The Writing Rookie #1: Why We Write; or, Jonathan Runs Out of Excuses

Wm writes: I've been after Jonathan Langford off-and-on to guest post here at AMV. In the 10 years that I've been participating on the AML-List, Jonathan has been one of the most thoughtful, interesting contributors (he also moderated it for several years). So I am delighted to bring you the first post in his The Writing Rookie series.

For the complete list of columns in this series, look here.

Author's note: This is the first in what is intended to be a series of blog posts, issued at irregular intervals, describing some of the insights and mishaps I've encountered in attempting to get started with my own creative writing. Any inclination to view these insights as in any way authoritative should be tempered by the knowledge that thus far my efforts have been untainted (as it were) with publication success . . . 

I've spent a lot of my life not-writing, or at least not-writing stories.

Back in late elementary school, I decided against a writing career, even though I loved to read. Even so, I spent a lot of time plotting out stories -- purely for my own entertainment, and as a kind of shared creative activity with my best friend. (Years later, my son did the same thing with his best friend. Now he's a math major, his songwriting and video game design purely a hobby -- or so he claims. Time will tell.)

In college, I wound up running around with the science fiction and fantasy crowd: editing the student magazine, helping to run BYU's substitute for a science fiction convention, and even participating in the same writing group as Dave Wolverton, Shayne Bell, and others who have actually gone on to become published writers. Several people complimented me on my story critiquing and editing, though my actual creative output was always low.

And then my career detoured, and instead of winding up as an English professor I became a freelance writer and editor, mostly in the field of educational technology. For health insurance and a more steady income, there was my wife's job as a math professor. For creative stuff, I participated on AML-List, wrote Christmas newsletters (I'm told that my "future projections" newsletter -- describing the accomplishments our family would like to be able to brag about in the coming year -- is a classic of its kind), and produced various other musings for the amusement of my family and friends. When that wasn't enough, I cooked (and gained weight). And the thought of creative writing receded further and further into the background.

And then I woke up one day -- strangely near my 40th birthday -- and it was like a timer had gone off. "Ding! Okay Jonathan, time to write."

Frankly, it scared me out of my mind.

There's something to be said for starting one's writing career during the first flush of youth, when one is too stupid to know just how bad one's writing is. Then too, there's the particular pressure that comes of knowing that one ought to be able to write well: as a professional writer, a wide reader, a trained critic, a careful researcher, an experienced critiquer, I really should possess most of the component skills of successful creative writing. Except, maybe, for the plotting and storytelling part. How hard could it be?

Answer: very hard. For me at least.

I tried. I really did -- right up to the point where I looked at what I had written (and showed it to a few people) and saw just how badly it was going. Then I went off to lick my wounds, and do some more cooking, maybe gain a few more pounds, and basically do what I could to distract myself from the writing I wasn't doing.

Several years passed in this fashion. Every now and then I'd pull out the story I'd been working on and do some fiddling with the plot. Or I'd do a little worldbuilding research. Or I'd write a paragraph or two, or jot down an idea for some hypothetical story I might someday write.

I'm not entirely sure what got me going again. Mostly, I think it was that the internal pressure simply got to be too much. I wrote some doodles that will NEVER see the light of day (under my own name, at least), and finished up a novella I'd started six years before. And then I spent some time thinking about a story idea I'd had a number of years ago but did nothing about, and how it could be turned into a novel.

And I've been tinkering away at things, slowly but more or less steadily, for about a year now. I don't know where it's going, but I'm trying to find out.

######

So just why do we write, anyway?

I have a friend who, as I recall, sat down and made a rather cold-blooded calculation to become a writer, based on his skills and competencies and the kind of life he wanted to live. High on his list of priorities, I believe, was avoiding a career as a butcher (his father's business) or prison guard (something he did to make money for college). At a rough count, he's up to about 20 published novels. I hate him.

