‘Why Do You Write?’ What I would have asked myself as a teenage writer instead of the question I got

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is based on the author’s personal experience of writing fiction and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

One memory about my time as a member of the Writers’ Club in my high school sticks out to me. The English teacher who organized the club had reached out to a local writer, asking her to meet with our group at the nearby coffee shop in the tiny town where our school was located. My area oozes writers—probably because of some cosmic vortex that churns them out of the dry dirt, reaching hands up toward the vast, impossibly vast blue sky overhead for literally anything beyond a monotonous high plains landscape—so she could’ve been anybody. I didn’t catch her name because I was a teenager and bad with names. 

I’m still bad with names but no longer a teenager. I wish I’d remembered who she was. 

My friends and I met with this writer in the evening, early enough in the school year that the weather hadn’t yet changed to nasty, blustery cold. We sat outside, where we could barely hear each other every time a train rumbled past on the nearby tracks. We held our notebooks poised, ready to jot down any writing wisdom she thought to dole out. 

I will say, I was rather disappointed by how the meeting went, because she didn’t talk to us about writing craft. Instead, she asked us if we knew who was running for Prime Minister of Britain. This was an odd question for us because this meeting was in the United States, and only two of us had just turned of an age to even be legally allowed to vote. 

Probably there was some poignant point she meant for us to take away from the discussion that followed. I expect it had to do with how every bit of existance—from the extraordinary to the mundane—filters into the topics we write about. How pulling from reality breathes life into our stories. I don’t know what the others expected, but I know for my part, I wanted to learn how to cram the three-dimensional stories inside my head into linear words on a piece of paper and make those sound good. I wanted to know about craft and instead got politics. 

I remembered this moment recently because I often consider how I would answer writing craft questions that a less experienced writer might happen to ask me. That I might have asked myself. Also, you know, for my writing craft blog series. So I imagined what question I would pose to a handful of teenagers who’d be into writing angst and fanfiction, if presented with the kind who wrote at all. 

If I’d wanted to get them thinking, I would’ve asked, why do you write?

Obviously, this question gets thrown around online quite a bit for Twitter interaction. (Perhaps, with the current state of Twitter’s recent new ownership, I’d ask them if they knew who’d just bought Twitter, one of the most powerful networking social medias for writers. They’d likely make a TikTok to dunk on me, which would be fair.) But it’s a valid question that writers should ask themselves on the regular. Motive determines plot, after all.

Following the exercise further, I suspect our lil’ baby writer answers might have varied between “I want to communicate a story” and “I love the act of choosing the right words.” Probably those both would have been true for me. But now?

Now, if asked why do you write?, I’d say, I write because I enjoy having written

One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy, a collection of interviews compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. In it, Leonard S. Marcus interviews Lloyd Alexander, who, though I’d read or heard of most of the other writers featured, was a new name to me. His answer to the final interview question struck me as delightfully relatable.

Q: What do you like best about being a writer?

A: When I have finished the book and don’t have to write it anymore!

The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy, excerpted from an interview with Lloyd Alexander by Leonard S. Marcus

Unlike Lloyd Alexander, I don’t mind continuing to pick at a story. A little revision here or there every time I’m getting ready to submit anew means I’m still putting out my best work, with recent skills development included. 

But I love to be done with a story most of all. I don’t just write for myself, as many a fine writer does, but for an audience. I badly want people to read and enjoy my work, which can’t happen when I’m still working on it. This element almost certainly drew me to writing short stories and fanfiction—short stories because they actually get done, and fanfiction because it comes with a built-in audience and thus gets views almost immediately

This is why I force my partner to listen to me read aloud my most recent additions to my novels-in-progress, because I need that instant feedback. He doesn’t mind. Probably. 

So if ever I sit outside a coffee shop to meet with a gaggle of teenage writers, I’ll probably seem just as unhelpful to them as that writer from my past did to teenage me. They’ll want to know craft and I’ll be over here examining their psyches for motivation. Asking them to ask themselves why they feel driven to put down words, to create story, whether fiction or nonfiction. Hopefully, their answers will evolve alongside their skill. Maybe, one day, they’ll arrive at the definitive answer, and remember that once, long ago, I asked. 

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