Why I write

From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

—George Orwell, ‘Why I Write

I was not as precocious as Orwell; I did not definitely conceive the idea of becoming a writer until I was twelve, though it was among the many occupations I had played at in earlier childhood. I should have liked to be an urban planner, but I discovered, before I had any opportunity to set out on such a path, that the profession had already become what it has since remained: not a branch of engineering in which one does the interesting creative work of coming up with feasible ways of giving people the kind of towns they want to live in, but a branch of politics in which one plans the kind of towns demanded by the ideology of one’s superiors, and then crams them down the people’s throats. I thought of being a cartographer – the maps in National Geographic, of all things, were nearly my first purely aesthetic experience – but I could not discover any path that would lead me appreciably in the direction of such a career. In any case my formal education was forcibly terminated before I could make any meaningful progress towards those ends.

But writing was something that I could (and can) do, and that nobody could stop me from doing so long as I lived in a relatively free country. In an age of galloping credentialism, when even security guards are examined and licensed by the State, there is to this day no formal credential for becoming a writer – no storyteller’s certificate, not even a blogger’s licence. It is true that the creative writing programs in the universities turn out more graduates than formerly, but so far the only people that have been thereby prevented from becoming creative writers are those very same graduates. Perhaps some of the reasons for this will eventually occur to them, or even to their professors. But I digress—

In Calgary, when I was still a fairly small boy, there was a sort of minor mania for local history that lasted several years. Southern Alberta was one of the last places in North America to be definitely settled. It was only in 1875 that the first permanent building was erected on the future site of the city. That was Fort Calgary, the North-West Mounted Police post, one of several built to shut down the illicit whisky trade out of the United States. The last survivors of the pioneer period, or rather the youngest of their children, were busily dying in the 1970s, and their stories being written up by local historians like Jack Peach and Grant MacEwan, themselves old men. I myself had a second or third cousin who was so old that he had come west by covered wagon, and lived to the age of 105; and my own grandfather took up a homestead on virgin land in the Peace River country about the time my father was born, not long before the arable land ran out and the homestead system was abolished.

It should come as no surprise that my first large creative endeavour sprang out of that environment and those vicarious experiences. Where the young C. S. Lewis (and his brother) had an imaginary country, Boxen, whose history and legends came to be written up in considerable detail, I had an imaginary frontier town. I drew many maps of the place at different periods, but also wrote portions of a connected history of the place and its leading citizens, leading down from the first settlers to the imaginary characters that I and one or two of my friends played at being in the present day. All that stuff was lost long ago, thank God; some of it I destroyed myself, but most was thrown away by my mother, who never saw a piece of paper that she did not detest on sight. The fact that my father was an avid reader and liked to fill up the house with books was, I believe, a constant anguish to her.

I had left that phase behind and was writing ‘future history’ and pastiches of bad science fiction when, at the age of twelve, I abruptly discovered that writing was something one could do as a profession. I have had no measurable success at it since then, but I still persist in trying: partly because one can earn money by it, even (nowadays, through the medium of ebooks) with very small sales, and it is one of the few kinds of work that I can do in my present state of health without expensive academic credentials; but chiefly for another reason. Since that reason has not, in my experience, been much talked about, I propose to say something about it here.

Orwell, in the essay quoted above, suggested that there were four main reasons why people become writers:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. – Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

All four of these motives can be found in my own make-up, but besides these there is an item (v) without which I would never have persisted as long as I have, nor through such deserts of solitude and obscurity. I thought at first of calling it social purpose, but that sounds too much like the political purpose mentioned by Orwell; we have grown so accustomed to thinking that anything labelled ‘social’ must have something to do with socialism. Instead I shall describe it as frustrated gregariousness.

Like Orwell, I was a disagreeable child, and (as I believe) imagined myself to be even worse than I was. I was quite shamelessly bullied at school, and shunned by children who were not themselves bullies: a wise precaution on their part, as my presence was liable to draw bullies to the neighbourhood. I had very few friends in childhood, and most of those were odd ducks and outcasts like myself. I did not even have an imaginary friend, as I have heard many lonely children do; the idea simply never occurred to me. But I did have books. My father had at least a thousand of them in the house, and I began to add to the number as soon as I had my own pocket-money. I hardly knew a human being who was interested in history, or science, or in the perplexing questions that I had not yet learnt to put under the heading of philosophy. But there was Will Durant, whose eleven fat volumes of world history took up almost a whole shelf of my father’s biggest bookcase; and the Life Science Library, with volumes on every subject from The Body to Wheels; and the marvellous George Gamow, whom I did not yet know as the co-inventor of the Big Bang theory, but whose book One Two Three … Infinity taught my mind to do cartwheels and handsprings (and count transfinite numbers); and many others.

