Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Why do I write?

Mick Silva posted this quote on his blog, My Writer's Group:

"I think we ought to only read the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? . . . We would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." —Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors

I suppose I write (and read) first for myself. The last sentence of that quote speaks to me: "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." My internal life has always been a significant part of who I am. I've always had an active imagination and had imaginary friends much longer than anyone else I knew. I suppose I was a weird kid, but my parents loved me so it was OK. I learned to rely on my inner resources as a refuge from the kids who picked on me in grade school. That's OK, too, because I think I have more empathy for people who feel like outcasts and I know that a person doesn't have to be popular to have value.

So I told myself stories. I told myself stories for many years, but I didn't usually write them down. I'm not sure why — did I think they were too unrealistic? I remember my mom saying that of one of my childish attempts at writing. She meant well, but I think that put a damper on my desire to write things. I wrote awful, love-lorn poetry in high school. I wrote research papers and essays for school and usually was praised for my writing ability. But I didn't write stories. They just lived in my head, where I could take them out and tell them to myself whenever I wanted.

I read voraciously all this time, as well. Some of the books that stayed with me had some of the effect that Kafka describes. I began to get a sense of what a story can do by reading To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings, Alas, Babylon (which totally sucked me into the post-nuclear-holocaust world it describes), The Left Hand of Darkness, The Chronicles of Narnia.

I grew up, got married, had children, finished college, moved, had more children, began learning to be thankful in whatever state I'm in — and continued to tell myself stories.

(OK, coming is some blunt language -- just giving you some advance warning.)
But eventually I realized that just telling myself stories was only half the job. Imagining and thinking is an important part of writing — essential to writing, I believe — but if that's all you ever do it's only so much mental masturbation. It's enjoyable, but not productive or creative.

I don't know if this realization that I needed to either put this stuff down on paper or quit thinking about it was a call from God or not. I did come to believe that God didn't want me to waste my time on unproductive fantasy. I do believe that he gave me the ability and the desire to write. So I did it. I started writing. I started and scrapped several different versions of my current manuscript, Secrets in Connors Grove. I had the characters, but it took a while to find the best story to tell.

And now that I've told one story, I want to tell more. I've had these characters living in my head for a long time and they have more things they want to say. So I'm trying to let them. I still tell myself stories, but now after I've thought about it a while, I put it down on the page. And Kafka was right. It's the axe for the frozen sea inside me.


Valerie Comer said...

Hm. I don't know that I agree with Franz. I think it's the word *only* that gets me, that we should *only* read books that wound and stab us. Umm, no. We shouldn't necessarily AVOID books that hit us upside the head, but it's not wrong to read for pleasure instead of pain.

What do you think?

lindaruth said...

I don't agree completely with the entire quote. I have no problem reading books that are simply enjoyable, not painful. But it often seems to me that the books that have the biggest impact touch something deeper in my soul. And I think when I write, the more honest it is, the better it is. I think that's what I was getting at, but I'm not always as eloquent. :)

lindaruth said...

I just read something over at Brenda Coulter's blog that has caused me to rethink my phrasing. I think I mean being honest in our writing in the sense of authenticity. It has to come from a place where I'm being honest with myself and honest with God for what I write to ring true and touch a reader (at least that's what I think).

Valerie Comer said...

Makes sense. The writing does have to come from someplace deep within in order to have meaning, to be *different* from what someone else would write. The writing, in that sense, has to hurt a bit (or a lot, depending...) but the reading? Not necessarily. Not if you're approaching things from a different angle than the writer did, which is most likely.

LOL, not arguing actually. Just thinking it through!

Paula said...

There are times I read to have the frozen lake axed. But, interestingly, sometimes I get the most out of reading when a tiny nugget of truth surprises me in the midst of something entertaining. If I only chose writing looking for an ax for my lakes, I'd miss the wonderful surprise that happen when a good story thaws my lake and then sets me to sail upon it with a nugget of truth I needed to hear.

Eileen said...

Linda, I loved your post. It could've been *my* post because what you did, I did as well. I am just completing my forth novel in three years, and will be starting a fifth very shortly. There's been lots of up and down moments in this journey, but I wouldn't change any of it and I'm glad the stories are now on paper and not just in my head. Thank you for such a wonderful post.

I saw your message at Chris's blog and have added you to the Celebration mailings. I am the coordinator of the Celebration. You can reach me at ploomis(at)adelphia(dot)net if you need more info.

Dee said...

I am so glad you are writing your stories down now. My story was similar except I made myself stop writing stories, because I wanted a good paying job. I had the job until I became disabled after labor complications, so God gave me a second chance to write stories. And I am satisified now.

Great post.