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Into the Lion’s Den (2): Why do Writers Write?

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Lucinda Crowden and Jacob Antolini at my reading of Muffins At the Death Café

On a day following the death of Nelson Mandela, when everything seems greyer and less substantial, I’m writing this post conscious that anything I produce may seem trivial and irrelevant. Yet it’s been a big week for me in many ways, and some of you have asked me how my reading went – and I’m happy to share.

I’m pretty sure all writers experience six degrees of separation when they hear their work read aloud: on the one hand, they know what’s coming next; on the other, the fact that the words they wrote are being articulated by someone else gives the text a degree of unreality. Did they actually write this? Where did it come from?

This is especially true of a play, when characters physicalise their existence on stage. An actor and director’s interpretation may be very different from how the writer envisaged the character to be, which can either create a grievous disconnect, or conversely throw a brilliant light onto the character and give the writer a whole new lead on motivation or even plot.

Workshops, such as the one my play Muffins At the Death Café was part of last week (only last week!!) are hugely useful opportunities for actors, director and writer to see what works, uncover new ways of staging, get rid of dead wood or stagnant passages, and re-evaluate the flow of the play. I arrived nervous, I left empowered.  Yes, there were areas I felt needed more exploring, some characters whose arc needed strengthening, some scene rejigging, some cutting, some expanding, but overall the play – plot, construct, character – worked. It was a living, breathing thing which I hoped the audience would respond  to at our Monday public reading.

At the same time, I started thinking about why I wrote this play, why writers write in general, and reproduce some interesting findings by Charles D Deguara, (cj @authorspromoter.com). One hundred writers were interviewed and asked, “why do you write?”

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15% of writers write as a way to express themselves

13% of writers write because they have to

13% of writers write to help others

11% of writers write to educate

8% of writers write because their imagination shows them unimagined worlds

6% of writers write to influence

6% of writers write because they were influenced by authors they read

10% of writers write because it’s therapeutic

5% of writers write because it’s a passion

3% of writers write primarily because it’s their job

2% of writers write primarily to entertain

2% of writers write to immortalise themselves or others, leaving a lasting mark on earth

2% of writers write for exposure and fame

2% of writers write because they were victims of circumstance

2% of writers write because of curiosity

Now, I can understand  many of these motivations – in particular the wish to influence (the basis of course for Sartre’s artiste engagé), the desire to leave your mark, the overwhelming need to write because it’s the itch you have to scratch and of course art as catharsis. But I also feel there the survey could have gone far deeper.

For example, George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Why I Write, examines the four underlying motives for writing: “sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose”. There’s an honesty here: let’s not forget that healthy dash of ego. Without it, you’d probably never put pen to paper. There has to be a fundamental conviction, despite the angst, that you have what it takes.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means”, says Joan Didion.  And that’s true too. The deeper you get into your characters, the more you understand what and why you’re writing. For Don de Lillo, writing “frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write …. mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”  Writing as lifejacket – I haven’t got there yet. This is what separates full-time writers from those like me who squeeze in writing whenever they can. On my “aspirational” list.

For Truman Capote, writing is an aesthetic wonder. “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” Making something beautiful, of course!  Isn’t that part of the drive – to get the words just right?

And then there’s screenwriter and lecturer Robert Mckee, whose seminal textbook “Story” is probably on every first year film student’s reading list. Writing for him imposes order on chaos. That’s something I really relate to. When I delve into characters, I can often make a lot more sense of their lives than I do of my own. Writing creates a structure to the equivocation of everyday life that defines purpose and meaning. And that’s essential.

But what surprised me most about this survey was that not one of the writers interviewed talked about the need to communicate a really good story! I found that almost unbelievable. Why would you write, unless you felt your yarn would reach out to people, touch them, force them to sit up, shock them, get them laughing, weeping, make them angry or motivated? Why would you write if you felt your story didn’t have wings?  “Those of us who write do it because there are stories inside us burning to get out”, says Isabel Allende. And the joy of sharing those stories is part of the motivation, too.

So back to my reading. How did it go?  Better than I could ever have hoped. What a wonderful, wonderful response!  I can’t tell you how gratified I am, as a writer, when audiences get your jokes, laugh in the right places, say your characters are totally believable, feel moved by their dilemmas, share their anxieties and tell you that the play has a storyline that resonates.

The Q&A session we held with the audience after the reading was invaluable, generating many ideas for my next draft, pointing out some highlights, a few inconsistencies, but overall re-iterating their positive reaction. It was just the kick of confidence I needed to swing back into the writing saddle and finish the second draft, which I hope to do over the Australian summer.

So to my marvellous actors, Lucinda Cowden, Jacob Antolini, Chloe Ng, Mason Gasowski, Donna DePalma, Aston Elliot, director Tammie Kite – thank you!  It was a joy to work with you, and I’m so grateful for your enthusiasm and excitement working on my new play.  All I can say is – watch this space!  Because now I can’t wait to get scribbling…..

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Chloe Ng at the Muffins At the Death Café reading

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