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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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Paradiso or Inferno? Writers on writing

GERMANY-HUNGARY-LITERATURE-KERTESZ          michener

Imre Kertesz (above) found writing an angst-ridden struggle but James Michener (below) relished every syllable

I’ve just started writing a new play after a fallow year spent licking my wounds when a promising commission failed to materialise into a theatrical production. I know, I’m too thin skinned; finding time to write has also been my greatest problem: when you work and have a family, time slips by before you know it. Of course, this is a convenient excuse. Why not get up two hours earlier and write before work? How about stopping writing this blog and turning out four pages of dialogue instead? The fact is, for me journalism and blog posts are fun, flow easily and I love sharing them, but I find creative writing tough going. I’ll make any excuse – even doing the ironing, for crying out loud, a job I loathe, rather than sitting down in front of that anxiety-producing blank page.

It made me wonder about other writers’ procrastination techniques, and their attitude to writing. Years ago, I interviewed the playwright Tom Stoppard for my university magazine and he told me that although he loved the rush of adrenalin when his writing was pouring out of him, the hardest thing for him was to get started. “I’ll do anything to avoid sitting down at my desk”, he said. “I’ll drink five cups of coffee. I’ll read the paper. If I really want to avoid writing, I’ll even clean my tennis shoes!”

He’s not alone, but not all writers  hesitate. Some relish the act of creation. “I love writing”, said James Michener. “I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”  For writers with a strong ego like Saul Bellow, writing was a manifestation of self-belief and “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  Similarly, Martin Amis refutes the idea of the struggling writer and the pain of writer’s block, stating he follows a “throb, a glimmer, an act of recognition” that turns, inevitably, into a novel.  For John Barth, the creative muse is awoken following an intriguing ritual which includes filling his Parker fountain pen, opening up a 40 year-old ring-bind folder and inserting crisp pages of lined paper and wearing wax earplugs to banish external noise. Writers are also notoriously superstitious. In the delightful film Shakespeare in Love, Shakespeare rubs his quill between his hands, spits three times and practises his signature before writing Act I of Romeo and Juliet. We can only guess if he did this, of course, but we do know Roald Dahl used to rug up to write in his freezing garden shed in the depths of winter because only when he felt uncomfortable did his imagination roam freely. To each his own.

Writing is a hard task master, an unforgiving mistress. “You must write every single day of your life”, Ray Bradbury urges us sternly. (He obviously never got up at 2am to feed a crying baby, nor spent a day with a sick toddler who vomits every half hour.) Sometimes, your best intentions go by the wayside. “I love deadlines”, quips Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” As  Ernest Hemingway put it with characteristic terseness: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

If only there was a blueprint to follow, things might be easier, but W Somerset Maugham dashes even this faint hope: “There are three rules for writing a novel”, he asserts. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  Even the prolific Neil Gaiman recognises the frequent futility of the task. “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job”, he muses. “It’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins… This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”  The outcome is always uncertain and you’ll probably agree with Michael Cunningham that “one always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper.”  You only hope you’ll avoid writing the kind of novels, as Charles Dickens observes in Oliver Twist, “of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”

So why stick pins in yourself? Are all writers stark, raving mad? Yes, says George Orwell. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”  As for Imre Kertész, whenever he sat down to write, “it felt like a tragic fate I had to endure.”   Again, Hemingway recognises the folly of the writing process. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Still, when the work is completed, there’s a definite feeling of satisfaction and relief.  “I hate writing”, Dorothy Parker confides, “I love having written.” And then maybe, just maybe, you might have made a difference. “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” advises Toni Morrison.  After all, as Ishmael Reed notes wisely – “no-one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.”

Back to the drawing board. I’ve run out of excuses. I’d better crack on with Scene 4. To quote Neil Gaiman once more: “Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.”