The Price of Words, or Why Writers Write
I was having a drink with a writer friend of mine when that question came up. Well, she directed the question at me, and I realized I’d never really taken the time to think about it in depth. She was gracious enough to give me time to think about it while she went to the bathroom, and I’m not unhappy with the answer I came up with on the spot, but I thought it would be interesting to elaborate on the subject.
The Rwandan culture, inside of which I was raised for a good part of my childhood, isn’t best known for the importance it gives to creative processes. I think the trend is changing now, but artists just weren’t seen as glamorous as they are over here in the west. And my larger family is this kind of arena where everyone competes with everyone for titles and the number of material possessions. So, naturally, me wanting to write professionally wasn’t what my immediate family had envisioned for me. But hey, they were very flexible in terms of what they expected from me. I had to be a doctor; surely you understand. But failing that, a lawyer would do just fine. Or at least a really important-sounding title, something university-level in any case, but not the low ranking army dude with delusions of writerly talents.
This long-winded paragraph just to emphasize one thing — I don’t write because I’m drowning in family support or understanding. In fact, if anything, they are just grudgingly accepting my choice. At times I feel like some are just waiting for the moment when they can say, “Ha! See, I told you. You could be so far now, had you not wasted your life behind a screen and keyboard.”
So, why do we write?
My agent recently shared this post, in which the writer encourages his peers to keep going, milling after that ever elusive dream, no matter how far it may seem; and trust me, sometimes it seems light years away. But before those encouraging words, Shaun David Hutchinson, admits to the dread that sometimes comes with being a writer. If you want, read that post before continuing. I’ll wait for you. You’re welcome.
So, why do we do it? Why?
As I told my friend, over that drink in the first paragraph, I hate to keep feeding that famous saying according to which writers write because we must. I also don’t want to say it’s bullshit, because it isn’t — not really; but it has become such a huge cliche that it no longer means much. It’s not (really) true in the sense that there is no Angel of Death looming over us, threatening to scythe our heads off if we stop the motion of our fingers above the keyboard. There is no sickness that’ll befall us if we don’t keep churning out interesting characters and new worlds. And there is definitely no bus that’ll go boom unless we produce a daily word count — though thinking so might be the motivation you need. I myself use a similar strategy that involves my testicles and a very sharp/hot object kept away by the number of words I can spit out per day. But that old saying is relevant because no matter how miserable we get, sometimes because of writing, we still go on, like Spartans never retreating, never surrendering. Even when all odds are against us, when we’re drowning, when writing is futile, still we push on.
Why do we do that?
Would it not be liberating to look those people in their fictional eyes and say, “Fuck you Jane Character, and fuck you double John Protagonist. I have bills to pay; I need a second job. I have friends to see, partners to romance, and some TV to watch. Tell your stories your fucking selves!”
Uh, wouldn’t that be awesome? Why can’t we do it? What is that thing that keeps us shackled to the edge of madness, sometimes even talking to ourselves to resolve potential conflicts in Jane and John’s stories. Do you know how many times I surprise myself behind the wheel, reenacting some dialogue bit that just popped into my head?
But Jane and John, whether casual friends, archenemies, or furious lovers can be reasonable too. Reasonable in that way my family can at times, of course. When you’re ready to throw them out of your life, like clingy and manipulative would-be-exes, they’ll soothe you and caress you and hug and plead. Until you give up — no, that’s the whole point. Until you give in. They’ll say things like: “Oh, calm down, honey. Let’s not overreact. We’re sorry we’ve been so needy lately. Give us another chance. Let us show you that we can change, that we can do — that we can be better.” Then they’ll study your face, and when you’re about to deny them, they’ll pull their trump card. “It’ll be different this time around, baby. You can tell the story. We’ll be good, we’ll obey. Hell, if you don’t trust us, you can even plot!”
And so you plot. And they keep their promises at first. They are where you told them to be at the beginning of page one, but by the time page thirty turns, they have hijacked the story. Again. And once more, you’re talking to yourself in the car, insecure, wondering if your jokes will be funny, worrying about your assholes not being too assholey or not enough! And you neglect your friends. You never get that second job, and the bills keep coming, and in the meantime your partner’s patience wears thinner and thinner.
So, again, why do that? Is it really because you must? Because you have a holy mission to deliver your word to the world? Because you’re next in line to Jesus’ throne, you just have to broadcast the good word? I doubt it.
There’s one writing advice I never understood and vowed never to follow. It was this: If you want to write for the money, quit it right now. Save yourself a world of hurt. Or something like that. And it was puzzling to me, because I didn’t understand it correctly. I thought it meant you should write for the art of it, or as some writers profess they do, for yourself. I didn’t want that. Not only do I have no interest in writing for myself alone, but I wanted to live writing and the only way I saw to do that was to live off my writing. Or at least aim for that, because the time it takes to write the story itself is rather daunting. But what that advice is really saying is, if you go into writing hoping to be rich and famous, you are more than likely to be disappointed. So, we have scratched off the money as well.
So far, if you’re anything like me, you’re not writing because you were pushed into it; not because you have a duty to bless humanity with your prophetic prose; and certainly not for the cash.
So, and I promise this is the last time I ask, why the fuck to we write?
I’m still struggling with my own answer. But I think the following is why I write.
When I came to Belgium from Rwanda and after I’d mastered the basics of French, I entered the library at the school that I was attending. It was small with a very low ceiling, even for my age-10-size, and smelled of paper and dust. It was filled with shelves so packed with books that they threatened to tumble over at any moment. Each shelf contained so many books that it took some force to pull one and examine it. So, there I was, in that tiny place that to me seemed isolated from the rest of the world. Over the next three years, I spent any time that I could spare in the library, reading there when I had the time or borrowing for the evening when I didn’t. That time was not a great one for me. But the books made it bearable, occulted the problems that I didn’t have the maturity to deal with. They embraced me when I was alone, made me laugh when I felt like crying; they scared me and in so doing, made me feel that there were far more frightening things inside of books than there was in my life. Books made me believe in love and introduced me to friendships and let me live adventures that few people can imagine.
And later, I learned that I too could imitate those worlds, that I could learn the process of creating them. I could see the threads that made me treasure some, but barely caress others as if they were old stuffed animals. I wanted to tell my own stories. I wanted to give to someone what had been given to me. An open window onto somewhere else. I clung to that idea ever since and steered the ship that is my life toward that one goal. Have I reached it? I don’t know, but I’m on my way. It feels like I’ve been on my way since forever, but now I know. I know where I’m going and I’m sure I want to go there and I’m prepared to pay the price. Any price.
Maybe I’ve been a bit harsh on Jane and John. They aren’t always the assholes I wrote them to be up here; sometimes they’re compassionate and kind; many times they still take me away from this world just enough so that I can dream. And if I do my job right, then someday they’ll take other people away too. They’ll lead them to lands of wonders and seas of magic; they’ll get them lost in the ruffle of turning pages or lace them against their readers’ light emitting diodes. When that happens, when I have transferred the magic that writing is to me onto others, then I’ll be home. Because I’m a writer and that is why I write.
Then maybe I can say that paying the Price of Words was worth it.
If you’re a writer, what is your reason?