Why We Write

Ignoring the irony (of reading an internet article rather than actually writing), I’ve just read with interest this post on why writers write, and who they write for. As all good articles should, it got me thinking about my own processes in regard to who I write for when I sit down at the keyboard.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that I’ve decided to write freelance full-time because as a lifestyle it suits me. A while ago (about a year and-a-half to two years ago, in fact) I completed one of those psychometric test thingies about ‘My Ideal Career’.* Notable highlights of the results include:

Autonomy / independence     

Your profile suggests that your top ingredient, or anchor, is autonomy / independence. This means that what you need most from your career is the chance to define your own work in your own way. Above else, you need a sense of freedom.


Pure challenge

Above all, you like the thrill of a challenge. At your best you:

Make a formidable trouble-shooter. When difficulty presents, others may tremble with fear, but you relish the challenge.

Are well suited to start-up projects. Someone needs to get a project off the ground? They don’t know where to begin? You can rise to the challenge.

Are the star performer. Whether you are the engineer who loves difficult designs, the consultants to rescue clients on the brink of bankruptcy or the professional athlete who wins for England.

Writing is, apparently, the thing I am good at, and combined with my mental make-up the independence and challenge of freelance writing ticks all of my boxes. It gives me the freedom I crave, whilst offering the rewards for recognition and achievement that give me satisfaction. While I loved the creativity of working with a talented team in the GW design studio, what really gets my boat floating these days is proving to myself (and others) that I can do it. The blank page that terrifies so many others is (to horribly mix metaphors) the red rag to my bull. It all makes a horrible sense…

This means that, as all writers claim, I do write for myself – but others need to read it. In order to give myself the buzz I need, it’s not enough just to write for the sake of it. I have a point to prove, and to prove it to myself I need to prove it to others. It’s not enough to be a good writer – nay, a great writer – others have to agree with me! This is not to say that I consider myself a great writer (yet ;-)), but that’s the driver behind what I do, so we all understand where I’m coming from.

In short, I write to show off that I can write, if that makes sense…

When I write, I do so on two levels and with both the reader and myself in mind. On the surface I make sure I write stories that have appeal to the target audience and hopefully deliver what they want from a story. That’s still an ongoing process of developing my trade and gaining ever more experience.

Being a ‘successful’ writer opens up all sorts of questions regarding the nature of success. Questions I don’t want to delve into here, other than to paraphrase a scene from the Christmas special of Extras. Andy (Ricky Gervais’ character) is having problems with his agent and is unsettled by the work he is getting. His agent tells him that very few people can be both respected and famous. Most people can either be respected or famous; which one does he want to be? Andy replies immediately that he wants to be famous – which leads him to appearing on Celebrity Big Brother and realising he’s turned into a complete git…

So, do I want to be respected or famous? Is it possible to combine commerciality with some degree of respectability? At what point does material success become a vindication in its own right? Art vs populism is another lengthy debate I’ll avoid for the moment (and perhaps for the rest of my life). To sum up my position, all the best writing in the world (on whatever scale one cares to measure it) doesn’t really count for much if nobody reads it. Unless someone else also enjoys a story I’ve written, it’s a pointless endeavour. On the flipside, just because something is popular doesn’t automatically qualify it as a success. Quantity is not a quality in itself. Not to labour the point, but while I’d love to have the success of The Da Vinci Code, I certainly wouldn’t want my name on the cover of that abysmally-written rubbish…

This means that my first port of call when devising a story or novel is not my own desires for it, but the external sensitivities of the readers. First and foremost I see writing as entertainment, and it’s my job as a writer to deliver that. It can be thought-provoking or mindless fun, I’m happy either way; it does have to make the grade on the most important check of all – will anybody want to read it?

Having come up with a story that I believe will have appeal, I then start to make things difficult for myself. Plot, characters and setting (yup, those old three friends again) are merely a vehicle for me to indulge my need for a challenge. Underneath that ‘surface layer’ I have to go a bit further to satisfy myself, to provide myself with the extra challenge to overcome. I have to make things more complicated than necessary, because otherwise writing becomes a simple excercise in the formula of plot-character-setting, a literary equivalent of painting by numbers. I’ll work in subtexts and themes that only I can see – usually. It’s not only in-jokes or obscure cultural or historical references , it’s also about adding in a meaning to a scene or a thread of theme that gives me a personal enjoyment when I re-read my work. It’s unimportant whether the reader picks up on what I’ve done, and it no way detracts from their enjoyment of the story.

In the end, I write what I want to read, as many authors do. The benefit of being a writer is that I can write exactly want I want to read, and that gives me a 100% appreciation of what’s been written. The emotional connection, my state of mind and goals as I wrote a particular paragraph or line of dialogue can be revisited every time I reread that sentence or chapter. No matter how much analysis could be made, and even if I gave a running commentary in footnotes or laid out everything afterwards in an interview, the precise relationship I have with my creation can never be replicated by anyone else.

“It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.”

*The blurb explaining it all: “Edgar Schein developed 8 life anchors that reflect our basic values, motives and needs. Of the 8 anchors there are usually one or two that we won’t give up. Knowing what these are is important because when choices have to be made our anchors come into play and become a driving force behind the decisions that we make. Our anchors evolve once we begin our working life and then generally remain stable across our adult life. Schein used the metaphor of anchor because once we know what our top two anchors are we track how these have floated with the different career paths we’ve taken throughout life. So just like an anchor we won’t forgo this basic need however we use the insight to see how we can adapt our situations to be consistent with our anchors.”

Published in: on March 31, 2009 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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