Why Do You Write?

Why Do You Write?

Think of your favorite book.

Better yet, go and get your favorite book, feel its heft in your hand, flip through its pages, smell its bookness. Read a passage or two to send that stream of sparks through your head, the alchemy that occurs when the written word collides with the chemicals of your consciousness: Delight is the fruit of that collision.

When I was seven or eight years old, I’d walk to the nearby public library, and go into the section on dinosaurs. I would lie in the aisle for hours, surrounded by scattered stacks of books, driving through a landscape of imagination, fueled by words.

At first, I was simply thrilled by the stories of the great beasts, but after a time, I began to realize that I was taken by the words themselves—Jurassic, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus—and would say them softly aloud.

Many, many books later, it began to dawn on me that books were the conscious, choice-making work of authors. I started to fathom that a writer employed tools, framed a composition, and shaped its architecture.

Deeper yet, that writing had a voice, that it was animated by a current.

When I was twelve years old, I was swimming in the ocean when I was tugged out by a small rip current that took me, amidst slamming waves, against the supports of a public pier. I screamed for help at the people looking down at me; no one seemed to react.

I was terrified that I would die, while enraged that no one cared.

In my agitation, I didn’t know that someone had called a lifeguard, who quickly rescued me.

Months later, for a class assignment, I wrote an essay in which I described in detail my fear, fury and despair. My teacher later read the story aloud, saying it was a vivid slice of life. At the end of the year, the school handed out student awards, and I was given a little cloisonné pin that said “Best Writer.”

I knew before then that writing had an unusual power over me, but the commendation told me that language, even my language, could hold sway over others as well.

I read broadly, though wrote only sporadically.

When I was fifteen, my parents granted me the indulgence of letting a friend paint, in a nice cursive script, the final page of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha on the wall, floor to ceiling, facing my bed. I thought that constantly reading those mindful words would prompt some spiritual renaissance.

My other teenage absorptions checked that vow, but my interest in the power of words increased all the more.

Hesse said in an essay: “…I want to dream myself into priests and wanderers, female cooks and murderers, children and animals, and, more than anything else, birds and trees…” To me, he’s talking about the force of imagination, the authority of an authentic voice.

More and more, I came to see that the world of imagination is the biggest world there is, and that a writer can write to see the unexpected, to know the hidden, to do as Asimov suggested and “think through his fingers.”

And that words can be so sensual you want to lick them.

I saw evidence everywhere that people were storytellers. They have been storytellers for ages, whether the words were inscribed on resistant stone, delivered in a lilting voice or caught in an electronic dance. I knew I wanted to be a storyteller too. However, I was still striking the anvil of ideas with brute blows, yet to learn the deft stitching and tight knots in narrative’s fabric.

But I wasn’t discouraged enough not to write.

I tried poems, short stories, personal essays…. and twenty years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle accepted my article on my 15-year correspondence with the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, publishing it in the beloved Sunday Punch section.

I bought 10 copies, and sat on a bench in Golden Gate Park just staring at my byline, not even reading the article. Still not literature, not the stuff of Lear’s stormy fulminations, of Conrad’s lurid Congo, of Twain’s beckoning twang, but for me, word magic.

I finally realized that I couldn’t wait for inspiration, a muse whose answering machine is all I got when I called.

So, since then, I’ve written a handful of published stories, a basketful of essays and articles, a finished novel that sleeps soundly, another in s-l-o-w progress.

I write because language is a bright bird, uncatchable, but worth every attempt. [Writers, aiieee, such dramatists!]

Why do you write?

Post by Tom Bentley

Tom Bentley is a business writer, essayist and fiction writer. See his lurid website confessions right here.

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  1. Great price of work Tom;

    Really captivating and kept me reading every word till the very end.
    I believe that the best works are those intertwined with stories, because that is what makes them interesting and also, gives a human aspects to it – and, sometimes we can also rpersonally relate to them.

    “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”
    Fitzgerald

  2. Ops – a couple of errors in the earlier comment, so reposting:

    Great piece of work Tom;

    Really captivating and kept me reading every word till the very end.
    I believe that the best works are those intertwined with stories, because that is what makes them interesting and also, gives a more human feel to it – and sometimes, we can also personally relate to them. They resonate very strongly within us.

    “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”
    Fitzgerald.

  3. Ooh what a fantastic blog post that landed in my inbox today! I’ve recently admitted to myself how much writing means to me and secretively curse myself for all of those years I’ve now wasted hiding it and not practicing.

    your question is very relevant and I believe is one every writer should stop and ask themself every once in a while.

    My answer today: I write because creating stories makes my soul dance and makes me feel at home in myself, and when someone else reads it, it’s like a magical invisible connection between me and another human being on Earth. Nothing can beat that feeling. I write because I want to share my fantasy world ( which I personally think is pretty cool and awesome) with others. Writing makes me feel better at home with myself in this world.

    • Sophia, a dancing soul is a fine thing; I’d recommend it for all conditions and circumstances! I love your comment that writing makes you feel at home with yourself and the world. In that sense, it’s both a kind of negotiation between the self and the world, an offering to both, and a thing received as well. That ain’t bad.

