Why do you write?
The question was put forth on a writing board I frequent. In turn, I passed it on to the Terrace Writers’ Guild and to Procrastination, an online writing forum that I help moderate. It wasn’t a new question for me to ponder—not by any means. For as long as I’ve been compulsively scribbling stories and jotting down interesting phrases and descriptions that catch my imagination (so since I was eight), I have tried to understand my burning desire/need to.
But no matter how often words fail me—or rather, I fail them—I keep digging. And over the years I’ve arrived at some of the reasons for my obsession. I’ve hinted at these reasons in columns and shared a bit about them on my website, but I’m never fully satisfied. There’s something else out there, some core motivation that is so deeply blazed on my soul that I can’t begin to explain it—it just is.
However, as often happens when I have something in my head, every idea or concept I come across seems somehow related to it. The latest stirrings of synchronicity involve the chance discovery of William Faulkner’s speech at the Nobel Prize Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1950, and a chunk of text excerpted from Stephen King’s novel, Bag of Bones, in which the main character, a writer named Mike Noonan, makes commentary on how he keeps going as a writer. While the latter doesn’t go exactly to the “why do you write?” question, in my mind, it still fits—speaking of the perseverance, the doggedness, the You Do It Because You Must sentiment that sits in your belly if you’re a writer.
As I read their words, I felt, Yes, of course. That’s it exactly. And of course, it really isn’t…. Perhaps there is not be all, end all “IT” when it comes to why one writes. But still, I offer the quotes in the chance you’ll read them and have your own lovely, possibly teary and sobering, reaffirming moment.
(And as in so many things surrounding writerly inspiration, I have to thank Jen Brubacher for pointing to both of these, although I’ve known and loved the S.K. one for a long time—what would I do without your amazing blog?!)
William Faulkner’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1950, as quoted from Nobelprize.org.
“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work — a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.
“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
“He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
“Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
“This is how we go on: one day a time, one meal at a time, one pain at a time, one breath at a time. Dentists go on one root canal at a time; boat builders go on one hull at a time. If you write books, you go on one page at a time. We turn from all we know and all we fear. We study catalogues, watch football games, choose Sprint over AT&T. We count the birds in the sky and will not turn from the window when we hear the footsteps behind as something comes up the hall; we say yes, I agree that clouds often look like other things — fish and unicorns and men on horseback — but they are really only clouds. Even when the lightning flashes inside them we say they are only clouds and turn our attention to the next meal, the next pain, the next breath, the next page. This is how we go on.” ~ Bag of Bones, by Stephen King