Over the past five years, I’ve written nearly a dozen freestanding books of various lengths, a couple of short stories, dozens of newspaper columns and more blog entries than I can count.
Why do I do it? Why pursue an occupation that many find daunting to consider and grueling to pursue?
Because I can? No, because I must.
I don’t have any choice. “Writer’s block” to me is nothing more than an excuse not to get started (most often) or not to continue (occasionally). It’s a phantom menace, the voice of the wolf inside my head that I don’t feed very often because the other wolf is a lot hungrier.
George Orwell posited that, putting aside the need to earn a living, there are four great motives for writing prose:
Sheer egoism: “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”
Aesthetic enthusiasm: “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.”
Historical impulse: “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
Political purpose: “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
Guilty on all counts. Orwell’s “1984” left a lasting impression on me as a young adult, both for its creativity in fashioning an alternate universe and for its insights into the human condition.
I share each of the four motives he mentioned, but all of them together aren’t what keeps me writing. One thing does: Like Orwell, I’m able to create an alternate universe. And, to be blunt, I like it better there.
New worlds, old worlds
Novelists create new worlds; writers of non-fiction revisit old ones. I’ve had the privilege of doing both. As an author of paranormal fantasy/science fiction, I get to imagine what life would be like if the rules were different, if the world were more vibrant, if the challenges less mundane and the means of answering them more noble. Who wants to worry about paying bills, going to the doctor or attending some pointless meeting when you can imagine yourself slaying a dragon – or, far better yet, befriending one?
As an author of historical nonfiction, I get to travel back in time and visit worlds that have passed into memory. I wrote a book about my hometown as it was during my childhood and another about the history of a long-traveled highway. Sorry, H.G. Wells, but I don’t need your time machine. I can research and write my way back into a world that might otherwise have passed to oblivion. Talk about power. Talk about responsibility.
It’s not that I don’t like this world. I have a wonderful wife, two stepsons who are maturing into proverbial “fine young men,” a father who loves me and two cats who provide unconditional affection (they do demand a bowl of kibble and a rub behind the ears, but that’s beside the point). I live in a beautiful town where I don’t have to choose between the beach and the forest and the foothills, because it’s got all three. What’s not to like?
In response, I refer you back to the earlier reference to bills, health concerns, meetings … you get the picture.
I write because, in doing so, I can escape such mundane concerns. I write because I have the audacity to believe that I can create a world more exciting, more honorable, less bitter and less tragic than the one in which I live. A world where whimsy and nostalgia vanquish bigotry and heartache and disease – maybe not every time (a good story has to have conflict, after all), but enough to keep hope alive that I’m headed for a happy ending.
There have been times in this life when I’ve lacked that hope, and it was then that I started writing, first in the angst of teenage isolation, then in the aftermath of job loss and divorce. I suppose that means there’s something to the old cliché about affliction stoking the fires of creativity, which makes this musing something of a paradox: Torment set my pen in motion, a chariot upon which I can escape that self-same torment.
But that paradox no longer matters. I’ve fallen in love with writing, and now that life is good again, I’m not about to quit. This is one of those “till death do us part” things, with one singularly fascinating caveat: My writing will survive me, and will carry a portion of me into the afterlife of the printed page.
That’s something Orwell touched upon in his nod to egoism: Writing offers a taste of immortality achieved through memory preserved – of "memortality," if you will. (I like how that sounds.) And though it’s a taste and nothing more, it’s enough to whet the appetite for what lies beyond. In the next line, on the next page, in the next chapter.
To visit worlds where I’d like to live – and worlds that will outlive me.
This is why I write.
This is why I’ll never stop.