Why We Write is a monthly feature in “Poets & Writers” and the first thing I turn to when a new issue arrives (it has no cartoons, which is what I read first in the “New Yorker”). I’m always hoping for a concise, definitive answer to this perplexing question, something like, “Because we’re diagnosed lunatics” or “We can’t help it, okay?” or “It’s marginally better than watching the shopping network.”
Instead poets and writers offer long, graceful essays with titles like A Necessary Magic and The Landscape of What Remains, essays I enjoy but inevitably lay down still wondering, Yeah, but why? Why spend massive chunks of our this-is-not-a-dress-rehearsal lives all alone, making up people and events, dialogue and interior monologues, all this without the slightest assurance that anyone else will be at all interested? Could we please not even mention the monetary aspects?
Libba Bray is a terrific, hugely successful young adult writer whose blog libba-bray.livejournal.com is frequently about wanting to give herself a lobotomy rather than write. (I met her once, at the SCBWI conference in NYC, right after she won the Prinz Award for Going Bovine. I mean, she sat right down next to me. I congratulated her and said I had a book out on submission and could I touch her arm for luck. When the book was subsequently accepted, I wrote to tell her and she swore she hadn’t washed the arm since.) Recently she interviewed the likewise hugely successful writer Robin Wasserman, whose latest book is The Book of Blood and Shadow, about the writing process (among many other things—read the interview, it’s hilarious).
Wasserman says things like:
I am the WORST when it comes to coming up with ideas. Other writers are always whining about how they have soooo many ideas, they don’t know how they’ll have time to write them all. When they whine like that around me, I punch them in the nose. (Okay, I don’t actually do that, because I don’t believe in violence, blah blah blah, but I’ve certainly imagined it in gruesome detail.) For me, coming up with the right idea for a book is agony. It’s also agony for everyone around me. (cf the nose punching.)
On her most and least favorite parts of writing:
Least favorite: Almost all of it, after the first few chapters. I think of the middle of a book a bit like a death march. Around page 75 I become convinced that everything I’m writing is crap, and this lasts until I’m almost at the very, very end. I love preparing to write, and I love having written, and every once in a while I hit on a few pages that make me dance, but for the most part, I make it through the middle by promising myself I’ll get to the end.
Favorite: The end. Writing the last page of the book and then jumping on my couch and shouting, “I’m done!” (I actually do that. Every time. It’s embarrassing.)
Soooooo…why write? The best answer I can come up with is what happened the time I really, truly swore off writing. I was coming off a heart-breaking, soul-wrecking rejection, and decided never to put myself through that again. But after a few weeks, I started jotting a line here, a line there. They came to me, and to get rid of them I had to write them down. And you know how it is in life—one thing leads to another. What I realized then is that not writing took my world down a big notch. More than that—“real” life just wasn’t enough for me. I wanted other lives besides mine, lots of them. I’m greedy—that’s the best answer I’ve been able to come up with so far.
From Adrienne Rich, who recently died:
“I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.”