Why write?

It’s a thing that’s always puzzled me. What is the strange compulsion that comes upon someone that forces him/her to sit at a keyboard and write? It was worse still in the old days. There were no keyboards; just the literal pen and paper with which to beguile the marching hours.

William Maxwell, who was fiction editor at the New Yorker at the end of the golden age, between 1936 and 1975, once said: “A writer is a reader who is moved to emulation.” I think that’s true. You read something fairly decent and you think: I could do that. On the other hand, how many times have you read something and thought: that’s crap! I could do better than that! But there has to be something more to it than that. ‘Emulation’ doesn’t drive you to sit for hours, day after day, week after week hammering out the 60k+ words it takes to write a novel.

The novelist Judith Rossner has said, “every asshole in the world wants to write.” But apart from the anatomical difficulties of that particular method, the reason why the novel within everyone never sees the light of day is because most people don’t have the perseverance to write it. Apart from anything else, thinking that you can ‘do better than that’ doesn’t mean that you can. Writing is more difficult than it looks.
I’m sure some people write to see their name on the bestsellers list. Others write for money alone. And yet others write because they have something they want to communicate to other people. But some people write because they just love the sound of words, the combinations of words, unusual usages of words, in fact, everything about words.

I can’t help feeling that if you’re really serious about writing then there has to be a payoff. I don’t mean that you should walk off with a one-million-dollar advance. I just mean that some form of remuneration is surely necessary to at least ratify your opinion that those hours you spent writing weren’t all for nothing.

That link between the hard work and the affirmation is something that writers find difficult to wean themselves off. The poet John Hall Wheelock once said that: “most writers are in a state of gloom a good deal of the time; they need perpetual reassurance.” And that’s probably why rejection by an editor at a publishing house can still ruin your week. Despite all that, isn’t it essential to at least act like a professional, if I want to be paid like one. If not, am I not just playing at being a writer?

I worked for about seven years as a freelance journalist and found out this amazing fact: a looming deadline doesn’t care how you feel about writing.