Then there were the pure storytellers, beginning with Dr. Seuss and L. Frank Baum and A. A. Milne, soon followed by Bradbury and Heinlein and Kipling, the Whites (E. B. and T. H.), Lloyd Alexander, John Christopher with his Tripods series, and others less fantastical. Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins and Keith Robertson’s Henry Reed were two of my better friends in those days, though I never knew a Henry in real life. I liked and rather envied the Melendy family and their strange old house, the Four-Story Mistake; and the Gilbreths of Cheaper By the Dozen, who had the disadvantage of being real people (most of them were still living when I first read about them), but the glamour of distance and the patina of times past; and I found a kindred spirit in Meg Murry, and another, less well known, in the hero of a book called Trillions, by Nicholas Fisk. (His name was Scott, if I recall correctly, and he fought a doomed and desperate action against any and all attempts to call him Scotty: that alone won my heartfelt sympathy and commiseration.) And in due course, after I had been well prepared to appreciate them, there were J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

Of course I wanted to talk about the things I had read, and of course (being the unlikable creature that I was) I had, for the most part, nobody to talk to. My father listened with patience and some understanding when he could, but he was busy and overworked; my mother was not the sort of person one could talk to about anything. And I was, in effect, an only child. I had a stepbrother, my mother’s son by her long-ago first marriage, but he had left home when I was small, by the expedient of staying in Vancouver when the family moved to Calgary; and when we did meet we had little in common. There seemed nobody to talk to about my beloved books – except the books themselves. I was like a shipwrecked sailor who kept finding messages in bottles on the strand. Well, I could never hope to meet the far-sundered souls who sent the bottles, but I could write messages of my own and hope they would one day be found. In such a way, I thought, I could take some part in the great conversation, and have someone to talk to about the things I felt most deeply, the things that mattered and endured.

Like Orwell, I tried to give up writing for several years – in my case, from roughly the ages of 25 to 30 – and I, too, found that I was ‘outraging my true nature’. It was Dave Duncan who talked me out of writing; he assured me, with the grand depressive gravitas that only a Presbyterian Scotsman can produce at will, that he belonged to the last generation of writers – that literature itself was obsolete, that he should retire in a few years and there would be no more readers or writers thereafter. Orwell spent his years of exile in the Indian Imperial Police; my own were passed in less salubrious activities and less respectable places, but they served me, in their way, as the same kind of education in the varieties of human nature. Eventually my business and my ill-starred common-law coupling both collapsed; I retooled and came back online as a writer, though with no greater success than I had found in my futile early twenties. About this time a woman named Rowling began to be heard of: Dave Duncan’s prophecy had been slightly premature.

I have had little enough success in the years since then. The obvious explanation is that I cannot write, or at least not well enough to please an audience. This idea has occurred to me, but I find that it does not quite adequately cover the facts. There is a story about Fred Astaire. Once when he was working on a film, going through take after take in a futile attempt to capture a flawless performance, he left the sound stage at the end of the day, flung a tragic arm round Alan Jay Lerner’s shoulder, and cried out: ‘Oh, Alan, why doesn’t someone tell me that I cannot dance?’ I keep looking for someone who will tell me that I cannot write, and so far I have not found anyone but myself; and what do I know? But neither have I the knack of getting my work before any appreciable audience. Hence my running joke about my 3.6 Loyal Readers, a number that has been hallowed by tradition and shall never be changed, though the actual number of my readers may now be somewhat larger and is (in all probability) an integer.

But it is not for the 3.6, or however many of you there are, that I write; I say it with apologies, and meaning no disrespect. I write for the Great Conversation; because I met most of my friends in books, the friends that kept me alive and (reasonably) sane through my friendless years, and it is only in the same medium that I can talk back to them and tell them what they have meant to me. In practical terms the debt can never be paid back, because most of the authors I read in my youth are dead now, and the others are cut off from me by chasms of fame and accomplishment, as inaccessible as the moon since Apollo discontinued his passenger service.

