Writing Your Book, part V: Why Bother?


When last we saw our intrepid author, she was wading into the Slog, the great morass of storytelling, character development, and worldbuilding that stretched to the imaginative horizon, keeping her from her ambitions.  Armed only with a keyboard, a thesaurus, and her wits, she strode forth, prepared to face down the horrors which, according to legend, resided in this creative fen:  the Minotaur of Narrative lying in wait at the end of a plotting cul-de-sac; the Hydra of Flat Prose that stalks her, looming over every passage, threatening to poison her tale with its noisome breath; the Charybdis of Datadump into which she might fall at any moment, never to be heard from again; and, of course, the dreaded Chimera of Incoherence, which constantly menaces her work, its fiery breath burning narrative bridges right and left.  It is hard, dangerous work, and it’s a wonder that even risks the fen in the first place.

Truly, it is a wonder.  This post is not so much a “How-To” piece as it is a “Why-do-we-do-this?” post.  All kidding aside, this is hard work.  It’s discouraging, frustrating, maddening.  Getting published at all is incredibly difficult; making a living at it is, for all but a few, next to impossible; making a fortune at it is nothing short of miraculous.  It would be so easy simply to give up.  Especially now, at the place where we are now in our “Writing Your Book” series.  We’re in that vast middle we talked about last week, the slog, I called it.  If ever there was a point in the process that would lead people just to chuck it, this is it.  Here at MW, we often fall back on the truism that we write because we love it, and that’s great.  But at this stage in the process it would be easy to call upon the wisdom of that great American philosopher, Keb Mo’, who said “That’s not love/Love don’t feel that bad…”

So, why bother?

Last night, my family and I went to see a University production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was a fine production — great costumes, sparse but effective sets and lighting, good acting; even the original music composed for the play worked well.  But these were secondary.  The writing was all.  The interwoven narratives, the poetry, the humor; the mere fact that at four hundred fifteen years old, it still makes us laugh, it still speaks to us of love and friendship, rivalry and envy.  [For A.J.’s sake, I will make no mention of the universality of the human condition, but I’m thinking about it….]

Now, I’m no Shakespeare.  No one knows that better than I do; and, forgive me for saying so, but you’re probably not Shakespeare reincarnate either.  That’s okay.  We don’t have to be in order for me to make my point.  We are writers.  This is what we do.  Sometimes we do it because we love it.  Sometimes we do it because not doing it is simply unthinkable.  Sometimes we do it because we’ve started, and we refuse to quit and so the only thing to do is keep moving forward.  Maybe, like A.J., we simply love the written word.  Maybe, we’re driven by a story or a character or a world that we can’t get out of our heads.  Every one of these is a valid response to “Why bother?”

But there’s a larger reason, too.  We might not be Shakespeare, but we’re not completely divorced from him either.  Like him, we are storytellers.  We are part of a tradition that is as old as humanity itself.  I’ve been reading Shakespeare for years.  I’ve been reading Poe, Hawthorne, and Dickens; Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck; Stegner, Proulx, and Winton.  I’ve also been reading Tolkien and Card and Kay.  All of them have shaped my work, my style, my process.  I don’t think that anyone will be reading my books four hundred and fifteen years from now (although it would be cool if they were).  I’m not even sure anyone will be reading them a century from now.  But people are reading them now, and will be for years to come.

And maybe some of them will wind up writing, too.  Just as I have had stories handed to me over the years that I have then folded into my creative process, maybe they will add my stories to their imaginative mix.  And so that narrative tradition will flow on, in part through my work, and through yours, too.  We are part of something much larger than the one book with which we happen to be struggling right now.  Without thinking ourselves the equal of Shakespeare, or of Hawthorne or Faulkner or Proulx, we can still feel a connection to them.

That’s what I felt last night as I listened to the last lines of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I’d struggled much of the day with rewrites and proofs.  When I went to the play I was angry and frustrated and exhausted.  I left exhilarated, even proud.

I’m a writer.  And that’s why I bother.

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
— Act V, scene i

David B. Coe

17 comments to Writing Your Book, part V: Why Bother?

  • I wondered if some part of that quotation was coming 🙂 I thought you would go with the slightly more back-handed “The lunatic, the lover and the poet/Are of imagination all compact.” Great post, David. You’re absolutely right. It’s not just about the need to make up stories: it’s about the need to share them. However solitary, writing is finally a communal act. In the context of your theme we might add the closing couplet from sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this [my writing] and this gives life to thee.”

