As I promised yesterday, I’m thrilled to be visited today, not by one author, but seven remarkable women answering the question, “Why I Write.” Normally, I’d probably break up this post up but there is power in reading their stories one after another. So I couldn’t do it. I hope you’ll read all the way to the end. It is worth it, I promise. 🙂
I’ve always written. As a child it was stories about witches burning to death from smoking in bed, perhaps presaging the medical opinion pieces I now write for The Sun newspaper. As a student I wrote music reviews, which got me into the best gigs in Cambridge, but writing was just a hobby till I began making money from magazine columns. The articles in Punch were frivolous, though the other pieces were drawn from my experience as a doctor. I then had a run of non-fiction books, and last year I published my novel One Night at the Jacaranda, which is finally the kind of book I’d most like to read myself for pleasure.
Why? has to be one of the most complex questions people ask me, and also the most frequent. You’d think after five years of being asked Why? I’d have prepared an answer. But my initial reaction is always, I don’t really know. Erm … because?
I write what I’m inspired to write, and inspiration comes in various forms, and often in no form at all, but as a mere sweep of energy that tempts me to sit down and type. Sometimes I type not knowing my intention, creating characters out of thin air who eventually become fully-developed creatures who star in the show. Sometimes, like with White Lady, the star of the show doesn’t show her face until the third draft and I am forced to reshape the entire book around her. So, as you can see, there is no why, but there is definitely reason. I suppose that reason is, “because I love it.”
I hate to sound clichéd, but writing, for me, is something I do because I would dissolve into nothing if I didn’t. I really hate saying something like that. I know so many writers play the “I can’t not write” card, but I truly think it’s because it’s so irrevocably true. You’ll see we work so hard for very little return when you compare the hours we put in with the money we make. Any logical person would think thrice about diving into such a profession. But we don’t. And that determination can only come from a deep desire to fulfil ourselves creatively.
Some writers do have a distinct message they want to expose through their books before they begin writing. Those writers would be able to answer the question Why? pretty easily. I am not one of those authors. If there are messages in my books, they develop and grow organically, without my interference. But now that White Lady is complete and on bookshelves, I would say that message is the following: The power of unconditional love can be scarier than having a knife held to your throat.
It took me some time to work out that the common theme running through my novels is the influence that missing persons have in our lives. (This shouldn’t have come as any great surprise to me since the death of a friend was what set me on the route to writing.) In my experience, that influence can actually be greater than that of those who are present. In Half-truths and White Lies it was parents who weren’t around to answer questions. In I Stopped Time, it was an estranged mother. I addressed the theme head-on in A Funeral for an Owl which considers teenage runaways. And in An Unchoreographed Life Belinda grows up without knowing who her father is. Fiction provides the unique opportunity to explore one or two points of view. It is never going to provide the whole answer, but it does force both writer and reader to walk in another person’s shoes. And, in many ways, it is the exploration and not the answer that is important.
A lot is written about how essential it is to define your goals before you start writing. I disagree. I think it’s OK to have changing definitions of success. My background is business, and if it is obvious that your budget is unachievable by the mid-year point, you damned well revise it.
It took me four years to write my first novel while working full-time. My only goal was to see if I could finish a novel. To be honest, it seemed a vain ambition. I completely sympathise with Costa prize-winner who says that she was embarrassed to tell anyone that she was writing a novel. It took me a long time to have the confidence to show my writing to anyone else but, once I started to get good reactions, I set my next goal: to find an agent. I found an agent, I set my next goal: to get published – which I did by winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award. Defining long-term goals can be off-putting if they seem like impossible dreams. There is also a danger that you may end up feeling as if you have failed personally, when the industry we operate within and reading trends move on so rapidly. I find it better to take one step at a time, setting lots of short-term achievable goals. Self-publishing has given me back complete creative control. My ambitions now centre on taking my fiction in new directions – and that simply wouldn’t be possible if I were under contract.
As a small child I loved stories. When I ran out of stories to read, I made them up. My brother was five years younger than me and I used to terrify him with tales of creatures with eighty legs and strange animals that came out of the skirting boards while we were asleep. When he had nightmares, my mother blamed me. ‘You have too much imagination,’ she used to say.
Where did this come from? I had no idea.
As I got older I invented a whole world of people and places and animals and I lived in it just as much as the ‘real’ world. It had a daily newspaper, its own history and a special language. A girl with a name very similar to mine, exactly the same age as me, lived in it and had adventures and I knew everything she did and said and I wrote them down in a series of notebooks that I still have.
My father’s family was Irish, second generation British, and my relatives were all story-tellers. We lived on a remote farm in the Cumbrian Fells without electricity or running water of the piped variety (though there was plenty of the other kind) and very little money. It was an unusual childhood; no television; no neighbourhood children to play with. I learned how to milk cows and herd sheep. Both my parents were addicted to books, though on a small marginal farm there wasn’t much leisure time. Mum read novels and biographies; Dad fell asleep in his chair reading history. They were both given to quoting poetry and my mother could recite great chunks of Shakespeare from memory. Her favourite play was The Tempest.