Similarly crass calculations played a part in my decision. The kind of writing-for-hire that I do fluctuates greatly and could evaporate if my contacts run out of work for me. (It happened one horrible year.) I started speculating on what kind of work I could do during the slack periods -- ideally, something that would leave me less dependent on trends in my particular industry. Writing, and particularly creative writing, would fit the bill nicely, if I could make a go of it.

And then there's the desire to try my hand at something I've often thought about. See if I have what it takes to write the stuff that I've loved reading. The challenge factor.

Frankly, though, neither of those would have been enough to keep me writing after I'd experienced just how painful it was going to be, watching myself write crap and then have to ask for people's opinions about why it was crap. Writing of any kind runs an enormous emotional risk -- at least, that's what I find. All the worse when it's something you've created more or less entirely out of yourself. For those of us who don't have a terribly high opinion of ourselves to start with, it's not the safest thing to do to one's self-esteem.

######

Balancing the inherent masochism of the exercise, it's my theory that what has kept me writing so far is the desire to communicate.

I'm a socially motivated person. I like spending time with people, talking to people (face-to-face or at a distance), getting to know people. Part of what I've always liked about literature is the feeling of truly getting to know the people I'm reading about. Characters are my friends.

Writing stories, I find, is the same kind of activity -- taken to another octave of intensity. The horrible vulnerability that comes in story-writing is the flipside of this desire to reach out and connect to other people on the kind of personal level that comes with creating something that touches your readers.

Or at least, so I imagine. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and seeing as how I haven't actually been able to persuade anyone to sit down yet and take a bite, I can't really speak that much to the accolades that come to the chef...

But that's a topic for another post.

18 thoughts on “The Writing Rookie #1: Why We Write; or, Jonathan Runs Out of Excuses”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Mine are pretty similar (except for the other-writing experience.) My current problem is trying to carve out personal time to write. It’s easier to just play computer games, which I can do while my wife constantly interrupts me. =)

    Also, my plot is really limited. Needs more substance.

  2. FHL,
    Plotting. Yes. One of these days maybe I’ll post about my own frustrations with plotting.
    Carving out time to write isn’t so much the problem for me. It’s making sure that I actually write with the time that I have. (Answer: not nearly as much as I should…)

  3. I have charted a similar course to Jonathan’s and so when he sent me this first guest post, it really resonated with me. I can’t wait to hear more.

    And speaking of plotting…

    I have claimed in the past that blogging has not interfered with my creative writing because before I began blogging I wasn’t do much creative writing anyway. But recently I came to a realization — I have a very difficult time writing long form (even long short stories). I much prefer to work with short forms. And I wonder if blogging has anything to do with it or whether that’s just the kind of writer that I am. I think part of it may also be that my creative writing seems to be happen best as a 60-90 minute chunk every 3-4 weeks. And it’s hard to get real momentum with a novella or novel that way.

    So yeah, a post about plot would be great.

  4. Wow. It’s nice (sort of) to hear that other people have the same struggles I have. My only time to write is on the train to and from work and it can be hard to get into the right mindset and put out anything productive in the course of that trip. Strangely, I can blog when it’s slow at work (I have kind of an on-call sort of job – almost like a firefighter) but since I someday hope to make money with the things I write – both for print and film – I think it’s a conflict of interest for me to work on those on my employer’s dime. Then there’s the side business, which eats up any free time at home, for the most part. So yeah. I can relate.

  5. Jonathan, welcome to AMV! I hope you enjoy your stay.

    I’ve mentioned this here before, but in his book Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, John D. Niles says that rather than classifying ourselves as Homo sapiens (“wise” or “rational” man) we ought to call ourselves Homo narrans, “storytelling” man. Storytelling is, he says the chief basis of culture:

    It is through prized stories, often enshrined in a ritual context, that a complex religious dimension is added to life. It is also through storytelling … that people articulate their cherished values and, by playing with modes of reality other than the merely palpable, make possible a future that differs from what now exists.

    He asserts that narrative plays a crucial role in human evolution. Which is why we should call ourselves “storytelling man”: our narrative drive, he believes, not only has set us apart from other species but enabled us to advance at a faster pace. I’m not sure about that part, but I know that storytelling plays a vital role in my personal evolution.