But perhaps a little of it can be paid forward. Perhaps some day, somewhere, another lonely soul, or even a lonely child, will pick up one of my books and find a friend, a few hours of consolation, a word of encouragement or even wisdom in the solitary struggle to stay alive and human. It would gratify me, I suppose, if it happened in my lifetime and I got to hear of it. But one does not write for that kind of gratification; people who need that reward seek it in other places – this business, even in the best of cases, pays too slowly for that to be an effectual motive. (L. Frank Baum, for instance, had been dead fifty years when I was born.) My one constant desire through the years has been to light a candle of my own in honour of the stars that have shone upon me, and hope that someone will see it, and that some measure of the darkness will be lifted from his eyes.

Comments

  1. cinda-cite says:

    please make them available in paper and ink.

    • I intend to; it requires time, energy, a bit of money, and a tiny bit of know-how. The energy is short at present; most of what I have is going into The Grey Death. The know-how is small but insuperable; I can’t figure out how to write back-cover copy that doesn’t make me cringe. But I do hope to release at least one of my books in paper before the end of the year.

      If you had your druthers and it could be only one (for the present), which one would you want me to release?

      • cinda-cite says:

        i would like to get /lord talon’s revenge/ in paper first. i started it in digital form but my e-reader does not allow for checking back on characters, places, etc. i’m looking forward to reading, marking, flipping back and forth: really diving in. i think even if it had these capabilities, it does not make for the kind of reading i prefer with this kind of work. plus, i’d like to read all your fiction, and use the non- for when i study other books, such as JRRT and others.

        i asked lj sartorias if i might use for back matter something she’d written in her blog — about one of my books — and she gladly, kindly agreed.

      • Stephen J. says:

        Mr. Simon,

        If back-cover copy is your difficulty, I have done that for several of my own wife’s books, and they have usually gone over well. Would you be interested in seeing samples?

  2. I started writing because I was going into word withdrawal. We had had to return all our books to the library because they would be due while we were on vacation — and this was a week before we went!

    Thereupon I discovered that if you wrote, those pesky ideas haunting me could sometimes be induced to leap from the head to the page and stay there.

    I have to avoid thinking about being a writer, because once I get outside enough of a work to think of it being something to sell, I can’t work on it any longer. Or perhaps I just transition out when I lost the ability; it was mostly in my early teens.

    • As Tolkien recalled Lewis saying to him, ‘If they won’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves’: a very honourable motive for writing a book, and (fortunately) one that has been much discussed elsewhere. Not having access to any kind of books is, of course, a special sub-case of this.

      Alas, your last sentence is obscure to me. What do you mean by ‘transition out’, and what is ‘the ability’ that you say you lost? I have the strong impression that there is an interesting and informative story in there, but I can’t get inside it to find out.

      • It means that if I started dreaming about selling the story as a book or something — the idea had died on me. I couldn’t go any further.

        At the time there was a lot of technical incompetence to explain a loss of interest; I discovered at about 14 that if I read a stack of half-finished stories it would LEAP out at me why I had lost interest — because I had to write something I couldn’t.

  3. Sarah McCabe says:

    What you’ve described was also a major impetus for me to start writing. And probably why as an adolescent and a teenager most of what I wrote was basically fan fiction it was so strongly derivative of the things I read and loved.

  4. Arakawa says:

    The supreme advantage of having a Religion, is a belief that at least some of the authors in the Conversation are still around and omniscient enough to bother reading what you have to say.

    Though I cannot imagine what, for instance, Tolkien and Lewis thought of the respective film adaptations of their work.

  5. We read many of the same things — I haven’t thought of Trillions in literally decades but find I still have fond memories of it. I was more fortunate than you in having two siblings of about the same age, and we read most of the same things. So I can only imagine the “frustrated gregariousness,” and its strength as a motivation.

  6. I write because I’m incredible and amazing, and it would be a crime against humanity to allow my inner stream-of-gold-consciousness go unappreciated by world.

    And it’s more fun than digging ditches.

    I’m just kidding. I actually think #2 has always been what warmed the embers of my creative engine. I like writing because I like reading what I write and thinking ‘gee, that’s pretty’ (and being just stunned by my amazing and incredible stop-the-world-in-its-tracks level of prose, which just happens to me all the time, naturally.) So I guess, aethestics is really what I like about writing.

    Which is ironic, because I’m probably a terrible poet (which I am not content to tolerate, however). But fortunately, plot, characters and stories all seem to appeal to me in an aethestic way, so if I can do those, I’m cracking.

