Yesterday afternoon, after a full day of house hunting, I registered to attend the Write Stuff conference in Allentown, PA next month. Yes, I waited until the day before the early bird pricing ended before registering. My procrastination knows no bounds.
Like the last couple of years, the registration form asked a particular question. Why do you write? So I typed in a short answer and moved on, wanting to get the process done with.
Blame it on the fact that I’m currently sitting, tired, in a hospital waiting room (don’t worry, just a side effect of having a spouse with a chronic illness that requires tests to check progress), but I find myself thinking of this question again, more than 12 hours after I answered it.
It’s a question that I’ve been asked from time to time as I’ve been growing up. Why do I write? What is it that makes me sit down and want to put a story on the page? Why would I choose to spend four years of college studying writing, and why would I take a part-time job doing just that?
Why do I write?
The answer that I gave on the Write Stuff registration form was just a short and simple, “Writing helps me make sense of the world around me and the human experience.”
Which is, of course, true. I wouldn’t have given that answer if it wasn’t true. But it’s so much more of that.
Other times, when I’ve been asked this question, I’ve said that it’s because writing keeps me sane, keeps the characters in my head from getting out of control, lets me release that overactive imagination that makes me think someone’s breaking into our apartment at four in the morning.
Also true, yes. All of these answers are completely true.
But why I write? If I’m going to throw out brevity and not give a one-sentence answer, that’s when it gets a little more complicated.
I write to come to terms with the events and people around me. When something happens in my life or in the world that I can’t fully process, or that I don’t want to fully process, I write about it. When I read something online, or hear a news story, or see something in a history book…when I see tragedy, that’s when I have to write to understand why.
It’s probably why I don’t always write “nice” things, something that baffles my parents. I can process butterflies and rainbows. I get humor. What I can’t process is why bad things happen. What I don’t get is what makes people be horrible. Not until I get inside my characters’ heads and write about it.
This is, I believe, what has drawn me to the Jonestown story — what is it that makes a thousand people follow a crazed man to their deaths? What kind of world lets that happen? I can read about it until I go cross-eyed, but I can’t fully understand until I experience it through my characters, as flawed as that may be.
Sometimes I write because a particular character comes into my head and doesn’t leave me along. That’s what happened with my dystopian trilogy, which is in process. The main character popped into my head one day and wouldn’t shut up until I wrote. She had a story that needed to be told, and as I watch the world around me going to hell in a handbasket, I can now understand why.
That’s what writing is for me. Yes, I have to shut up my characters. Yes, I have to process the big events that happen around me or to me. But it comes down to understanding.
I write to understand.