I’ve thought a lot about this: why we write. Lord knows, there are easier ways to spend your day.
One of the dirty truths about writing is that it’s a hell of a lot of work. No matter what offerings I make (and there have been many), the words refuse to write themselves. They are selfish and lazy little bastards.
To be entirely honest, there are plenty of times I want to walk away and do almost anything other than write, but for some reason, I don’t. And a lot of my writer friends don’t either. Time after time, we find ourselves drawn back to the desk or the laptop or the pen and paper so we can hash out the things that are banging around inside our head.
Now you might be saying to yourself, “Wow, Larry. That sounds like a stubborn group of people who really have a thing for emotional agony.” I wouldn’t disagree with you. But I also admit that I proudly count myself among their numbers, and I think the answer to why we keep at this writing thing goes deeper than our being a collection of people whose particular kink is self-induced frustration.
The quick answer, and probably the easiest to grasp at, is that my writer friends and I are inherent story tellers. We can’t help ourselves. If we weren’t putting words on paper, we’d probably be cornering our relatives to tell them about an idea we had, or we’d be chatting up strangers in grocery store checkout lines, seeking validation for thoughts that we just couldn’t keep to ourselves.
I think the need to be heard goes a long way to explain our drive to communicate, but the act of broadcasting our message isn’t enough. We also need feedback, an interaction of some sort between ourselves and the audience. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter whether it’s positive or negative, especially if you’ve written something you expect to be polarizing.
The main goal in telling our stories, whatever they may be, is to be acknowledged. Appreciation and admiration would be freaking glorious, but for now it’s enough to have people engage you on the ideas you put forth, as opposed to them being interested in critiquing your writing style. (Admittedly this is a necessary step in your evolution as a writer, but it’s nice when you finally get beyond it.)
Even if we accept that our writing is an attempt to connect with the larger world around us and somehow impart our own, unique point of view, I think this explanation still falls short in explaining why writers do what they do. The odds are long, and nothing is guaranteed. Why then do we continue to fight this fight and pursue publication like it’s a holy relic that will save our kingdom?
In a word: death. We are finite; sometimes words are not.
Being forgotten is both lonely and terrifying, and for those of us who continue to hammer away at our keyboards, writing is perhaps our best shot at a legacy. If we work hard enough and long enough, we might get lucky and produce something that outlives our own brief existence.
For those of us who have families, I understand the argument that our children are our legacy. I get that sentiment. But I also think about that afterlife mythos that says once you leave this earth you continue to exist as long as someone living still remembers you. When the last person holding your memory dies, you too fade into whatever comes next.
I’m not saying I buy into that particular version of the hereafter, but the idea resonates with me on a deep and desperate level. I have lain awake at night, worrying that I might die before I make any significant mark on the world. I’ve spent sleepless hours berating myself for not being further along on projects and for not devoting the time necessary to achieve my goals.
These things never bothered me when I was younger. There was always time enough to get things done. But now math isn’t the friend it once was.
I think about my age and compare it to the life span of your average American. Then I consider what I could do to squeeze a few more years out of this body, and I measure that up against the things that I most likely will do, regardless of the long term benefits. There are only so many years left in the tank, and not every waking hour can be devoted to writing.
I have to take what I can when I can. Write whenever the opportunity presents itself. I have no idea what story will finally elevate my name from the ranks of the unknown, but the more I produce, the better my odds are of writing that story before my time runs out.
It’s my best shot at being remembered.