When I was about nine years old I wrote a poem called ‘Ariel’s Lament’, which was about the sprite Ariel, imprisoned by Sycorax the witch in a tree, and my teacher sent it off to a magazine. When they published it I really couldn’t believe that they were my words in print. I can still remember the feeling it gave me to see the poem in black and white on a page. I think that’s the moment I became addicted to writing for publication. At twelve I started writing small pieces for the local paper and a couple of teenage magazines. In my spare time I was filling notebooks with poems and stories – writing was all I ever wanted to do. But in a small rural environment there was no one to tell me how to become a writer. I left home at sixteen and eventually went to London where I thought I might find out.
In London I had lots of different jobs, lived in a bedsit, and wrote a novel full of teenage angst and loneliness which I sent to a publisher whose address I copied from the cover of a book in the library. They sent it back with a very kind letter saying that they liked it a lot, but it needed to be re-written if it was to be published and they made some very helpful comments. At the time all I saw was the rejection and threw it into a box at the bottom of the wardrobe. There was no-one to give me advice. I got married, had children, and gave up submitting anything to publishers, though I never stopped writing.
The breakthrough came when I was living in the middle east, an expatriate wife, bored and restless, and was invited to contribute to a new radio project being set up by a BBC producer seconded to the gulf state of Qatar to develop English broadcasting there. I leapt at the chance and the training they gave me was exactly what I needed. Writing and producing programmes for radio was a kind of story-telling that was very familiar. It was through working for the BBC that I wrote my first published book. Since then I’ve published fifteen – a mixture of biography, fiction and poetry.
Why do I write? I still don’t have any idea – it just seems to be an addiction. All I know is that I’m absolutely miserable if I’m not writing. Perhaps it’s the Irish genes?
I don’t know when writing first got into me, but I became aware at quite a young age that I was supposedly disposed to it. School teachers commented that I was good with words. They also said, less appreciatively, that I had an overactive imagination. Essays usually turned into fictions. Pen pals were treated to long and glorious texts, which they may not have enjoyed quite as much as I did.
My grandfather died and left a skinny portable typewriter with no letter T. From that day my bedroom resounded to furious hunder. By backspacing I overlaid an l on an r, and then I was rattling away – though my oeuvre at the time was science fiction, because I was at a girls’ school and sci-fi annoyed everybody. I probably liked that more than the sci-fi itself.
In particular, it annoyed the A level English literature teacher, who we all quailed before. While other teachers just taught, she evangelised, and made you believe literature was life itself, the single most important invention on the whole of planet Earth.
At the end of the summer term that year, there was a party. My Englit teacher cornered me, wanting to talk about the essay I’d done in the recent exams. I shuddered, wondering what crassness I’d committed, as I’d amused myself by riffing about the character of the Wife of Bath. ‘You should write novels,’ she said and fixed me with a look that said I should take her very seriously. It affected me more than I could say. Until that moment, I was the peculiar odd one out – shy, bookish, never noticed much. This statement, from such a person, was like receiving a vocation.
So, the page is my playground. What sends me there? Good writing – any beautifully executed novel fills me with the urge to make. I can’t breathe without getting ideas. Life bombards me with them. I’m always mishearing names or remarks and sometimes they won’t go away, like grit in the eye. Some are like moments in dreams, potent with meaning but obscure. They might stay vague for years. I have one novel idea that is a cover, a title and a location and two years on I still don’t know what it is or how to use it. Blink, though, and it’s back.
I’m always asking ‘why’. That’s how I had the idea for My Memories of a Future Life. If you can visit past lives through hypnosis, why can’t you visit future ones? And another ‘why’ – why does this bother me, far beyond the intellectual puzzle? What is it trying to say? Writing stories is my crusade to fix in amber the things that enchant me – and in so doing, to show them to others.
Why do I ask why? I don’t know. I just do.
Here’s another reason I write. I like close contact; mind to mind, one to one. The other day a broadcaster friend was telling me how she loved radio because it was so intimate – just the listener and the voice. But I find prose is the ultimate intimate. The voice, if you are aware of one at all, is a mix of the voice of your own thoughts and the author, hypnotising you with what’s on the page. We do this just with words, squiggles in ink or pixels. That’s magic. In My Memories of a Future Life, there’s a scene where the narrator plays Chopin on the piano and looks around afterwards at the faces of her audience. They’re all open, affected, moved. ‘That’s why we play music,’ she thinks, ‘to do that to each other’. And, bombastic as it may sound, that is why I write.
Why I write: Because it keeps me sane
If I didn’t write, I’d probably be in a twelve-steps programme or taking some very strong medication. The activity of turning words into sentences, stories and poems has made, and kept, me sane and happy for twenty-five years now. I know if I hadn’t taken to it as I did during my troubled teens, the side of me that likes to snivel and snark, dramatise and despair would have been given far too much time out in the world. Thanks to writing, I’ve done most of my drama on the page.
