Recently, my wife asked me why I wrote. Though a majority of writers would have a default or romanticized response, I found myself perplexed, slouched against the cushions on our sofa, without a clear, decisive reason for why I had chosen to, not only write, but to get a graduate degree on the craft. Often times I ask myself this question and coerce my own thoughts into thinking the pursuit is a noble and lucrative idea. But those replies are always intrinsic or typed, never voiced. When those green, inquisitive eyes stared back at me, the moment to verbally speak my purpose or reasons for writing faced their moment of truth. The shaky mission statement of my craft no longer felt as stolid as it did in my mind. Doubt set in and fear that the reason for writing would come off as a shallow or abstract purpose, perhaps comical since my wife shares in my misery as a writer, financially and emotionally.
So there I sat, speechless and shrugging, unable to fully acknowledge the gravity of such a simple question. Why do I write? The succinct sentence was really asking much more. What is my vision? Do I have a passion for writing? What do I hope to accomplish? Who am I writing for? Question after question snowballs from the simple sentence: Why do I write? Every writer or artist has asked or been asked this question. In my experience, if you proclaim yourself a writer and don’t struggle with this question, you are not really a writer. You are just someone who writes. Creative people struggle with this ontological dilemma because what they create is sacred to them. It is not only a personal extension of their vulnerable selves, but also an expression of their innermost thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. Regardless if they claim they are mere conduits of their creation, implicit in each character are traces of their creator. The good, the bad, and the ugly. For the spiritual writer, the question Why I Write becomes not only an examination of the self, but the self in conjunction with the ethereal. As you can see, such a simple question unearths a host of complex, self-reflective inquiries.
Why do I write? Since the moment on the couch, I have investigated the true nature of my decision to write and, frankly, there is no definitive answer I can give to encompass the tumultuous cauldron of emotions and desires and rationale swirling inside the mind of someone who chooses to torture themselves with the act of writing. In my introspection, I came across what I can best describe as truths. Truths of my vision, my passion, and my fulfillment as a writer. I listed them because I like lists and they are easy to read. Even if each list has ten paragraphs attached to a number, somehow being in a list makes everything acceptable.
Writing is a catharsis. A release of not only my conscious thoughts but that untapped cognition buried in the reserves of my mind. For me, writing fiction allows me vision to see the world. To examine, probe, and question what I see of both the justice and injustice around me. From the corporeal world, I write to find meaning of the depravity and the ecstasy of the sublime. To understand how the beautiful and the grotesque can coexist within humankind. To mine deeper into the psyche of the world which, in turn, leads to the most sacred part of my purpose: the quest for the divine. To experience and grasp the mystery inherent in life and how God’s fingerprints dust everyone and everything. In the most elementary words, I write to rid me of myself and find God somewhere in the cracks of my intruding cognizance. It is in that place of introspection where I find a semblance of clarity. By clarity, I am not referring to answers. There is mystery in life and part of the mystery is beyond human recognition nor is it important to always know, but to seek. When we seek, it is the journey where we find peace in the mystery. Too many people have to have the answer to why or what, especially when they read fiction. But the reason for why we do what we do, why we dedicate our time and talents to a certain activity or purpose, is part of the divine mystery beyond human recognition. It is in this mystery I submerge myself and, when I embrace the mystery of the natural and supernatural life, I find a liminal landscape where a clarity of unknowing is welcome.
Other writers preach that you should write for yourself and not to an audience. In a sense, I agree. It is a sin against your talent to create for the sake of appeasing others, especially when no reward of fulfillment or passion is within the work. I can say, without sounding like a sell-out, I want to write for others. I am not saying I don’t write for myself. Everything I write, whether short fiction or an essay or a novel, derives from my own personal interests, desires, and passion. I write the stories I find of worth if I were to read them. Works that challenge, implore, exhort, and impart an element into the reader’s life.
