why writers write

Why Writers Write

What attracted John Banville to novel writing was—in a word—words.  “The world is not real for me until it has been pushed through the mesh of language.  I also had that wonderful conviction that writers have at the beginning that the possibilities are infinite.  I didn’t realize just how difficult it was going to be.  I thought that within five or six years I would be a fully fledged writer.  Here I am now, at the age of sixty-two, still diligently practicing.  But I loved, and still love, the craft.  I am a graphomaniac.  I cannot not write.  If I find myself with a spare forty-five minutes at the end of my working day, I will turn to adding a few sentences to something.”

But, the Booker-prize winner says, and most writers can probably identify, “Fiction is just a constant torment, and an embarrassment.  I loathe my fiction.  I have a fantasy when I’m passing a bookstore that I could click my fingers and all my books would go blank, so that I could start again and get them right.”

“My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.”

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

“I’m not sure exactly why I became a writer. Maybe it was because of my basic insecurity about mastering the act itself, the actual laying down of letters, script, my own handwriting—an identity—on paper… By putting a book with my name on it on a shelf I would arrive, I imagined, at a finished state of being… With a book, I’d have an identity like my heroes who had written powerfully but lived, in some ways, atrociously, guilty of addiction, arrogance, egomania—who knew?—maybe even bad penmanship. But they lived with something else too, something I wasn’t able to understand at nineteen—complex identities, identities that were obviously not fixed, not put away on the shelf. Identites that, for all their flaws and mysteries, informed their written work.”

“Why does one begin to write? Because she feels misunderstood, I guess. Because it never comes out clearly enough when she tries to speak. Because she wants to rephrase the world, to take it in and give it back again differently, so that everything is used and nothing is lost. Because it’s something to do to pass the time until she is old enough to experience the things she writes about.”

“Perhaps I write because as the youngest of five children it was the only way to get all the words out without somebody interrupting me. Writing seemed to be a pressure from outside that got transformed inside and wound up as words on the page. But mostly now I feel that it has come from inside, that it starts inside—if sometimes in response to external events—that it is a pressure from inside to know. To find out. To see.”

“The pressure of not knowing and wanting to know it is the pressure to write, to proceed to knowledge; but it is also the pressure to read, as well as the pressure to live and breathe as a character on a page.”

“Why certain individuals appear to devote their lives to the phenomenon of interpreting experience in terms of structure, and of language, must remain a mysteryIt is not an alternative to life, still less an escape from life, it is life: yet overlaid with a peculiar sort of luminosity, as if one were, and were not, fully inhabiting the present tense…To experience seems not quite enough for us, we want to know what we’ve experienced; we yearn to analyze it, debate it, even, at times, doubt and refute it.”

“Something not us inhabits us; something insists upon speaking through usIt has the force of something inhuman: primitive, almost impersonal, at times almost frighteningThe very concept of the “brainstorm”: a metaphor nearly literal in its suggestion of raging winds, rains, elemental forces.

“Art is fueled by rebellion: the need, in some amounting to obsession, to resist what is; to defy one’s elders, even to the point of ostracism; to define oneself, and by extension one’s generation, as new, novel, ungovernableVirtually all artists begin as children or as adolescents; in adolescents, the need to break away from the past is as powerful as the drive to reproduce the species.”

“The writer who most keenly evokes a landscape, a way of life, a gathering of people is likely to be one who has been exiled from his birthrightIn time, even his (or her) rebellion shifts to a bittersweet sense of loss; even hurt, anger, chagrin become priceless emotions, bound up with the energies of youth.

“The artist is born damned, and struggles through his (or her) life to achieve an ever-elusive redemption, by way of art; a sense of one’s incompleteness or inadequacy fuels the instinct for ceaseless invention, as in an extension of the very self’s perimeters… the artist seems to cast about for a way of re-creating himself in aesthetic terms. Like William Butler Yeats he “makes and unmakes” his soul.

“Writing is peak engagement—like mainlining consciousness.”

“Writers defy time, writing words against the erasure of things and lives. We stand in an avalanche of forgetfulness, resisting the sway of disappearance. Faced with mortality, we mourn what we might have understood and communicated, not in opinion or advice but in the delivery of a world we might have saved. Writing, we cross the divide between set and others word by word.”

In the thirty years of his literary career, Price—as novelist, short-story writer, poet, playwright, essayist and translator—has published twenty-one books, twenty with Atheneum, the publisher of his highly acclaimed first novel, A Long and Happy Life, winner of the William Faulkner and Sir Walter Raleigh awards. Among the novels for which Price is best known are The Surface of Earth, which won the Lillian Smith Award, and Kate Vaiden, for which he was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award.  His short stories have been included in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and The Best American Short Stories.  He has held Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and in 1988 became a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

“I’m compelled in a very invigorating way to write.  It’s not some Dostoyevskian ax-murderer compulsion to spend the day at the keyboard.  No, I love to do it.  I like it better than anything else I do, except being with a small group of very dear friends.”  Even then, he says, “sometimes I have to skedaddle from them and go back and write for a while.”

“It has to be a compulsion. It’s much too squirrelly, if you’re not a squirrel—or the turtle I mentioned. It’s too weird a job unless you’re compelled to go off in a room alone and spend days and years making small black marks on large white paper. It’s such a bizarre choice to make, if you make it a choice; but for me it was a given, and it’s brought me enormous amounts of joy. And it’s helped me to please more than a few strangers.  Writing is a fearsome but grand vocation—potentially healing but likewise deadly. I wouldn’t trade my life for the world.”

What made me be a writer was that I was a passionate reader. I began reading at a very, very early age, and I’ve been a reading junkie ever since — I read all the time. I probably spend more time reading than any other thing I’ve done in my life, including sleeping. I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.

Reading set standards. Reading opened up to me all these norms, or — to put it in a more naive and probably truthful way — ideals. So that to be part of literature, to be even the humblest, lowest member of the great multitude of people who actually dare to put words on paper and publish them, seemed to me the most glorious thing one could do.

Now, in this sort of book-drunken life … in this relation to reading, which is where the writing comes — I didn’t discover I had a talent; I discovered I wanted … to emulate, to honor, by trying to do it myself, as well as continuing to read it and love it and be inspired by it.

And I mean this most passionately. That’s where the standards came from, that’s where the ideas came from of what was good, what was right, what was better, that there was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.

“That is why I write: because I still find comfort in words, because I find safety in the structures one can build from words, and because it is only through writing that I discover exactly what it is I am thinking.”

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of.”

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist