This morning, I looked at someone else’s blog and felt the need to comment on it. Some of the things I wrote set me thinking. If I’m going to blog, it makes sense to blog things that are likely to interest people. People seem to be interested in the process of writing, so why not write something about that?
So! Why do writers write?
Well, one of the mistakes that people do tend to make is to assume that all writers do the same thing for the same reason. You can blame academia for that. It’s one thing for schools to promote the idea of planning everything to the last detail before you start writing; when you get to university, you’ll have to be that methodical to produce decent essays. But academics apply the same rules to fiction? Why?
Well, some writers clearly do plan everything and then use that as an armature on which to build the structure. Some types of writing certainly seem to demand it. I cannot imagine that Tom Clancy could have written The Hunt for Red October without a detailed plan nor Agatha Christie Murder on the Orient Express. In fact, I once did an OU course in which there was a module on the novel. It laid down the law on how novels were written, based upon a detailed plan and in no other way. It was so sure of its facts that it might have convinced me, if I hadn’t already finished four novels and not recognized one word of what I was reading.
For there are clearly other systems. Take Lord of the Rings, for example. Read that and you’ll wander hither and yon. Tolkein himself said that The Hobbit began with a verbal doodle on the margin of a schoolbook. That story developed from a tiny seed and grew, organically, as you might say. If you understand writing, you can see that the sequel developed the same way. In fact, it took over fifteen years to write and you can see that the style changes. It starts as another children’s book but by the end it has grown in stature and matured. You can’t write a book from a set plan, take a decade and a half over writing it, and expect it to work. Well, I can’t — my own Policy of Deception took twelve years and I finished it knowing that it would take a major rewrite to even out the changes in styles — and obviously Tolkein couldn’t either.
The point of all that waffle is to show that writers are not all the same. I can’t say why writers write; I can only say why I write.
“So why the bleep do you write?” I hear you scream. “Get on with the p*gg**g thing!”
Well, I write because I can’t help it. I started writing back in the mid-Eighties. After I had spent several nights being kept awake by images in my mind, like waking dreams (not daydreams, which are quite different) and I finally tried to get rid of them by writing it all down. It turned out to read like the start of a story and when I showed it to a friend, she immediately asked me if I were writing a book. The idea had never occurred to me until that point. Still, I gave it a shot, but I was too light on ideas to complete a novel. I made a number of deliberate attempts to start other novels but it was three years before I struck upon something that offered hope of completion and, even then it took two years to complete. Significantly, there was something very different about this new book. The first attempt had been a thriller along the lines of Alistair MacLean but the book I completely was a piece of speculative science fiction more akin to John Wyndham’s works. I had apparently found my métier. Clearly I was a science fiction writer.
That’s not to say that I had learnt how to write. The Four Horsemen was a piece of tripe. So were my next two novels. It was 1999 before I finally wrote something I really felt worked. There was then a seven-year hiatus when I didn’t finish any books, including five years when I didn’t write a word. After my mother died, I dropped into a deep depression — I’ve been manic-depressive since the days they called it manic-depression — and stayed like that for a year or so but when it passed, I moved into a manic phase when I was suddenly more creative than I had been in years. I wrote a short story in three days and a novel, Night in the City, in five weeks. I even managed to finish Policy of Deception. Since then, I have maintained a much higher level of productivity, going from four novels in the first twenty years to eight in the last eight.
But how does that answer the first question? Well, it doesn’t but the threads are in there somewhere. Writers must be, to a degree, Walter Mitty characters. We must all be able to inhabit little dream worlds and I suspect that most of us prefer those dream worlds, even though some terrible things happen in them. Most people do something of the sort without realizing it. What makes a writer out of Walter Mitty is the ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality.
At least some other writers are certainly manic-depressive and they may be a part of why I write. A manic-depressive is always wary of life’s vicissitudes. Some problems that may upset a normal person a little may be the trigger for a bout of depression to a depressive. Writing can help there. If life is too hard, to lose yourself in a fantasy can pad you against the impact of harsh reality. Feel-good movies can have the same effect. Living with manic-depression is like being on an emotional unicycle; if life makes you fall off, you land with a sickening thud. Creativity of any kind offers an escape, an opportunity to pedal in the opposite direction.
In the end, it boils down to a chicken and egg situation. The head doctors recognize that manic-depressives are often highly creative in their manic phases. Looking at my own life, I wonder, though. I sometimes feel that I am writing, not because I am manic but rather to keep the black dog at bay. Is that what all those other people are doing? Are they creative because they are on their bipolar upswing or are they up because they are creating? Perhaps, one day, the scientists will find out.
So, does that explain why I write? I don’t know. Perhaps readers will think so. At the end of all this, I have realized something. I don’t really know why I write. I just do.