Sunday, October 9, 2011

Do We Need to Explain Why We Write?

by Marilyn Brant

Writing a novel is such an emotionally intense and mentally involving task that, much of the time, we writers are so caught up in juggling the details of story structure and craft that we lose focus on the ultimate big picture: Why are we writing this book in the first place?

For me, days, weeks, even months go by and I don't think about this huge, unstated question. Oh, no. I'm too busy pondering whether the point of view I'm using to narrate my latest project is, in fact, working effectively. Or wondering if the plot and turning points that I've laboriously beated out (thank you, Blake Snyder) are, actually, succeeding in escalating the conflict like they're supposed to... I spent most of the summer puzzling over the time period and the setting of my current manuscript, asking myself -- and just about anyone who stood near me long enough: "Hey, do you like this idea? Does it make sense? Is it as interesting as I hope it is?"

These aren't bad questions, of course. But, at some point, isn't it more important to ask myself instead: "Who else cares about this? Why does this story matter? Will any narrative choice I make mean anything to anyone but me? Is going to all the trouble to write this book worth it?"

In my opinion, there is a long and a short answer to that for each of us as we face our various projects.

The long answer is undoubtedly a complicated equation involving an analysis of our writing goals, our resources, our ability to reach readers, our desire for some of the fantasies that typically come with the writing life (regardless of whether or not we end up achieving them), like being seen as famous, earning our idea of a good fortune, winning honors and awards, battling Death in our ever-present fight against our mortality, or feeling the rush we get by challenging on paper a personal fear. Essentially, by some semi-objective means, we try to determine how capable, connected, valuable and relevant our stories are in the eyes of our target audience. How meaningful our work is, at least as deemed by the society in which we live.

The short answer is...I don't know.

It's kind of like asking if Love is worth it. You can try to measure the quality of the relationship by whatever scale you value most (how attracted you are to that person, how smart or kind or wealthy he/she is, how often you laugh when you're with him/her, which ideals you both share, etc.), and you can answer the famous Ann Landers question -- "Are you better off with him or without him?" -- to try to get at the very core of what draws you to the relationship. But, when it comes right down to it, we all know it's still a leap of faith. That, ultimately, we have to come to terms with our own lack of absolute certainty in regards to what we hope is our Love of a Lifetime.

Maybe that's why, as writers, we throw ourselves so wholeheartedly into the details of the writing craft. THAT is something we do know (or, at least, we're fairly confident people like Robert McKee and Anne Lamott have some idea ;), and it gives us hope that there are things about our calling that we can know for sure. ("Yes, third person point-of-view is definitely the way to go for this piece. No, no, don't put the first turning point in that scene...")

In the end, we may or may not leave a literary legacy behind, we may or may not earn much money or many accolades for our work, and we may or may not even know all of the deep-seated reasons that drew us to writing stories in the first place, but I don't think we should have to justify our passion for writing any more than we have to justify falling in love with our spouse.

Why do we do this? Why do we write?

Somewhere inside of each of us, we know why. And though we may work hard to express every nuance in every sentence within our manuscripts, and we should be held accountable for those story choices by our readers, I don't believe we owe anyone an explanation about what drives us to set pen to paper in the first place. We may choose to share, of course, but I feel it's as personal a question as revealing a childhood secret. As much of an individual stamp as our writing voice. And as unique and hard-to-define as we are.

What do you think?

Marilyn Brant is the award-winning women's fiction author of According to Jane, Friday Mornings at Nine and the upcoming novel, A Summer in Europe (Kensington 11-29-11), about which Publishers Weekly said, "Brant's newest distinguishes itself with a charismatic leading man and very funny supporting cast, especially the wonderful elderly characters with their resonant message about living life to the fullest." She also writes light romantic comedies and has release two digitally -- On Any Given Sundae and Double Dipping. She eats a lot of ice cream.


  1. Well said, Marilyn! It's strange that we even get asked a question like, "why do you write," when I'm not sure stock brokers or engineers are often asked, "why do you do that?" I think it's because we can't NOT write. And, you're right, it is a little like falling in love and deciding our lives are better with this love in it. Anyway, enjoyed your post so much, as always! :-)

  2. Lovely post, Marilyn. Food for thought. I write because I'm hooked on it. Whenever I take a break I really miss it.

  3. What I do know about why I write is, that like teaching, it's not for the money (though I wouldn't mind it being so!), but for the drive that compels me to connect with others. Maybe even generations of others.

    Thanks for this post, Marilyn.

  4. Susan, LOL! Thank you. You're so right! I'm not sure anyone else in my family is questioned about their career choices as often as I have been ;). It's funny to even think about it. I may have to start shooting that question at everyone at the next family dinner. "So, why accounting?!"

    Karin, I really miss it when I don't get to write, too. There must be some kind of endorphin associated with creating worlds and characters...

    Christa, thanks! I think that desire to connect is a huge one for many writers, myself included. And, for me, I'll add there's always been a sense of gratitude, too, because I'm so thankful to writers who wrote words I needed to read, generations before I even realized I needed them.

    Wishing you all a wonderful day!!

  5. Marilyn, beautiful, thoughtful post. Love this: "It's kind of like asking if Love is worth it." Thanks for sharing!

  6. Joni, thank you so much!! I'm so glad you enjoyed it ;).

  7. Marilyn - I read a blog a while back about how if someone isn't sure they're a writer, they might as well just give it up. It went on to say that writing is a very difficult iffy way to make a living and if you have the choice, just say no. I laughed, because just about everyone who read the blog doesn't have a choice. It's what we do, who we are. It's part of our DNA, I think. I might not have always made my living writing, but I've been a writer since I first held a crayon and penned a story--or should I say crayoned a story.

  8. Robin, I know!! I've read posts like that, too, and it's actually kind of funny to think that we have that much of a choice... We can choose not to seek publication, of course, but I'm pretty sure we're unable to choose not to think like writers do...not to imagine all of those constant what-ifs... Thank you! You're right -- it's just who we are.

  9. Marilyn
    I enjoyed your post. I feel as I have little choice but to write--I mean I am crazy either way--but according to the hubs I am substantially less crazy on the days I put pen to paper--sanity, I guess. I write to maintain my sanity.

  10. Maggie, I can relate to that (and I'm pretty sure my husband can, too :). There is a kind of calming quality about the act of writing itself... I don't know what makes it so but, I agree, it helps keep the chaos at bay, LOL.

  11. Beautifully written post, Marilyn! I love the questions you raise-- why do we write? Will anyone care? Things I think about all the time!

  12. Thanks so much, Brenda! I find myself thinking them as well ;).