Why We Write

By Victor DiGenti

Asking a writer why he or she writes is like asking Peyton Manning why he throws a football or Wynton Marsalis why he blows the trumpet. We do it because we’ve found it to be the best way to express ourselves. In a way, writing is an obsessive-compulsive behavior. We write because we don’t have a choice.

Those of us attempting to put words on paper in a meaningful way are miserable when we’re not writing, or as I’ve been known to do, finding excuses not to write. Early in life I realized I didn’t have the athletic abilities of a Manning, or the musical chops of a Marsalis. Instead, I was able to string words together in such a way others would give me precious atta-boys. Okay, it wasn’t the same as being the star quarterback on my high school team, but as an impressionable adolescent I welcomed any kind of positive feedback I could get.

For example, I recall taking second place in an essay contest in the sixth grade. As a reward I received a $25 Savings Bond and took part in a special assembly where all the winning authors read their entries. I was terrified. I stood shaking before my 400 classmates and vowed never to enter a writing contest again.

Then they applauded.

In my seventh grade English class we ventured into creative writing and I tested my teacher’s patience with a series of silly sketches that brought howls to my classmates. Perhaps my obsessive-compulsive psychosis began the day Mrs. Martelli sent me to the principal’s office after I read my story about a thinly-disguised witch-like teacher named Mrs. Martini.

Some people think writing ability is nothing special. Bad boy coach Bobby Knight comes to mind. He once said, “All of us learn to write in the second grade, but most of us go on to greater things.” Of course, this was a reaction to one of his well-publicized feuds with journalists, but despite his contempt I would place writers on a higher pedestal. Since the publishing industry is a $20 billion business, most people, other than Coach Knight, obviously have a high regard for writers.

There must be as many reasons why writers write as there are writers, but I still believe it comes down to the fact we’re driven to do it. That doesn’t mean it comes easy to us. In his recent keynote talk at the NE Florida 1-day conference, bestselling author Steve Berry reinforced this notion several times, saying, “People tell me that my job (writing) must be fun. Fun? No, writing isn’t fun, it’s work. Hard work.”

But like every other form of work, the more you do it, the harder you work, the better you get. Berry had 85 rejections with five different manuscripts before finally selling THE AMBER ROOM. His last novel, THE ALEXANDRIA LINK debuted at #2 on the New York Times list. Along with hard work, the other trait he learned was persistence.

I’ve also heard people ask when we can consider ourselves writers. Is it when we first sit down to write? Or is it when we publish our first article, short story, poem, or book? Maybe that’s a question we each have to answer for ourselves, but don’t make the mistake I once made. I’d just begun my talk at a retirement facility and told the group my career had been in broadcasting, but I always considered myself a writer. An elderly gentleman in the first row turned to his companion and in a stage whisper most of us could hear said, “The real question is does anyone else consider him a writer?”

Be that as it may, most writers want to see their finished work in print. Why is that? Probably because we’ve spent so much time working on it we want to share it with as wide an audience as possible. And there’s the dream that keeps us going. You know the one where you see your book on the New York Times Bestseller’s List. Or the dream where you’re being interviewed on the Today Show by Matt Lauer. My favorite dream is seeing my book made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman and she asks me, the author, to accompany her to the premiere. Sorry, I tend to get carried away when I dream.

Why is it, though, most people who write aren’t doing it as a hobby? It seems every time I turn around I meet someone who has written a book and is trying to get it published. Where are the Sunday writers out there? The people who, like Sunday painters, are doing it as a hobby?

In his wonderful book, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Lawrence Block addresses this very subject. He talks about the thousands, maybe millions of people content to dab paint onto canvases, and some of them very good painters indeed, with no real intention of ever selling their work. Or the people who snap photographs as a hobby. Or the craftsmen who knit and make quilts and throw pots. Do they expect to profit by their interests? Probably not.

Most do it because they enjoy the process of creating a watercolor, capturing a family image on their new digital Nikon, or sewing colorful scraps of cloth together. Unlike those acts of creativity, writing, according to Block, implies an act of communication. “If a story is not to be read, why write it down in the first place? An unpublished piece of fiction is an incompleted act, like a play staged in an empty theater.” So writes Block.

And what are we to make of this phenomenon? It goes back to my first point about writing being an obsessive-compulsive behavior. Hobbyists can unwind after a tough day at the office by whittling or gardening or painting. These activities probably release endorphins and help these people relieve stress. They might even describe it as fun.

Can we say the same thing about writing? Remember Steve Berry’s contention that writing isn’t fun, it’s hard work. Most of us want to profit from our hard work.
Certainly, there are Sunday writers who enjoy crafting a poem or writing a family memoir without any intention of publication. There may even be some who write fiction as a hobby, but be careful. Be very careful. If you join a writer’s group and receive positive feedback you may be encouraged to enter a contest. If you happen to take second place who knows what might happen. The siren call of success will surely lead to those mesmerizing dreams and before you know it you’re hooked.

And then it’s no longer fun. It’s hard work. Better to stick with gardening or better yet, reading. Now there’s a hobby I call fun.

This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.

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