    My more philosophical motivation that’s been developing in me for a while now, is that I want to write a really great story that exalts the virtues to be found in men, rather than obscure them in drab and foolish cynicism, and get the book placed somewhere on the shelf under LOTR and other such books that are detested by the enemies of truth. Score another one for beauty and civilisation. (Or at least, flip off the PC guys, nihilists, and sundry, if truth and beauty proves too lofty for my gifts.)

    And honestly, the essay that I read here, at John C. Wright’s, Vox Popoli and everywhich other thing, are very inspiring. You have raised the banner, and sounded the horn, and I”m nothing if not a patriot of the Heavenly Kingdom.

    I hate nihilistic, godless, truthless, pointless fantasy. Utterly loathe it. I tried reading one of Moorcock’s stories (because my dad has been going on about the ‘wizard with the sword that eats the universe’ since I was a kid, and it sounded cool to me at the time, as an idea (and as a – to my thinking – example of nostalgic 80s ruby fantasy or something), but I read ‘Eternal Champion’, and my following emotional response to it was basically ‘what the heck was the point of that? Laaaame.’ And immediately started looking for some Conan books. (He was barbarian, but at least he had a beating (super)human heart, red-blooded and rich-veined, not the leprotic withered ovoid of an extraterrestial squid who betrays everything and values nothing. Even ant-colonies are more fascinating in their purpose, and they’re basically brainless. You’d think a god-like immortal could do better.) Plus, the Conan stories are ripping good. If I could write one half as well as Howard, I’d be ecstatic. (I’m ambitious.)

    My ‘tried to give up writing’ phase was a relatively brief one between 18-20. My first career years. Not much enthusiasm for writing when you’re regulating what energy you have to prepare your meals for the next day and crawl into bed. It was basically the bottom of the well, I couldn’t even see how I would ever even potentially have the time and energy to pursue writing at any time in the future (I saw my entire life as an unending series of work-shifts until retirement (if even then), and I had put aside my dreams in order to fulfil my duties as a man). But God hears those in distress, and my days have become much improved since then. Little Timmy made it back home.

    • Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s not that I loathe nihilistic fantasy. It’s that I find it completely tedious. Moorcock took sorcerors, reincarnation, gods, cosmic swords, and world wars, and made it boring. I ended up not caring about anyone. Yay. Goal achieved.

      It’s the way people fawn over nihilistic fantasy that really irks me. If they find pointlessness and stories empty of any real meaning so amazing, why don’t they just spend 2 hours memorising the labels on shampoo bottles? They’re pretty realistic.

  7. Stephen J. says:

    All of Orwell’s motives have since shown up in my writing, but I honestly think the first and greatest drive for me to start creating stories was a combination of sheer hunger for more of what I had just finished (I used to read very fast) and, more embarrassingly, vicarious wish-fulfillment fantasy. I was writing self-insert author avatar characters well before I had ever heard of the term “Mary Sue”, and most of my big plots still feature at least one character who is basically a stand-in for myself, at least philosophically. (I try hard to avoid Mary Sue-ism by making sure these characters are neither always right nor always well-liked or victorious, and that they come in for at least some suffering not reducible to self-deprecating angst, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand the Mary Sue appeal.)

    I have never gone through a phase of “giving up writing”, but it is certainly true that my own writing has been backburnered for a while, due to being the sole breadwinner for a family containing a stay-at-home mum who is also a writer (and a much better and more published one than myself) and a special-needs kid. That is, I hope, about to change, as the notion of going the self-published e-book route is seeming more and more feasible.

  8. For myself, I find your essays to be as lucid and brilliant as the essays of C.S. Lewis, and showing much the same gravity and wisdom. For a man of your talent with words not to write would be a crime.

    • Matthew S. says:

      I agree with what Mr. Wright says about your essays. Beyond that, though, I thought Lord Talon’s Revenge one of the most flawless fantasies I have read in years. The flow, tone, and characterizations were wonderful, and got even better the second and third times through. I can’t imagine who would not laugh every few pages, or even every few lines in places. I take that back–my college professors would probably find it offensive for some reason or another, particularly here on the Left Coast of the US. But personally, that seems like a sound reason for enjoying it all the more, considering what they like to push on us. I’m glad your commented more often on Mr. Wright’s blog more often in the past then you do now, or else I might never have gotten a chance to read it.

      You, Mr. Wright, Mr. Flynn, and Mr. Wolfe are the only names in recent fiction I ever mention when people ask if I’ve read anything interesting lately–I read other authors, but none of them would be worth the anxieties of posting online. Count me among your Loyal 3.6 Fans.

Speak Your Mind

*