(This essay was originally posted in July 2016)
“Writing is very silly business at best.” John Steinbeck
I can’t say it any better than Mr. Steinbeck.
Recently, I’ve thought about what my answer would be if I were asked, “Why do you write?” Or, more to the point, “Why did you write that?” I don’t have an answer, except the one Meryl Streep’s character Florence Foster Jenkins supplied in the 2016 film named for her: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
There it is. Right there.
People may say I can’t write, but no one can ever say I didn’t write.
In the Writer’s Digest Elements of Fiction Writing volume titled, Plot, Ansen Dibell writes about story ideas:
“Most often these valid, dynamic story ideas won’t be things that you already know and have settled. Settled things make for explanations, not for absorbing fiction. Instead, they’ll be situations or people or memories that are troubling you, things you want, for yourself, to work out and understand. Explorations, not explanations.”
The fiction that comes out of such explorations – out of the questions and attempted answers, imagined and drafted and reimagined and redrafted, out of the love that begins to root itself in the work (Who can keep that from happening?) – that fiction is very silly business at best. It’s a silly way to spend one’s time. Lots and lots of one’s time.
Writing is too much work to make a good hobby. It’s solitary and tedious, notwithstanding the joy of completing a scene or chapter that makes a writer’s heart skip with satisfaction: “That’s exactly what I wanted to happen there,” or “That turned out even better than I hoped.” A reasonable person might consider such satisfaction a disproportionately meager reward for the time and effort spent obtaining it.
Things go undone for want of time and energy spent writing. Life passes by unlived while writers are caught up with people who aren’t people at all. They are characters who have no substance weightier than kilobytes and ink. Yet they are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. They are the apples of our eyes, at least for a while. If we write them well enough, we or anyone else can return to them after many years and again delight in their humor and hubris, in their pride and their prejudices.
We have searched our characters and we know them. We comprehend their every move and the reasons behind it. There is not a word on their tongues that we do not thoroughly understand. We know their backstories, the unwritten details that give heft to their thoughts and words and actions. We writers know our characters more thoroughly that any human being ever knows another, friend or lover, child or parent. We know our characters as only a creator can.
We love our characters too. We fall in love with them over the course of the months and years we spend together. All their little quirks and cuteness, with which we are intimately acquainted, sweep us off our feet. We can’t help imagining how much others are bound to love them too. What if an actor such as Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro, Ryan Gosling or Emily Blunt crosses paths with our beloved offspring? Won’t any one of them, more than anything else in the world, want to become the face of one of our beautifully drawn characters, as Gregory Peck became the face of Atticus Finch? It stands to reason, right? It could happen. It happened to an unknown gal from Alabama who hit the trifecta: Bestseller, Pulitzer, Iconic Film. It could happen again. To us.
These are the thoughts that come to mind, despite our better judgement. Despite our unspoken fear that our characters, like litters of unwanted kittens, will live out their playful and entertaining lives within the four walls of our homes. We know this is the most likely and disappointing outcome. Nobody wants to become a cat lady, and no writer wants to churn out unread stories.
There are plenty of excellent reasons not to go to the trouble of writing. But if we believe the world may be a better place because our characters are birthed into it, well, that’s a good enough reason to stick with it. And when one work is finished, it’s a good enough reason to begin again at Genesis, hoping for the best, even though the best we can hope for is very silly business indeed.
© L K Simonds