    And thanks for (almost) not mentioning the human condition…

  • You know what this post was missing? An exhaustive discussion of the human condition. 🙂

    Okay, now that I got that bit of silliness out of the way, I must say that your last few posts have been paralleling my needs. I’ve been deep in the slog, trying to find my way out, and this post just helped give a little push to get me revved up this morning. Thanks, as always.

  • David – Right on the target for me. I’ve been staring down double barrels of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-this-for. Writing is quite the emotional roller coaster.

    Stuart – you crack me up

  • David, you make it sound poetic and lovely, this life of trench mouth (trench pen?), black rot, and misery, being in the trenches of the slog… I am between books, and looking back, it dosen’t seem quite so awful as it did when going through it. That is the beauty. As writers we tend to forget the bad parts…

  • First off, let me say to A.J. and Stuart that it is SUCH a pleasure having you both as part of MW. I always look forward to your comments to my posts, just as I do Faith’s and Misty’s. Thanks.

    A.J., there were so many quotes I wanted to work in; but that one seemed most appropriate. I love the line from Sonnet 18 that you quote, too. One day we should post our favorite quotations about writing. I have many of them written in a small book. Yes, we are part of a creative conversation that began thousands of years ago; in many ways, that might be my favorite part of what we do.

    Stuart, I thought it needed that discussion, too, but some people get grumpy when the human condition is mentioned…. Glad to know the posts have been helping in some small way. It’s been a fun series to write.

    Thanks, April. It is a roller coaster, and it’s so much easier to give up on it. But that’s what makes the accomplishment so gratifying. When you finish and you look back on all the times you wanted to chuck it, it makes the fact that you didn’t feel all the better. Keep at it!

    Faith, I hope to be where you are in about a month. Between Robin Hood and Thief Taker, I haven’t been between books in too, too long. Yes, we do forget the bad stretches once we’re done. It’s said that mothers forget about labor pains, too, and that this is the only reason any of them have more than one child. Nancy has made it quite clear to me, though, that she clearly remembers every contraction…

  • Douwe

    As an 18-year-old Dutch student writing his first story (I am reluctant to call it a book, it feels too presumptuous), your last few entries were really helpful.

    I suppose I am in the ‘giving up phase’, even though I don’t think I ever will :p. Creating stories is wonderful, but not being a native English speaker makes me uncertain at times – will I ever reach the level of eloquence required to hold my readers’ attention? My writing speed leaves much to be desired as well. I grab for my thesaurus every three sentences (and by that I mean google for it :D), and getting more than 500-800 words on paper per day is rare.

    But I figure the solution to these problems is simple: write more. Which is exactly what I intend to do – if nothing comes of it, at least it’ll be a great learning experience.

    P.S. the second-best solution is reading this website of course ;).

  • Emily

    Great post David!

    When I’m in the middle of it, of creating and story telling (either in my own head or banging it out on the keyboard) I love it. It is fun and passionate and exciting and all of those things that remind me of falling in love and just beginning a new romance. Even in the middle of the slog, I catch those flashes. That’s what keeps me going, to a point.

    But the other thing is sheer stubbornenss. I’ve started this, I’ve even told other people I do it (that was on purpose to create the following effect, too), so now I HAVE to do it. I refuse to give it up. I refuse to quit. Even if I never get published, I can’t not try, because if I don’t try, I know I won’t get published.

    I’m kind of a relentless optimist, too. I’m not used to failure, and it isn’t a militaristic “failure is not an option” thing, it’s just a “well, I seem to get what I want eventually, so if I keep working at this, I’ll get it too.”

    Yeah, weird, and I’ll let y’all know how it works out for me. But hey, it got me through grad school and into a job, and will hopefully get me through my third year review coming up next year and then tenure and promotion. I’ve also finished multiple drafts of one novel, and a full draft of a second. So I can finish stuff.

    Relentless optimism. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

    And even though it isn’t “Midsummer,” my favorite line in Shakespeare is Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing.” When told she must have been “born in a happy hour” she assures the Prince, “No, my mother cried. But a star danced, and under that was I born…” She’s another relentless optimist (except when it comes to me) that I admire.

