
The response to these posts has been great, and we’re glad to hear from people who tell us that they appreciate our honesty. Professionals struggle with this stuff every day, and that can be a comforting thought for those who haven’t yet made that first sale, but who are already fighting the good fight.
But there’s got to be more, right? We keep on posting all this stuff about how hard it is to write, but then we say, “But I love it. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.” Okay. Why? If the brochures all read, “Be a Writer! Put Your Butt in the Chair!” we probably wouldn’t have too many writers out there. So I guess the point of today’s post is (with apologies to Johnny Mercer) to accentuate the positive.
Or, put another way, what do I love about being a writer?
Well, there’s the obvious superficial stuff. It’s very cool to see a book I’ve written in print. I really never get tired of that. And, yes, I complain about the money. (Because I don’t make all that much. And I’m one of the fortunate ones; with a few high-profile exceptions, this is not a great way to get rich.) But despite my complaints, it is pretty cool to get paid for telling stories. I love being my own boss and working at home; I love having the time and flexibility to do stuff for and with my family. I enjoy hearing from people who have read my books, and not only because it feels good to have someone say, “Hey, I loved that story,” or “Wow, I really related to that character.” I write because I have to, because I am emotionally committed to my stories, my worlds, my characters. And when someone else reads my work and taps into those emotions, it’s incredibly affirming.
But as I say, those are the superficial things — even that last one. The deeper joy I derive from this crazy, frustrating, draining profession, is rooted in the very act of writing. My job, every day, is to create; to tap into my imagination and draw from it something coherent and compelling and satisfying, not only to me, but also to my readers. A couple of weeks ago I posted in this space about creative pursuits outside of writing. I mentioned that I play music and have become a devoted photographer. Lots of people do things of that sort as hobbies, just as I do. They paint or sculpt or take pictures or write music. Many people write fiction as a hobby. Creating any type of art is incredibly satisfying, be it as catharsis or simply as a way of making something that we can then point to and say, “That’s mine, completely. No one else will ever create something that looks or sounds or reads exactly like it. It is uniquely and utterly my own.” I feel this way about my photography, and, to be quite honest, if I thought I could make a living with my camera, I might try to make a go of it.
But I’m fortunate in that I already get from my job that satisfaction of creating something totally original. And yet even that doesn’t quite explain what I love about writing. I’m actually finding as I write this post, that the question is more difficult to answer than I’d expected.
You often hear writers say, “I have to write. If I didn’t I’d go nuts.” I’ve said it and written it myself many times. There are people in my head clamoring to have their stories told. There are worlds in my brain waiting to be explored and storylines begging to be used. And it’s not just that I can’t ignore them (though I can’t); it’s that I don’t want to. Those people clamoring for attention fascinate me. I desperately want to know them. Those worlds beckon to me. Just as I want to visit Scotland and Turkey, just as I want to hike in Glacier National Park and see the Badlands of South Dakota, I want to discover these places in my imagination. There are wonders there. I know it. I want to learn their histories and their customs.
And that, I think, brings me at last to the crux of all this: the reason I love to write. The act of creation is, for me, an act of discovery. Yes, on some level I make up everything in my books. But that’s not how it feels. It feels like I’m meeting new people, traveling to new places, and coming back with wondrous stories that I then get to share with the people in this world. The best thing someone can tell me about my books is that they were transported by them, carried off to a land that captivated them. It’s not ego that makes this so special for me (at least not totally). It’s that this is precisely what the books do for me. And if I convey that to my readers so well that they can share in the experience, then I’ve succeeded as a storyteller.
Not to fall into cliché at the end of all this, but writing is an adventure. As authors, we live our books, our stories. And though you might never guess that sitting in front of a computer screen for hours at a time could be exciting, it is. For me, it’s the most thrilling job I could imagine.