Most people, when I tell them I write, assume I’m in it for the money. To make millions, like J.K. Rowling or John Grisham. But the truth is, if I want to make millions, I have a better shot buying a lottery ticket. The statistics for getting a novel published, much less making any money at it, are daunting. You spend years writing a novel. Then, if you are lucky enough to have written something worth publishing, and if you are lucky enough to find an agent to represent you, your odds still suck. Major publishers get about 5000 agented fiction manuscripts each year, and will publish on average only 5 of them. That’s a one in 1000 chance of being accepted. Even if you do find an agent who sells your book to a publisher, the advance for a new writer usually falls somewhere around the $5000 mark. When you consider that most books take well over two years to write, you’re not exactly making a whole lot of money for the effort.
When I tell people I’m not in it for the fame or the money, they ask why, then, I bother. My glib answer is that I’m a pathological liar, and that besides being a politician, writing is the only socially acceptable career path I know for a liar. In truth, I do it because I’m fascinated by people and what makes them do the things they do. I write to explore human nature, to understand others and myself.
I know many writers, and not one of them has ever said to me that they do it for the money. In fact, most have other jobs to support their writing habits. So, because I am interested in why people do the things they do, I asked some of my writer friends to share why they write.
In brief, the first three reasons that always come to me, in ascending order of importance…
1. I write about what I’m curious about.
2. I write in order to examine things and try to figure them out (in a more personal sense than simply what I’m curious about).
3. I write because it’s inseparable from who I am. I often feel like I’m most myself when I’m writing, which is funny because I’m usually writing about characters who have little or nothing to do with me!
To make things turn out the way I want them to.
1) To communicate. If I write and write well, I can tell someone how I feel without having a weird conversation about it. I will always be glad I wrote a piece for my grandmother, and that she saw it before she died.
2) To figure out something that’s bugging me. This might take the form of writing a fiction piece that weaves bits of life into it, or it might be an essay or a longer non-fiction piece.
When I write, I write for the thrill of it: the swoosh of words rushing together serendipitously from somewhere outside my conscious control. I’m a little amazed at what I’ve written while in such a state, which is another thrill. The final thrill, if I’m lucky, is that it makes sense.
I write to capture the things I’ve come to understand and explore the things I don’t.
Right now I mostly write to communicate (like I’m doing now), to connect (via blog, forum, Facebook, etc.), or for hire. I like words, I like making them do what I want them to do. It’s like a puzzle, trying to find exactly the right word, phrase, image, or sentence to convey my meaning in a fresh way. I do it for the challenge and the reward.
The First Law of Thermodynamics says that matter (or energy) can neither be created nor destroyed. But when I write, it seems as if I am performing the impossible alchemy of creating something from nothing. A story exists where none did before, and there is no satisfactory explanation for how it got there. It’s a real, tangible, concrete creation that I somehow willed into being.
It will need many applications of the delete key before it goes out in public on its own. It might come home several times, dejected and forlorn, to be dusted off and sent back out to try again. It might never be fully launched, taking up residence in the basement like an over-educated twenty-five-year-old. But it is a thing with a shape and I made it. Nobody else has ever made the exact same thing as the one I made.
It takes as long to make as a pair of mittens, or a bench or a painting. But the only material it uses up is time. That is why I write. To violate the First Law of Thermodynamics.
No matter the reason, I’m glad these writers, and so many others, write in spite of the horrible odds. Why do you write?