Sunday, May 6, 2012

The "Need" to Write

"You become a writer because you need to become a writer - nothing else." --Grace Paley

"All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon which one can neither resist nor understand."-George Orwell

"I write for the same reason I breathe -- because if I didn't, I would die." --Isaac Asimov

"This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write?  Dig down into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple, I must, then build your life according to this necessity."- Rainer Maria Rilke

I come across this particular kind of idea about being a writer every once in a while. That it's a need, a compulsion. That if you aren't wanting with every fiber of all of your cells to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you somehow aren't a "real" writer. You don't deserve to be a "real" writer.

I don't think I've ever felt, or will ever feel, this way. I like writing, obviously. It's sometimes hard and sometimes fun and sometimes all kinds of bullshit. But I don't do it because I feel some encompassing need deep down in my soul, some thrumming of words in my blood. I do it because writing is a weird, constantly changing challenge: making words fit together in the way I want them to, making my writing engage with the ideas, themes and feelings I find interesting and relevant. It's a way to be in the world and a way to understand the world.

I feel like I see this WRITE OR DIE sentiment more commonly directed towards writing students and younger writers. It's supposed to be inspirational, I guess. Aubrey Hirsch wrote about this phenomenon on her blog, using an example of the famous Charles Bukowski poem "so you want to be a writer?" I can't stand Bukowski anyway, but her refutation of his rhetoric is pretty spot on. A lot of writing is work; the simple fact of fucking sitting down and doing it, whether you've got some kind of divine inspiration or not. That willingness to read more and write more and learn more and always be open to more and for more, that's a big chunk of "it," the writing life. But I'm not sure I see the writing life as a slog through some long tortuous journey of constant effort and work, either.

What about you? Are you compelled by the singing tides of your blood to write? Could you stop writing if you had to, or if you wanted to? Does it matter?


  1. Up until I was in my mid-thirties I had only written poetry and never thought about myself as anything other than a poet. Then for three years I wrote nothing and I imagined that was me done. The ability to write had vanished but the desire had not. Then one day I sat down to try and write a something, an anything, simply to feel words flowing out of me again. What I ended up writing were two novels, back to back, within six months. It took five years to polish them into something I could publish but the hard work was all done at the start. Only it really wasn’t hard work; the words just appeared on the page like at no other time in my life.

    Even after writing two books I still cringed at the thought of calling myself a novelist. It felt so pretentious. The poetry came back and I wondered if that was me done with prose. As it happens it wasn’t and I’ve written another three novels since but they have been very different beasts to those first two and I’ve struggled with all three of them. My problem is that I’m not a storyteller and so I start off having no idea where I’m going and see where I end up. And that can be scary. I say that I’ve started my sixth novel but I have no idea. That’s the problem about being online; you feel the need to tell people what you’re up to. I do know that this thing that’s buzzing around in my head won’t let me be until I give it some form; I’m just assuming that it will end up being a novel.

    Life pushes so many roles in front of us—the husband, the son, the father, the employee—that it’s hard to look in the mirror and see ‘the writer’ and imagine that he’s the real me and yet the simple fact is that none of those other roles give me the satisfaction that writing does. If my wife died tomorrow I would stop being a husband—I’ve already stopped being a son and an employee—but the idea of not being a writer is quite terrifying. During those three years when I was unable to write I felt as if I didn’t make sense, as if I’d lost a significant part of myself.

    If I couldn’t write again would I die? No, but I would be miserable; that I have evidence of. I don’t need to write every day though in fact I could subsist off a poem a month if push came to shove because I really don’t have a lot to say that I’ve not already said but the thought of never ever having anything to say again, that’s a horrible thought.

  2. I hate that Bukowski poem too. Read it when I was like 15 and even then, when I liked some of his poetry, I thought it was a crock of shit haha. The divinely-inspired-and-effortless writer doesn't exist, and it's unfortunate that so many people buy into the mirage.

    However, I do think of it as an intense need/compulsion. Of course I don't think it's that way for every writer, but it's that way for me. I've never had any interest in doing anything else with my life. My desire to write has influenced pretty much every aspect of my childhood (and adolescence), so I wouldn't be the same person if I wasn't a writer/hadn't always intended to be a writer.

    If I stopped writing now, I'd end up being a bookish housewife. I'm sure there'd be a nervous breakdown or two along the way, but I would never try to kill myself. I imagine it would be awful but I'm sure I'd manage.

  3. See Helen DeWitt's comment for a pretty sweet rebuttal:

    Piggybacking on part of what she gets at, I think it's kind of bullshit that these quotes tend to take their measure of "writer" from "someone who makes it big as a writer." These quotes always seem predicated on the notion that writers make it big because they are passionate and ceaseless, but you, (student) (unpublished) writer, shouldn't want or expect anything of the sort from writing; if you're not doing it out of ceaseless passion, you're not doing it right. So you ought to expect to come to nothing, unless you expect to come to nothing just hard enough--in which case, you just might get to make it big.

    Expecting nothing of writing is a pretty good position, in my opinion. But surely people can expect nothing and produce little. Or expect nothing and love writing little. Why would it make a difference? Those quotes would do better, I think, to dispel the idea that being a writer means anything beyond producing writing. I don't think there's much use in "being a writer" as a frame of mind. At any rate, it's when I try to think of myself that way that I get most anxious and messed up about the whole thing. I write, sometimes. I am many things before I am a writer. Maybe someday that'll change. I'll keep doing my writing and let it play out how it will.