Why I Write: Because it’s magic
Those of us who are lucky enough to be literate can take writing for granted. We forget it is magic of a very advanced kind. These dark marks on a light page manage to hold millennia of knowledge, wisdom, information, opinion, emotion, inspiration and entertainment — and all capable of being communicated to each other across time and space.
As a human breakthrough, the invention of writing ranks with that of fire. It enabled us to create complex social structures, fundamentally changing how we live together. Without writing, there would be no science, no history, no cinema and, of course, no literature. Writing enables us to know which human attributes we share across history and geography and which are unique to our own people and places. It is the human achievement that literally underwrites the others. And I get to do it. Every day.
Why I Write: To take me into creative presence.
I write and teach poetry as a way of developing creative presence, that sense of co-creating the moment we are in with the mysterious fabric of life and the creative spirit that moves within it. I love Japanese poets like Basho and Shiki, who strip all down to a single image, or two in juxtaposition, to give us a jolt into the here-and-now, the sort of poetry that nobody in the Western tradition seems to have written between Chaucer and William Carlos Williams.
Why I Write: To save myself
Every writer works within a tradition, in my case two: the Irish and the female. When I was being educated In Ireland in the 1970s and 80s, the classic British canon was what we were mostly taught: Shakespeare; the big 19th century novels; the civilised essays of satire or pronouncement; the meditative or witty poems with clear closure. Alongside we were taught a separate strand called “Anglo-Irish”. This claimed Irish literature Nobel winners, Shaw and Yeats and Beckett, back from the perfidious, plundering Brits and celebrated rural poets like Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke.
This reading-list was what the greatest of those rural poets, Seamus Heaney, has called “a kind of force-feeding” for an Irish girl and woman of my time and place. It didn’t echo the way words are used on a female tongue or observe women’s experience and offer it back to us in arrangements that made us see or think more clearly—the job of writing, to my mind.
It offered none of the delights of surprised recognition that I now see as so important when teaching people to love writing — and love their own lives. Still I found enough nutriment in it to make me want to be a teacher of English literature. The idea that I could be vested for the calling of writer wasn’t something I could even imagine at that point.
It was the struggle for reproductive rights in my country that brought me to my own thought, to the creative effort of claiming life through my own body, and mind, and imagination. My novels and poems are my way of chalking “Ms Kilroy was here”.
Why I Write: Because it’s hard
“Those… who are most wise,” said Years, “own nothing but their blind, stupefied hearts.” It’s not easy to own, or own up to, our own blindness and stupefaction and work out what it means in words, Two great essayist-poets, Adrienne Rich and Eavan Boland, have my undying gratitude for their wise articulation of what it takes for a woman to express her own experience, reveal her own texture and touch, and take herself seriously. Again Seamus Heaney has a beautiful image for it; he calls it breaking “the skin on the pool of yourself.”
As a writer, you do what it takes to break that skin, in response to some impossible-to-explain, un-namable need. You drop into the pool of yourself, down to the depths of the imagination and return to watermark life with your own pattern of experience and perception.
In the doing you forge vows that you inevitably break. You work harder than you have ever worked at anything else and see yourself fall short. You read back words that took weeks to compose — and hate them with a nauseated passion. You feel in your core what Iris Murdoch meant when she said: “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.”
But somewhere along the line, you come to know that it’s the struggle itself which, by some mysterious alchemy, turns this activity that seems so self-obsessed into something you’re doing for others too. If you can only get it right this time, you just might touch another imagination. If you really get it right, you just might move another towards their own self-expression. That’s the difficult, self-saving, spirit-stoking, magical, sanity-protecting lure to which we devote our lives.
Who could ask for anything more?
WHY I WRITE: Joni Rodgers
I write because I’m a writer. I didn’t always know that, though I always loved language and storytelling. I was a voracious reader from age four, and like any of a million talented dabblers, I scribbled and scrawled through my teens and 20s. I never even imagined doing it for a living until I was diagnosed with blood cancer in my early 30s.
In the crucible of chemotherapy, writing was my life raft. I had no immune system, which meant mandatory isolation. That gave me the space and quiet to write 16 hours a day simply because I loved placing words in rows. This purely creative purpose breathed joy and peace into what was otherwise a very dark time. My prognosis was poor; I was told I’d live five years if I was lucky, and my son and daughter were just five and seven years old. When I started seriously pursuing a publisher for my first novel, I was driven by the reality that this book might be the only way my children would ever really know me.
My first two novels were published as I struggled in and out of remission. Writing a memoir about my cancer experience was a tremendously healing process, and the response to that book taught me how to use my creative purpose in service of others, which made it a life purpose. As the crucible moment evolved into a long career, I’ve tried to hang onto the joy and peace of pure creative purpose. I truly believe it’s why I’m still alive 20 years later. Perhaps that’s the short answer to why I write: in my heart of hearts, I still feel that if I stop, I’ll die.
I told you it was worth it. I hope you’re as inspired by the words of these wise women as I was. And if you had a favorite “why I write” story, please share it (though how anyone picks a favorite…). You know I love comments. I enter all of them into my monthly drawing for an AnaBanana gift basket ($25 value). I announce a winner the first blog post of the new month.