Why do writers write? George Orwell once listed ‘four great motives,’ Joan Didion said she writes so that readers listen to her, and Terry Tempest Williams said ‘I write to meet my ghost.’ In Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran, 20 acclaimed authors answer that question, and novelist Rick Moody responds to Orwell, Didion and Tempest Williams.
I abandoned two novels when I was in sixth grade. I got maybe 10 pages into each. One was about a kid who becomes vice president. I still have the weird little blank book that I used to attempt to write it. The itch to do my job goes at least that far back.
Why do I write? To do better for myself than I am capable of doing with language, out there, in real time. To repair inabilities, to restore confidences. And, at this point, because I don’t know what else to do. I write just as I breathe and eat. Every day. Habitually.
It would be easier if I could say that one thing happens when I write, or, perhaps, that a number of predictable things happen. But the truth is that a great number of things have happened, over the years, when I have been writing, and that these things are unpredictable, hard to quantify, and mutable.
I guess I have now been writing, if I date my writing from the first time I ever rewrote anything, for about 33 years. Publishing books for about 20. Sometimes the writing is inspired or inspiring; sometimes it is destitute of anything but the need to keep working. I guess what I’m saying is that what happens to me is so variable that it would be kind of foolish to try to attach names to it. I do think, however, that just about whenever I am writing, or more accurately, whenever I have written, I feel better and more at peace as a human being. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that the literary product is any good.
Responding to George Orwell’s “Four Great Motives for Writing”
1. Sheer egoism. “To be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups in childhood, etc.”
Writing out of bile, e.g., or out of some personal desire for gain—that just doesn’t square with what makes literature useful, profound, etc. My reason is mainly neurotic, I suspect: I am never really comfortable speaking, and writing allows me the time and serenity to make better what I cannot do in speech. It’s a peaceful and cloistered space, the page, where I don’t feel pressured the way I do in the world.
2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. “To take pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.”
Yes, this is a possible reason to write. I imagine I am trying to think about prose the way I think about music. I try to think of prose as a musical form, not just as a code we agree to use in order to advance a plot. Aesthetic enthusiasm is mainly what motivates me, because aesthetic enthusiasm has no particular narrative requirements.
3. Historical impulse. “The desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
I sure hope posterity is interested in me, but I figure I’ll be dead by then, and you can’t take posterity with you when you are gone.
4. Political purposes. “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
A lovely sentence, really, and one I agree with. I think all art is political, but that some art, by being quiet about its politics, supports the status quo in a slightly sinister way. I have always tried to stake out political positions in what I do, but not in a manner, I hope, that is aesthetically dull (see No. 2), or too shrill, etc. I believe the two—aesthetics and politics—may go hand in hand. Even if that argument never sat well with the social realists or the art-for-art’s-sake crowd.
Responding to Joan Didion
“Writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.”
If it were just this, the first person, I would probably want to give up and do something else with my life. Although there’s inevitability to “I,” to a point of view that starts with self; it is not all there is. There is also “thou,” as embodied in the reader. I see a real exchange with the reader, who is free to bring what she wants to the work. In this context, writing is not as expression of self, but as relief from self (T.S. Eliot, I believe).
Responding to Terry Tempest Williams
“I write to meet my ghosts.”
Sounds interesting, but might be too metaphorical and too hyperbolic for me.
I am never terribly comfortable with the word “writer.”
I had a teacher, when young, who said the word “writer” was unimportant. He said that all that was important was the work itself. And I sort of agree with this approach. I think there’s an instability that goes with writing, a lack of certainty, at least for me. This lack of certainty makes me more responsive to the world, more open to it. And so if I have to repel the word “writer” in order to maintain my openness and vulnerability to the world, then fine. I’ll let go of the word. I do use it sometimes for the sake of simplicity, or so as to avoid confusing people, but I never feel totally comfortable about it.
The first break I got was having my first novel published after 16 months or so of failing to get anyone interested in it. Seemed like a big break to me at the time.
I always sort of thought I’d be a failure. I still sort of think I might be a failure. So just having a book out in the world made me very happy. I didn’t much think, at first, about whether I was going to sell a lot of copies. I didn’t pay attention to that sort of thing. I still don’t. I don’t think I have ever, not even once, willingly checked to see how many copies anything by me has sold.
In the years since my “big break,” I have mainly made a living by writing, but also by teaching and doing campus workshops and appearances.
It’s really hard for me to calve off the writing part from the just being alive part, and so I don’t imagine I can really find a “best time” that just refers to my writing life. I think maybe the best thing that ever happened to me was becoming a father in 2008, although a close second would be checking myself into the psychiatric hospital in 1987. That turned out to be a very good move. I am a better writer for having fewer demons, and I am more curious about the world and the people in it. So those of you thinking you might need your demons in order to be creative: I beg to differ.
Writing is always hard. As we all know, there’s a lot of rejection involved.
Even now I find the rejection part of the job pretty challenging. I am not a strong enough person, in some ways, to live this life. I try not to envy other writers. I think nothing is worse for me, and for literature and the literary world. And don’t even get me started on reviews.
I don’t solve personal problems for myself by writing. The writing is the escape from the personal. Sometimes I cause problems, writing first and only thinking later. Those can only be solved in the usual ways, through time, conversation, willingness to reconcile, etc.
I think the good for me comes in continuing to work and trying, a little bit, to believe in what I do.
Caution: Reading Can Lead to Writing
I like books, the actual, physical things. I like to carry them around. I don’t mind how heavy they are, and I don’t need a lot of bells and whistles on my books.
Before I ever wrote, I was a voracious reader. Both my parents are people who always have a novel they’re reading. A kind of object fetishism of book as a sacred object runs in my family and was imparted to me at a young age. I don’t know exactly how long the book as we know it will exist, but I fully expect to make it to my death without having to give up on books.
My big ambition is to avoid doing the same thing twice. The process of composition, messing around with paragraphs and trying to make really good prose, is an essential part of my personality, and I judge myself very, very harshly. I am all but entirely merciless about myself and my work. Alas. Those who are otherwise are probably healthier.
My Wisdom for Writers
Trying to fit your writing into conventional commercial forms in hopes of getting published is a losing proposition. Losing more interesting experimental work to the constraints of the publishing industry would be a great loss for us all.
Structure in a novel is something you discover, not something you superimpose. Don’t sit at your keyboard and be a slave to an outline.
When you’re writing a novel, you have to keep the whole thing in your head. So it’s good to go somewhere quiet to work, and it’s good if you can find the time to binge on the work for a few days without interruption.
From the book Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors On How and Why They Do What They Do, edited by Meredith Maran. Copyright 2013 by Rick Moody. Reprinted with the permission of Plume, a member of the Penguin Group.