Today is the National Writing Project’s National Day on Writing. To commemorate the occasion, the Project is asking writers why we write.
I write for all sorts of reasons. I could say that I write because I have to, that it’s a part of me that insists on coming out, but in many ways that’s too easy an answer. Part of me likes the feel of fingers flying across a keyboard (alas, loving that feeling is probably why I’m now fighting carpal tunnel and trying to adjust to dictation software). Part of me likes to see the way pages pile up with things that I wrote. And of course, it’s a way to explore and organize our own thoughts, ask and answer questions, and delve into who we are. But for most of us, those things can be accomplished in other ways, so writing doesn’t necessarily have a monopoly there.
Many years ago, I saw a Family Circus cartoon in which one of the children declared that he loved books because they “turn on pictures in your head!” Writing is like that, only in many ways more powerfully so, at least for me. Sure, there are times when writing is a slog and nothing comes and the whole thing seems like an exercise in frustration. But in those magic moments when the words just come, the action just happens, it’s like being on a roller coaster. I know where I’m going, but there are highs and lows, moments that come from nowhere and those that I’ve been building up to for pages and pages and finally get to see how they play out on the page. When I hit that zone, I can hammer out ten pages in an hour or two–and in acknowledgment of what that takes out of you, I usually feel like I’ve run a marathon afterwards.
There were stretches of my MFA thesis novel, THE SILVER CHILD, that were written that way, and among them were some of the most powerful moments in the book, at least for me (I don’t presume to speak for anyone else!). I landed in that zone, much to my surprise, when I started torturing one character—well, my characters did that, of course, but I realized after I’d written the better part of a chapter in one sitting that I felt like I’d done it. (I genuinely felt bad about treating a character I really loved so badly, but there was no way around it.) I’ve always known that I inhabit my characters as I write them—I don’t know how I could possibly do them any justice if I didn’t imagine myself in their shoes, after all—but that experience taught me that perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they inhabit me.
As someone who can barely stand to watch a movie like Schindler’s List, because the horror of what humans are capable of doing to humans really undoes me, it came as a great surprise to me to realize that I suddenly understood what underpins torture, be it mental or physical. It’s not just the power dynamic, though that’s certainly a major factor. It’s what that power dynamic does to the person exercising it. I finished writing and literally felt this rush, like I was high, and I certainly felt incredibly powerful. I hadn’t even done anything more than imagine doing it, admittedly in more detail than we might ordinarily do. I’m sure I learned a lot about being tortured, too, but if I did, those things were far more subtle and were overshadowed by the physical reaction to my detailed imaginings.
I was more than a little horrified by the way I reacted to writing that chapter, and the ones like it that followed—though at least I knew what to expect after that point. (It never disturbed me any less as the book went on, though.) I didn’t expect to learn that much about myself while I was writing my novel, and if I had, I wouldn’t have expected it to come directly from the experience of writing down a scene. I thought I might learn about my process (I did), or about how to construct a novel (did that, too), but this was on a completely different level. I’ve had characters surprise me before, or moments where things fell together in a way I never expected, but perhaps because it was a subject completely new to me, this experience was radically different than anything that had ever happened before while I was writing.
When it comes down to it, I write to get to know my characters, and to find out what happens to them, and certainly to ask questions about society and our beliefs/values/ideals, and for the fun of playing around in their universe and exploring possibilities. But now I don’t think you can write without learning about yourself, whether you actively seek that new knowledge, or it comes to you as a result of the process—and it seems to me that that’s as it should be.