I did more than 10 years as a working journalist before turning my attention to writing fiction. I've interviewed Cub Scouts, movie stars, presidents, metal workers, artists, strippers and forensic psychologists, to name a few. By and large, getting them to talk was mostly a matter of asking the right questions, ones they hadn't heard before.
I failed big time with Spenser for Hire creator Robert B. Parker in 2005. He challenged me to ask him something no journalist ever had. I let the fanboy in me take control and dropped the ball. He responded with the same practiced quotes he gave everyone else. Advice for upcoming writers? “Stop,” he said. “I don't need the competition.” I'd heard it before because he'd said it before — to some other reporter. Who went back to his desk, like I did, and wrote nothing at all illuminating about Robert B. Parker.
Thus, I cringed when I read the question Will Blythe wrapped a whole book around: “Why even attempt to write literature in the first place?” (Why I Write, page xiii.) It's a bad question, akin to “Why did you climb Everest?” The answer to either query is, an unhealthy percentage of the time, going to be some masturbatory variation on “Because it was there.”
Blythe's book, Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction, did not exceed my low expectations. Whether it was Pat Conroy patting himself on the back (“A novel is the greatest act of passion and intellect, carpentry and largess, that a human being can pull off in one lifetime.” (Why I Write, page 47)) or Joy Williams and Jayne Anne Phillips creating their own class of citizen and putting themselves into it in the third person ( “... a writer isn't supposed to make friends. The writer doesn't trust his enemies … The writer is an exhibitionist ...” “The writer is, first, genetically predisposed to write ... (Why I Write, pages 8-9, 192)), Blythe and his cohorts reminded me why I don't hang out with anyone who describes himself as “artsy” or “creative.”
The best essays in the book barely address Blythe’s question, other than metaphorically. Elizabeth Gilbert opines that she's no good at anything else (Why I Write, page 105) but spends the rest of the time telling stories about other people and a fictional cat who became a rabbit to make a story work. Rick Bass writes about the rite of writing (Why I Write, page 74) and the importance of fiction.
But writing apparently makes Terry McMillan less self-absorbed (Why I Write, page 79) and Tom Chiarella uses it to compensate for his small penis, amongst other inadequacies (Why I Write, page 182). Meanwhile, the only time Norman Mailer can “know the truth is at the point of [his] pen” (Why I Write, page 4). I believe Mailer stole that line from someone else.
In the first sentence of her essay, Joy Williams suggests, “It's become fashionable these days to say that a writer writes because he is not whole: he has a wound, he writes to heal it” (Why I Write, page 5) She then offers her belief that, fashion or not, the statement is true. All writers are, she seems to say, screwed up. I suspect she loved Why I Write, because nearly every essay bears out her belief. If Why I Write is a representative sample (although I suspect it's not because I've only read the works of four of the writers shrived in its pages) then for every healthy writer, there are three or four who write out of some pathology or other.
Bunk. I'm sure there are basket cases aplenty in the literary world but I imagine most of us write for a simple reason: We want to see what we can do with the tool.
I started writing because it got me something: Praise, sometimes, but more often a few last-minute-essay points on my English or Social Studies grade. As I got older, I used it to impress girls, or to win back ones I'd lost. Older yet, I realized another purpose. To paraphrase playwright Christopher Fry, writing is the vehicle I use to explore my own amazement and take others for the ride. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards puts it more clearly: “What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way, you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get resonance. Where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing” (Life, Keith Richards).
And now I’ve joined Blythe’s tribe of navel gazers, but at least I did it in two short paragraphs, not page after page of bushwa.
In his next life, Blythe and the reading public might be best served by changing the question. If “Why do you write?”works best as a platform for self flagellation, try “What is writing for?” or “What is your best writing war story?” The results, I think, will be more meaningful and more readable.