  • Douwe, your English seems outstanding to me! Thanks for the comment; I’m happy to hear that you’ve found my posts helpful. I would encourage you (strongly) to take the plunge and buy yourself a Roget’s Thesaurus; the big one. It’s worth every penny, and much, much better than any online thesaurus is going to be. Plus, it works during power outages! 😉 The word count is far less important than the mere act of sitting down to write every day. And you’re right; writing more is the answer to improving all aspects of your craft. So stick with it, and best of luck! Glad you’ve been enjoying MW!

    Emily, I’m a lot like you are. I have always felt that if I stick with something — anything — I’ll get through it. That’s how I got my Ph.D., it’s how I got published, it’s how I taught myself photography. I would never say that I succeed at everything I do, but when it comes to things that matter to me, I don’t allow myself to fail. I think it’s one of my best traits, and certainly one that has been invaluable throughout my writing career. No matter how hard the challenge of what I’m trying to do with a particular book, my attitude is always “I’ll figure this out eventually, just as I did every other one. Patience, persistence, stubbornness. Whatever you call it, it works. I posted something similar to this post at http://www.sfnovelists.com last week, and compared the early part of writing a novel to the early, intoxicating days of a romance. Those are the easy times to write. As with a relationship, the hard part comes later, after that initial excitement has abated and we’re left with the realities of doing the work and making the sacrifices necessary to maintain a long term commitment. And yes, that’s a wonderful quote, too. Shakespeare did have a way with words…. Thanks for the comment, as always.

  • Wolf Lahti

    I cannot write like Shakespeare, but then Shakespeare cannot write like me.

    Only I can tell my stories.

  • Who’s this Bill Shakespeare fellow? Never heard of him.

    (sorry someone had to say it)

    Thanks once again, David from someone who is neck deep in the slog.

  • First and foremost I write for myself. There are ideas and problems I want to work out or bring to light. But I also write with the hope that people will someday feel the same excitement while reading my stories that I’ve experienced while reading other authors’ tales.

    There’s also the little sick and twisted theory that fiction writing is like a non-living psychology experiment where you can do awful things to characters that you couldn’t do to people. Drop them in a meat-grinder and see what happens in the name of social science. That’s fun too. Muhahahahaha.

  • Well put, Wolf! Thanks for the comment.

    Mark, keep slogging! It sucks; it’s not fun, but it is the only way through, and through is where you want to be. Wishing you all the best, my friend.

    Dave, that’s an interesting theory. Yes, I write for me, but also for my readers, and also to make a living. We all have our reasons. But ultimately the writing itself is what brings me back to the computer time and again. Many thanks for the comment.

  • David,

    I always appreciate your posts and have been particularly encouraged by this recent series on writers and their writing. I work a full-time day job, but writing has always been my first love – crafting stories in my head during the day then scavenging for time to write them down in the late evenings. I’m not a part of any writing community so your posts (and this blog) have helped me understand I’m not alone in the way I feel about writing or in the frustrations that come with it.

    Thanks for helping keep me inspired to continue!

  • John, thanks so much for the kind comment. Writing is a strange endeavor — like painting or sculpture — in that we do it in isolation so that the product of our labor can be enjoyed by (we hope) tens or hundreds of thousands. I’m not part of a writing community where I live, either. But I’ve come to feel that MW is my writing community, and I’m glad to hear that it serves a similar function for you. I admire you for keeping at the writing even while dealing with the demands of your full-time work. I wish you every success with your book and we’re all glad to have you as part of the MW community.

  • Well, I can’t speak for my fellow writers, but I haven’t had any complaints about the WordPress format. There are some things it doesn’t do as well as Livejournal, but there are others that it does far better. On the whole, it’s been just fine.

  • Great post, David!

    Don’t forget about those of us who write to get a little silence in our own skulls, though. The work I develope for public consumption is certainly meant to entertain, but it has not been all that unusual for me to write something that I knew was just for me then file it away (or, though I’ve recently abandoned this particular practice, delete it).

  • Many thanks for the comment, Jeremy. You’re right, of course — first and foremost our art has to be for ourselves. As soon as I begin writing work that isn’t wholly mine, my craft suffers for it. There are things I’ve written that will never see the light of day, that I wrote entirely for personal reasons. But I have to admit that this is pretty rare. I’m not above admitting that I’ll try to sell just about anything…. 🙂