Sunday, October 08, 2017

We ask the old question: why do writers write?

When we speak about books, we often speak in the singular case: the writer's vision, the poet's voice. We talk very little of writing communities. Writing is a solitary pursuit. Beginning in childhood, we are influenced by our family and friends and teachers. The media, too, of course, a factor that surrounds us in 2017. But what turns this interest into a passion? The rewards can be substantial. Fame and riches await.

Pause here for laughs.

There are easier ways to get rich. So why do writers persevere?

My parents were readers but not writers. My father was an accountant, my mother a nurse. They read books. They bought books and took us to the local library. My mother often joked about writing a book. She had subjects: nine kids, plenty of pets, a profession that put her in contact with suffering and transcendence, skill and ineptitude. She was sociable. She had friends. She had a career, unusual for that generation. 

My father read books and hung out with his kids. He had few friends, typical of his generation of men. War chums, college friends, a few relatives. He only had one sibling and they didn't get along. On occasion, my Catholic parents made babies. How and why they did this remains a mystery. They left it to the nuns and priests to explain it to us. They were no help.

I grew up surrounded by mysteries. I remember things forgotten by my siblings. Or they remember things differently. What is memory and why does it play such strange tricks on us?

I thought about this yesterday as writer Sharman Apt Russell explored the reasons that writers write. She presented the morning talk at Literary Connection, the annual literary gathering at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne. Russell and fellow writer Craig Johnson were part of a long line of writers who have appeared at this conference. I've attended every one going back at least a decade. Annie Proulx, Tim O'Brien, Kent Haruf, Laura Pritchett, Pam Houston, Mark Spragg. Those are some of the names you might recognize. There are so many others. Ernest Cline attended one year to talk about his best-seller "Ready Player One," now being turned into a film by Stephen Spielberg.  Connie May Fowler talked about her southern heritage and her work. Her 2005 novel, "The Problem with Murmur Lee," is one of the best books I've read with a Central Florida setting.  It's simply a great book. I had a hard time finishing her memoir because the pain and the person it was happening to were so real. I blogged about Poe Ballantine's 2013 appearance at the Literary Connection. I read his true-crime book "Love and Terror on the High Plains of Nowhere" and was dazzled by it. One of the book's subjects did not appreciate my commentary. The book world is sometimes a very small place.

Russell began to write when she was eight years old. Not unusual for writers. Her father, a test pilot, died when she was two.

People write, Russell said, for many reasons.

"We love to read, particularly when we were children," she said. "Those who fell in love with reading as children, it's entered your bones. You want to be part of something that's given you so much."

So true. My parents read to me. They taught me, and I read as soon as I could. I have fallen out of love with books and reading and writing on many occasions. I keep coming back to it, probably because it's in my bones.

Writers like to play. We make up stories to learn how to survive as a human and to try on other roles, as actors trying out different characters. We are storytelling animals. It's part of our engagement with the world.

"When you write, you find your thoughts being clarified," Russell said. "It's your conversation with the world."

Writing is discovery. It helps you to be vulnerable and honest.

Russell thinks you not only should write a book but publish it. Technology has never made it easier to publish, whether it be with a small press or one we call our own. You can publish online. You can publish here. You can publish there. You can publish anywhere.

This gave me hope. Most writers worry too much about publishing. I do. It's the goal of our writers' critique group. We want to be better writers. But we also want readers.

"Getting readers is the follow-through for writers."

She half-jokingly wrapped up her talk with this: "If you are spending a lot of money on therapy, just write books." And it got a big laugh. I thought to myself: "I spend my treasure on therapy and also write books."

In my next post, I'll post about the other co-presenter at the Literary Connection, Wyoming mystery writer Craig Johnson. 


RobertP said...

So the answer is not To get to the other side???

Michael Shay said...

That is correct! On the other side, another writing challenge awaits.