13 Apr Why Writing?

I just returned from the amazing annual conference of AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), which must be the largest of its kind in the world — it drew over 8,000 poets, novelists, playwrights, and short story writers for four days of panels, discussions, and celebrations of creative writing. Twenty years ago, the conference drew a few hundred participants. The growth of the conference mirrors the growth of writing’s popularity in the U.S. Twenty years ago, there were only about 50 academic programs offering degrees in writing. Now there are over 500.

As a result, our nation is rich with writers. This remarkable growth of an art that makes little money — in a time of dwindling readership —  raises the question, What has happened? Why are we seeing an unprecedented number of people, young and old, clamoring to write? Here are some possible answers.

1) Writing is a dream of independence, the well-worn fantasy of living the artist’s life, answering to no one but yourself and an artistic vision that will make you beloved and rich.

2) Writing is power, a means of influencing others, of having a say in the world, of making yourself a leader, an oracle, a guru.

3) Writing is an answer for those who can’t find answers elsewhere — it offers the promise of control or stability or access (to power, influence, etc.). Because it doesn’t cost anything, because it’s portable and self-contained, it looks especially attractive to those who don’t have as much as they would like to have.

4) Writing is play and, now more than ever, an increasing number of people want to play. In the not-too-distant past, grown-ups did not allow themselves to play. Most adults of my parents’ generation seemed to be done (“old”) by the time they turned forty. They were very serious about growing up and most determined to “settle down,” buy the big house, and make good money as soon as possible. But no more. From the baby boomers on, we have cultivated a culture of entitlement: we feel we deserve to spoil ourselves and express our inner child (see “Sesame Street”) and liberate our dreams. Life is short. So write on!

5) Writing is an obsession, an inexorable call to wrest sense from frightening senselessness (take #3 and multiply it by 10). Writing is the web that holds the fragments of life together. Sometimes it is the only thing that holds. If you don’t do it often or regularly, you feel yourself falling apart. This would explain the diary of the late Reverend Robert Shields, as reported by London Times:

He spent a quarter of a century chronicling his life in five-minute segments. In his journal he faithfully recorded his reflections on God and his every visit to the lavatory. He even taped a nostril hair to its pages so that future scientists can study his DNA.

He slept for just two hours at a time so that he could record his dreams. He had three dozen ways of describing the act of urination. At his most prolific, he wrote three million words a year

Many years ago, when somebody asked me why I write, I surprised myself by saying, “I write to be loved.” I knew immediately that this was true. If –- with writing — I can make something beautiful enough, enjoyable enough, sensible and solid enough, then everyone (or almost everyone) who reads it will love me. I suppose this is a variation of #2. And this is the reason I enter writing contests. Every win is a hug and a kiss.

Is that a good reason to write? I don’t know that I can judge. It’s what I do. I couldn’t stop writing even if I tried (but why would I try to stop?). I see now that all five explanations factor into my motivations for writing. I keep at it not because I’m obsessed (though it is an obsession) but, mostly, because I’ll never get it right. Sometimes, though, I come close in little ways and that makes my mouth water and my head spin and I think, Man, that felt good. Let me try it again. . . .