    __ __ __ __

    Wm, I started with short, tight forms m’self, thinking I was a poet. I can be a poet, but all along, as poet Keith Wilson told me, I was searching for a longer narrative form. (I always wanted to get that put on a tee-shirt: “Poet in search of a longer narrative form.” My brother prints tee shirts — maybe I’ll ask him to make a couple up for me.)

    My own development as a writer, which is still unfolding, has gone through numerous narrative incarnations. If someone had told me before 1999 I would write a novel, I would have told them to get real. Then, after the novel, blogging? Expansion, contraction. It’s all good.

    Just write. And remember to put on clean socks every day. (Hm, do you even wear socks?)

  6. Great post. I have thought about this subject as well. Here’s my rough preliminary attempt to put my thoughts down:

    1. Compulsion. More and more, I think that many writers feel compelled to write by something unspeakable inside them. The facts: there is a glut of narrative art in the world, and I pity anyone who hopes to make good money on creative writing. The odds of achieving that kind of success may be better in professional sports. Yet many people, including me, still do it. Is it vanity? The dream of immortality? A salve for personal trauma? I have no idea. Insert psychology of creativity here.

    2. Communication. I write because I want to connect with people in a particular way. Important aspects of this particular form of connection: on one side, it characterized by extremes of premeditation, composition, and control. On the other side, it is all intimacy and vulnerability. This is a powerful juxtaposition. In this regard, I think writing relieves common forms of self-expression anxiety. Examples: (1) the experience of wanting to say something but holding back (for reasons of propriety, tact, fear, etc.), and (2) the experience of coming up with what should have been said or done after some potent experience. Writing permits creative rewriting of one’s world and experiences.

    3. Love. There are two sides of this. The expression of love (for the craft of writing itself, the subject written about, and the audience). And the love writers hope to win through their work. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Everybody wants to be loved. Writers want an audience. And they want the audience to love them.

    4. Time for Writing and Actually Doing It. I have commented at AMV before about a fairly well-known author (around these parts anyway) who told me to stop mourning the fact that I had to work (at something other than creative writing) for a living and challenged me to write for one hour each day. Similarly, the good writing guides I have read all have advice along these lines: Start writing. Do it today. Writing is the only way to become a writer. I think this is superb advice. I have followed it at times. And I have duly flaggelated myself for not following it most of the time. I tell myself as I settle in for an hour of TV (instead of writing!!!) before bedtime: “well my friend, your decision not to write today surely says something about how serious you are about writing.”

  7. Oooo, Shawn, I like your #3. But may I suggest that at some point a writer ought to relinquish the motive of writing to win love. More important is the writer’s learning to love well, and leave the reader’s response to him- or herself.

    Many is the time I have been praised for my writing, only to discover later the congratulations overlay nightmarish misinterpretation or other awkward intentions. People respond for their own reasons, many of them only incidently related to your intent for your work.

    Unless you’re into being loved for the wrong reasons?

  8. S.P,
    I like your thought, “on one side, it characterized by extremes of premeditation, composition, and control. On the other side, it is all intimacy and vulnerability.” Yes. Vulnerability and intimacy as the end product of a deliberate process of composition.

    Also: in talking about love, let’s not forget love for our characters. Certainly it’s not the only stance one can take toward them, but it’s a powerful one. I’ve had the thought before that writing can be a kind fo love-letter to the world around us…

  9. I can’t not write. Even if it’s only in my head, it will stay there until I can write it down. But it’s being written no matter what, whether I want it to or not.

  10. “[L]et’s not forget love for our characters.”

    Agreed. There is something magic about the work of authors who seem to have real sympathy for their characters.

    “[A]t some point a writer ought to relinquish … Unless you’re into being loved for the wrong reasons?”

    Who can afford to be so picky? You describe a luxury I do not understand. (I kid. I kid!)

