Do We Need to Explain Why We Write?
~ By Marilyn Brant
Note: This post originally appeared here.
Writing a novel is such an emotionally intense and mentally involving task that, much of the time, we writers are so caught up in juggling the details of story structure and craft that we lose focus on the ultimate big picture: Why are we writing this book in the first place?
For me, days, weeks, even months go by and I don’t think about this huge, unstated question. Oh, no. I’m too busy pondering whether the point of view I’m using to narrate my latest project is, in fact, working effectively. Or wondering if the plot and turning points that I’ve laboriously beated out (thank you, Blake Snyder) are, actually, succeeding in escalating the conflict like they’re supposed to… I spent most of the summer puzzling over the time period and the setting of my current manuscript, asking myself — and just about anyone who stood near me long enough: “Hey, do you like this idea? Does it make sense?
Is it as interesting as I hope it is?”
These aren’t bad questions, of course. But, at some point, isn’t it more important to ask myself instead: “Who else cares about this? Why does this story matter? Will any narrative choice I make mean anything to anyone but me? Is going to all the trouble to write this book worth it?”
In my opinion, there is a long and a short answer to that for each of us as we face our various projects.
The long answer is undoubtedly a complicated equation involving an analysis of our writing goals, our resources, our ability to reach readers, our desire for some of the fantasies that typically come with the writing life (regardless of whether or not we end up achieving them), like being seen as famous, earning our idea of a good fortune, winning honors and awards, battling Death in our ever-present fight against our mortality, or feeling the rush we get by challenging on paper a personal fear. Essentially, by some semi-objective means, we try to determine how capable, connected, valuable and relevant our stories are in the eyes of our target audience. How meaningful our work is, at least as deemed by the society in which we live.
The short answer is…I don’t know.
It’s kind of like asking if Love is worth it. You can try to measure the quality of the relationship by whatever scale you value most (how attracted you are to that person, how smart or kind or wealthy he/she is, how often you laugh when you’re with him/her, which ideals you both share, etc.), and you can answer the famous Ann Landers question — “Are you better off with him or without him?” — to try to get at the very core of what draws you to the relationship. But, when it comes right down to it, we all know it’s still a leap of faith. That, ultimately, we have to come to terms with our own lack of absolute certainty in regards to what we hope is our Love of a Lifetime.
Maybe that’s why, as writers, we throw ourselves so wholeheartedly into the details of the writing craft. THAT is something we do know (or, at least, we’re fairly confident people like Robert McKee and Anne Lamott have some idea ;), and it gives us hope that there are things about our calling that we can know for sure. (“Yes, third person point-of-view is definitely the way to go for this piece. No, no, don’t put the first turning point in that scene…”)
In the end, we may or may not leave a literary legacy behind, we may or may not earn much money or many accolades for our work, and we may or may not even know all of the deep-seated reasons that drew us to writing stories in the first place, but I don’t think we should have to justify our passion for writing any more than we have to justify falling in love with our spouse.
Why do we do this? Why do we write?
Somewhere inside of each of us, we know why. And though we may work hard to express every nuance in every sentence within our manuscripts, and we should be held accountable for those story choices by our readers, I don’t believe we owe anyone an explanation about what drives us to set pen to paper in the first place. We may choose to share, of course, but I feel it’s as personal a question as revealing a childhood secret. As much of an individual stamp as our writing voice. And as unique and hard-to-define as we are.
What do you think?
Marilyn Brant is a New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of contemporary women’s fiction, romantic comedy & mystery. She was named the Author of the Year (2013) by the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. She loves all things Jane Austen, has a passion for Sherlock Holmes, is a travel addict and a music junkie, and lives on chocolate and gelato.