Why-Wisdom for Fiction Writers

Notebook paper with pencil writing whyI was sitting in church the other day, listening to the sermon with my usual rapt attention, when I realized the minister was saying something about “why,” as in ultimate reasons. I suppose he was making a religious point of some kind, but my mind immediately leapt to fiction writing. Why, indeed, write fiction?

There are two bones to pick here, I think. The first is why you, dear reader, pursue the wordly way. The second is, why are you writing this particular piece of fiction?

Why Write?

To write, you’ve got to have the basic need to create. Not a longing or a hankering, but an itch you can never scratch enough. For a writer, this undeniable yen is fundamental; without it you’ll give out.

As for words, you may be instinctively drawn to the power of story and language like a yellow jacket to a picnic, just because of the way your DNA is wired. You may have a psychological need to write because of your life experience. Or maybe you just don’t have any place to paint, so you’re making do.

This first Why is the seed of your mission as a writer. Your raison d’écrire informs your choice of subject, your tone, the type of stories you choose – everything. If you know what it is, you can make those choices with more intelligence and better results. And when you get tired of the whole business, you can go back to Why #1 for a shot of ambition.

Why Write This?

The second Why, regarding why you are writing a particular piece, gets you to your theme. Theme is the thing you’re trying to demonstrate or prove in your novel. In a romantic comedy, that might be “love prevails, even for goofy people.” In something tragic, your theme might be “people can and will be noble, even when doomed.” If you really want to say something with a particular piece of fiction, that’s your theme, your second Why. Knowing the statement you want to make in your story is another thing that will keep you going when the batteries of enthusiasm run low.

Theme may not reveal itself to you right away. In my own case, I started writing Thin Spots because I thought the idea would be fun to develop into a novel. That’s no theme, though, and I may not figure out what it is until I’ve finished the first draft and re-read it. But that’s just the screwed-up method of a nascent novelist. You are far more clever than I, of course, and will figure out your theme, your Why for this particular piece, up front.

Why-dle Dum and Why-dle Dee

You may find that Why #1 and Why #2 influence each other. Writing a particular story may lead you to insights that change your overall reason for writing and, as I said earlier, your overall reason for writing is sure to influence the types of stories you choose.

Why Think About Why?

I suppose you could go your entire writing career without thinking about the Whys at all. Personally, though, I like living with as much awareness as I can, because that leads to better decisions. Knowing my Whys, as I’ve pointed out, also gives me additional resources to fall back on when my writing energies flag.

That’s all. I could write more, but I can’t think why.

Wrong Reasons for Writing

BukowskiA few posts ago I shared my thoughts on reasons to keep writing. On the flip side, there are several motivations for writing that just don’t hold water. They might keep you going for a while, but in the end they’ll spring a leak and go dead flat.

Proving Worthiness. I will here admit that as a young man I felt inferior to most other people and wanted to prove that I was worthy to walk the earth. When I found I had some talent as a writer (a debatable proposition, I’ll grant you), I adopted that as one means by which I might climb the mountain of human acceptability. It failed miserably because when my writing failed, as it did at one point, so did I. Eventually, I made (or was granted) the fortunate discovery that as a child of God or, to say it another way, an integral part of interdependent being, I was worthy just as I was. Some years after letting that discovery take root and bear fruit, I am writing just what I want to and not worried about proving a thing (at least I can say this of my better self). Don’t look to writing or any other talent or achievement to fill the void of an inferiority complex. Only love and wisdom can do that, so make those your first priorities.

You Should. Some people are good at writing, which is great. What’s not so great is that sometimes people who are good at something feel obligated to do it, even if they don’t like it that much. That’s a trap and a ticket to misery. You’re a lot more than your talents. Your being is comprised of preferences, personality quirks, learnings and a thousand other things in addition to your talents. Your obligation is to do your best, do good and do no harm. That’s it. I have a wonderful and wise young nephew who scored higher on the “verbal” portion of his college entrance exams than on the “math” portion (although his scores on both were high). When an elder suggested he look into some kind of writing profession, he replied that, while he was proficient at it, he just didn’t like writing that much. He studied Management Information Systems instead and is very happy. Take that writing “should,” and all your other “shoulds,” for that matter, and throw them on the ash heap of unhappy notions. Then do what you like.

Fame. If you’re writing because you want to be famous, you’re taking a real long shot. To be famous, you’d have to make outrageous sales, and that’s hard to do, to say the least. And even if you do move the units, there are plenty of writers out there with big sales that still don’t get recognized at the gym or put on the cover of tabloids. Who needs fame, anyway? Do you really want stalkers? Paparazzi? Increased risk of IRS audits? And say you do get famous, then what do you do? Having achieved that goal you’ll be left with just your writing, and if that’s not enough, your career is done and along with it your fame.

Money. I like money just as much as the next person, but writing for the gain of it is a killer. I tried to do it once, a few years ago. I looked at what seemed to be selling best, read some of it, read some instructive tomes and then tried to write something easily salable. The result was wooden writing and an unhappy writer. Ultimately, I stopped writing fiction altogether. Writing for money cramps your creativity and it might not work anyway.

Specialness. This is a little like fame but at a more personal level. You’re writing to be cool, so you can say at cocktail parties “I’m a writer,” or so you can look down just a little from your elevated position as Observer of the Human Condition. Sooner or later you’re going to realize that many people are better writers and observers than you, and not only that, but nobody but your mother perhaps one or two other people thinks you’re so special, even if you do write. Then you’ll be stuck in the muck with the rest of us ordinary humans.