  11. I agree with Patricia that it’s probably better to give up writing to win love, if we can. But I’m not so sure it’s possible, seeing how much of everything in our lives is done (at least in part) in order to win love.

    Even if winning love isn’t our motive for writing, I think it’s often almost impossible to avoid feeling a connection between people’s acceptance (or otherwise) of our writing, and their acceptance of ourselves. Shortly before publication of The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in a letter to a friend, “I am dreading the publication, for it will be impossible not to mind what is said. I have exposed my heart to be shot at.” That pretty much says it all.

  12. Who can afford to be so picky?

    Aha, Shawn’s easy.

    And am I dreaming? These guys putting words out there like “vulnerability,” “intimacy,” “self-esteem,” talking about winning love through writing, and about their hearts? Their hearts?

    Wow. Just … wow.

    I’m almost afraid to say anything. But here goes …

    If you write to love well, then almost certainly, love will rise in response. Writing to love well isn’t the same thing as writing to win love, is it? Quite possibly, the community that rises in response to the language of a writer who loves well, or who is learning to, will be a different kind of community, a different kind of audience than the one that rises in response to language geared to win love, even when both audiences are composed of the same people. Writing that loves well releases creativity in its audience members, giving them something they can make something of, something that will provide increase. In my imaginings, a writer who provokes creativity in his/her audience members acts in faith, allowing said members whatever nature their responses take. Sometimes this will be intimacy of extraordinary quality. I know I’m repeating myself here, but between writers who really like each other and between writers and audience members who really like each other, some linguistic DNA is likely to be exchanged. Life will be begotten.

    I like all this talk of love in writing. But if we’re going to talk of love, then let’s look at the language carefully. Absolutely, I believe love to be part of the creative drive. Writing to win love? Clearly, people do that. Is writing to win love enough to carry a story or essay or poem as far as it can go or as far as it needs to go? Maybe, maybe not.
    __ __ __

    About loving one’s characters: I’m giving up satellite TV because the trend in scriptwriting these days appears to be to not allow characters to have anything meaningful, except maybe what passes for “hipness.” Not allowing characters to have anything except meaninglessness IMO is abusive of the characters and of the audience. I mean, aren’t we talking about people’s hearts here? 🙂

    I know Mormon writers can do better than that. If they can handle the fertility or potency of writer and reader response.

  13. On second thought, I don’t like the word “handle” in that last line. It’s careless. What I mean is something more like this: If they can allow and provide for the fertility and potency of writer and reader response.

  14. Patricia,

    I probably agree mostly with your your cautions about writing to win love–though I think that as with many of our other endeavors, one of our motivations for opening up to others through writing is to invite a similar kind of confidence in turn. While not precisely the same as “writing to win love,” that’s very close.

    I also like your thoughts about “writing to love well,” but wonder whether (on a practical basis) this isn’t something of a circular definition. I.e.: Writing to love well does these things. How do you tell if writing is writing to love well? If it does those things.

    What kinds of stylistic or rhetorical characteristics would you point to, that distinguish writing to love well from writing to win love? Or even writing to love well from writing that doesn’t love well?

  15. Fun questions, Jonathan. Let’s see where they take us. Can’t cover everything without writing a whole post in response, but here’s a start.

    First off, I’m not making a point about how we ought to write so much as posing another possibility for why we might want to write.

    It really doesn’t matter to me if a person’s motives for writing include a desire to invite confidence or win love. Those aren’t bad reasons for writing at all, though writers acting out of those reasons might find themselves frequently suffering pangs of aggravation, and readers of said writers might at times complain of feeling betrayed. But if the economy works — the give and take flows freely between the writer sending words out to inspire confidence and his/her audience members who offer confidence and love in return for words they find valuable — then that bespeaks a balanced relationship, although at times it might prove to be precariously balanced.

    It’s also something of a contractual one.

    The phrase, “writing to win love,” suggested to me “writing to be well loved,” since a wide range of relationships exist that people consider loving. I put the phrase “writing to love well” out there in quick counterpoint.

