“Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer. There will be a long build up to publication day, and then the festivities will be over rather quickly … There are areas full of potential for rich reward, where your life and your sense of self and of abundance really can be changed.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
In this month’s Writers Ask Writers post, we are trying to tackle the tricky question or why we write. And it is a tricky question, or at least it’s tricky to articulate an answer to something that is just deeply felt and innately a part of us and something we accept without question—that we just have to write. So that’s why I’ve started with another writer’s words, other writers always being wonderful to fall back on when you are lost for words, and when you feel you need a greater authority than that which you possess.
So is what Lamott says true? Partly. I think publication did change my life and it did make me more confident. Once I knew my first book was going to be published, I began to say I was an author when people asked me what I did. I admitted my secret passion aloud. I also gave myself permission to spend more time on writing, because I felt that if I’d had one book published, I could perhaps get a second or third book published; I did become more confident. But Lamott is right when she says that writing won’t make you rich or beautiful. Well at least neither of those things has happened to me—perhaps my fellow writers in this series may have had better experiences! But Lamott is right when she talks about a sense of abundance, and I will come back to this in a moment.
On giving back
I also had a look at what Margaret Atwood had to say on the subject. She once sat down and wrote a list about why she wrote, It was a very long list and here is an abridged version:
“To record the world as it it. To set down the past before it is all forgotten. To excavate the past because it has been forgotten. To satisfy my desire for revenge. Because I knew I had to keep writing or else I would die. Because to write is to take risks, and it is only by taking risks that we know we are alive. To produce order out of chaos. To delight and instruct. To please myself. To express myself. To express myself beautifully. To create a perfect work of art.”
Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead.
And she continues on through various other reasons such as “to thwart my parents”, “compulsive logorrhea”, and “to give back something of what has been given to me”.
Aha! I thought when I read that last one. That helps me to put into words my reasons. Because my reasons have to do with being a child and then a teenager and then a young woman and now a much older woman who still finds herself lost in the world of a book. Books are glorious things. A good book allows you to love another life, to become a part of someone else’s story, to experience things you would never experience in your own singular life. Through books, I have been to midnight feasts at boarding schools and drunk lashings of ginger beer, I have fallen in love a thousand times over, I have cried over the loss of a girl who wasn’t even real, but who has felt real, for the four-hundred pages I was privileged to share with her.
On trying to create for others what I’ve experienced in reading a book
And that is why I write. To try to hand over the same things that I have experienced in reading, to my readers. To try to create a world in which my readers can lose themselves, a world that feels real for the time they are within it, and to create characters that are like people, and who my readers feel something for. That, for me, is the true meaning of Anne Lamott’s idea of abundance. Because when I am given a story by a writer, I feel it as an abundance: an abundance of experience and of emotion and of people. Sometimes I receive letters from readers who thank me for my books, and I hope it is because they feel the same: that I have given them an abundance of something other than just words in my book.
I am going to hand over the last words on the subject to Anne Lamott, whose book Bird by Bird is wonderful, by the way, if you haven’t yet read it. She says that she writes:
“Because of the spirit. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.”
I wholeheartedly agree.
My five writerly friends have also put into words why they write, and please take at look at their responses because I’m sure there are as many different replies to that question as there are writers. Amanda Curtin finds herself aligned to one of my favorite writers when she quotes, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” I love the way Dawn Barker describes that moment of realisation when you know you love writing so much, you will do anything to fit it in. Sara Foster returns to her earliest compositions to help her explain her reasons—I’d love to read Susie and the Green Washing Machine! Annabel Smith reveals that she actually wanted to be an actress when she was younger and I have to say I think she’d have been a rather fabulous one! And I can certainly relate to one of Emma Chapman’s reasons, about the writing lifestyle: the flexibility, the empowerment and the independence.
What do you think? If you write, what are your reasons? Do any of mine, or any of the other writers’ reasons resonate with you? And if you’re a reader, why do you read? What do you find in a book that you can’t find elsewhere?