In an interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy stated he cares for writers who “deal with issues of life and death.” His remarks geared towards writers like Henry James and Marcel Proust whose subjects seemed, to McCarthy at least, to have superficial dilemmas. I have to agree with the old recluse. This sums up my same sentiment on what constitutes literature and, because of this belief, I strive to tell stories of similar gravitas. Not that everything has to be as bleak or hostile as The Road or Blood Meridian, but the essential function of fiction is to teach us how to live, to illuminate the positive and negative subtleties of the often used ‘human condition.’ By focusing on serious issues, I strive to not only understand the bizarre human tragedy myself, but to centralize the issue foremost in the reader’s consciousness. Much like Between Lions and Lambs dealt with the duality of religion and the rampant hypocrisy within its leadership, the book also sought to comprehend how such a devolution could occur in an individual of such high, spiritual caliber. Yes, reading the book can be a downer at times, but those who have read it have closed the book dwelling on the issues brought forward from the text. This very reason is why I write for others. To write is to engage in a mission. Not necessarily to preach or impose my own perspective on others, but to raise questions, to ignite discussion, to cause introspection within the reader.
Some people may want to skip over this reason because it speaks of faith which people tend to dismiss. So, for those who find God or religion or faith abhorrent, skip to the next session. For all others, stick around. Flannery O’Connor said, “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” As a writer of faith, I attribute any talent I may have as a gift from God. And any gift given by God is to serve a purpose. Since God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, I trust the purpose and plan set forth by him/her is far more meaningful and fulfilling than any vision conjured in my mind. Which is why, as a writer, the words from me are orchestrated and structured by God. Doug Rice used to say our stories are smarter than we are and, in a sense, I think he is right. Robert Olen Butler also likens writing to a transcendent experience where we tap into a dream space and write from our subconscious. I agree with both opinions, but the transcendence or unconscious erudition that comes through in the stories I tell comes from a source outside of my being. Not hidden stories tucked in the recesses of my brainwaves but a conduit, a funnel, through which the supernatural utilizes to conduct its own business and intentions. It is only fair the talent given me be given back as a means of use to the one who gave it to me in the first place. This knowledge that my writing is not my own lessens the burden in a way. What comes to fruition on the page will come. I just have to get out of the way and not intrude.
I’m not going to lie and feign nobility by saying I don’t care about making money for my creative work. The potential for fame and celebrity hold no motivation in my writing. Preferably, I’d like to be left alone with my family and write from some remote place in the wilderness. But, though I hate its very existence, I do need money to live on. To be able to make enough of a living from my books and other writings to sustain my family’s needs and focus on the task of simply writing would be sublime. So, a small portion of why I write is the distant hope of the possibility of making an adequate sum from what I love doing. For anyone, especially millennials, having a job that fulfills more than the girth of our wallets supersedes an occupation for the sake of making truck loads of cash and a nice pension. Yes, I want to make money for my writing. And, despite what academic or literary minded artists will tell you, they would not pass on a big fat book contract should a publisher come calling.
In the words of Flannery O’Connor, “I am a writer because it is the thing I do best.” This may come across as arrogant but most of us do the same thing. We lean to our strengths and embrace what we excel at save for Rudy Ruettiger and all he got for his tireless effort was the chance to play four downs in a blowout win on the last game of his collegiate career. He is the exception. I am a good writer and that is a hard thing to tell myself sometimes. On other days, it is harder to convince myself of this fact. I’ve won awards, had a myriad of fiction and essays published in journals and magazines, as well as written two books and have actually had good reviews. And though these accomplishments sound all good, finding validation for yourself is hard to grasp. I, just now, have the confidence to assert the fact, and truly believe, that I am a talented writer. But it has not been an easy road and the girth of my rejection letters continues to grow but I am trying, no matter how feebly, to rise above the negativity.
These five reasons come from my examinations of my choice to continue to write. There might be more but this is all I’ve got at the moment. A lot of times, I second guess myself and an overwhelming notion that I have wasted hours of my life strikes me but I always return to the answers contained in this essay. They may not be the right reasons and differ for many others of the same vocation, but they are reason enough for me. The key is fighting through the doubt and remembering the question: Why do I write?