    Stylistically and rhetorically, writing that loves well employs metaphor, image, irony, and numerous other tropes and figures of speech to generate a range of meaning wherein audience members can move according to their own creative needs. Writing that loves well has a storyline but isn’t stingy with it. If audience members, bringing who they are to a work, find something different there, that’s okay–unless, of course, someone uses the language to justify becoming an axe murderer or starting World War III. The first goal is to provide language and storylines that open up narrative options for readers of the work.

    Elsewhere I’ve used the phrase “sustainable language.” “Sustainable language” is language that makes it possible for others to care about what you care about. It doesn’t use words as tools to drive points home so much as it works to create meaningful experience. Sustainable language, no matter how polished, provides audience members the raw materials they require to make something more of the narrative constructs they’re working on, including the story of their lives. Since it strives to love well, rather than to draw love in, it leaves audience response in the hands of audience members. There’s a kind of freedom in that. As I said, love might very well rise in response, some of it quite powerful with an intense, creative edge to it. That kind of love is not warm and fuzzy and safe (though it can be a lot of fun!). It breaks the heart of what one thinks one knows and clears the way for the rise to the next tier of the story. Jesus’ language and parables can work like this.

    But that’s me getting ahead of myself. I guess what I’m saying is that writing that loves well is not especially contractual. It allows much and provides for much beside its own narrative intent.

    Plenty of charismatic writing exists that appears to love well because it moves people to high emotion. Language that uses guilt, confusion, sorrow, anger, fear, depression, sense of loss or any other compelling emotion or needful human condition to close off narrative options and drive people in a particular direction is neither loving nor sustainable.

  16. Thanks, Patricia. There’s an awful lot there to think about and respond to, and I’d love to do so at greater length as occasion offers.

    For now, I’ll offer the single observation that from the way you’ve described it, sustainable language has a lot to do with the audience you’re addressing. Intensive use of simile and metaphor can be enabling to those who are trained to think about such things, but frustrating to those whose tastes and/or training tends more toward straightforward narrative.

    I’d postulate in that case that “sustainable” narrative might be narrative that shares experience openly and honestly–and unambiguously–and then let the reader decide what to do with it. A simple tale simply told.

  17. Sustainable language is audience-oriented, yep. Hence the love.

    I agree that sometimes simple narrative is the way to go. I often fall back on folklore-esque narrative to restate or support more complicated expression. I started out as a poet, but as my feeling for audience changed, I began writing in other forms to try to learn to meet communal needs. Now I shift back and forth between genres, depending on what I think is needful, for myself as well as for a reader. I’m still learning.

    The use of simile and metaphor needn’t be intensive for language to be sustainable, nor do the shape-shifting natures of many tropes and figures indicate dishonesty or signal the presence of troublesome ambiguities. Even a kid’s folktale relies on aptitude for comparisons: “Don’t be like the bear who tried to ice fish with his tail.” Simple metaphors can grace simple tales with simple clarity. Sometimes they can grace more complex tales with simple clarities.

  18. I’ve really enjoyed catching up on the the course of this “Writing Rookie” discussion.

    Jonathan, your question, “Why do we write?” reminded me of this James Baldwin quote I return to frequently (as given in Suzan Lori Parks’ essay “Possession”): “The leap demanded that I commit myself to the clear impossibility of becoming a writer, and attempting to save my family that way.” The notion that a writer can play a redemptive role in someone’s life has intrigued me since I first read Baldwin (as quoted by Parks) and I think Patricia details such a process in her exploration of writing to love well. The more I write, the more I dwell in the language I’ve come to love (though it hounds me so!), the more I realize how powerful language is as a medium, not only of communication, but of communion, of community, of power and influence. Hence, I think the leap any writer must make entails taking responsibility for the language we use, especially since no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the call to language, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, by love unfeigned, by kindness and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy and without guile (attributes exhibited by those who write solely to gain love instead of writing to love well).

    And I think Patricia’s presence in this forum challenges each of us to be responsible, if for nothing else, than the language we use act upon the world. She really doesn’t let our words get away with anything…

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