  4. Beautiful writing Tom. Perfect for Thanksgiving Day.

    I’ll have to check out some of the references you made. Especially love the Asimov quote that writing is thinking through your fingers. Haven’t thought about Asimov for a while and will have to get his books off my “keeper” shelf.

    • Mary, thank you. Yeah, I dig the Asimov quote too, obviously. It has that “I write because I want to find out what I’m going to write” sense, which in a way, always happens when you pull and push a piece of writing, and discover that it’s pulling and pushing you.

  5. Nice to be reminded of some philosophical literature, such as Hermanne Hesse. I remember when i used to read that sort of thing, including people like Albert Camus , Jean Paul Satre, I guess it was a movement of sorts , existentialism, it was an interesting period that’s for sure.
    I have problems finding a good read these days.
    Having ventured on various writing courses I have settled for the meantime on writing a blog about my walking adventures! I work full time in an unfilling job which dulls my brain, and I have yet to find a way to get the balance between what I have to do and what I want to do. Eventually I am going to set up another blog about writing and reading, so I can engage more with other writers and readers.
    julie connelly
    icantexplainmyfeet.com!

    • Julie, it’s been a while since I’ve broken out the existentialists too. I always loved Sartre’s Nausea, which sounds funny just saying it (but some of his sentences are exquisite, in their unerring needle under your flesh). But I think there’s much marvelous literature around, people like Cormac McCarthy (sometimes an acquired taste), Marilynne Robinson, Margaret Atwood and others who work in some deeper channels.

      Writing about walking adventures sounds dandy to me—I’ve had some adventures just going from the house to the garage. If the words are right, writing about Post-It notes can be compelling.

      Love the name of your site, by the way.

  6. I would rather not write. I would rather talk. But I know that I cannot talk to all the people who want to hear what i have to say. So I try to write. I try to bend ‘talking’ into ‘writing’. Occasionally I seem to get it nearly right.

    Hey ho

    • Patricia, hey ho back at you! It’s a subtle gift to render the real voice on the page, without the bind of being obliged to feel “writerly” (and thus mess it all up with labored striving and expectation).

      I marvel both at people who seem to offer their ideas effortlessly (though I suspect that’s not the case), and also at authors who are able to render dialog from the mouths of their diverse characters in words that ring true on the page and in life.

      And now, I have to attend to Thanksgiving tasks (ones with happy anticipation behind them)—Happy Thanksgiving to all you stateside folks!

  7. :) I think my answer to this question should be updated by myself as the years go by–an addition to what I may say right now or a revised edition,if I may say.Probably a deeper understanding of why I write.

    At the moment I write because I have to express myself.It is one of the few avenues I use to free myself from all the voices in my head.

    I doubt I’ll be sane if I refuse to write.I write to keep my sanity in check.

    I write because it is a way I know how to…I write because I love to write :)

    • Royyce, I’m with you on the updating of the writing quest. As many writers have observed, a piece of writing isn’t ever actually finished, it’s just abandoned. And one would hope, in favor of another piece of writing.

      And since it’s time to trot out some writing quotes, your remark about writing keeping your sanity in check reminds me of that Flaubert quote, “The more normal and routine my life is, the more I can go crazy in my mind. As a writer I live in my imagination.” Sounds like a nice place to live.

  8. Beautifully written.

  9. I write because the words pour out. I don’t always choose them, they choose me. I write not for you, but because the surging tide of words flows more than it ebbs. I write because I need to get the thoughts out. Not *want*, NEED.

    When I don’t write for a while, I feel anxious, like the words and thoughts are filling me to bursting.

    • Steve, I admire your passion. Story ideas are more like an itch for me, once that might subside for a bit, and then flare again, until it’s scratched by opening the word-gate. Some itchings have more persuasion than others, so they need greater attention. (Though some are just minor discomforts that subside on their own.) Keep flowing!

  10. I’ve spent most of my life in my head. I have a constant swirl of thoughts of regrets and hopes and dreams making their way ’round and ’round in my mind. I play with the words as an incomplete puzzle and wonder about how best to assess their meaning in my life. What should I add and what should I take away? As Monk might say, it’s a blessing and a curse.

    I have so much I want to say, and yet when open my mouth to let the words out, they stay hidden. They’re unsure and incomplete. So I write. Writing affords me the time to complete my thoughts, to edit that mass of jumbled up mess in my head. Writing lets me think before I speak. I probably think too long and write too safe. I suspect my dad was similarly plagued with too many thoughts and no way to speak them. So he wrote.

    • Hi Dorci. There are so many kinds of and approaches to writing, and definitely one of them you’re alluding to—writing that provides a logic and a pattern to sort and shelve ideas so the relationships behind the ideas are clear. Or that let you see that the ideas really ARE a jumble without a defining core, which can be helpful too.

      Writing too safe is another matter entirely. I’m guilty of that too often. Sometimes it is liberating to throw your package of words over the cliff (while still assembling the package with writerly care) just to see where it falls, and how it feels when it lands.

    • Martha Laurencia says:

      Hi

      You really say something! I also spend most of my life in my head! I have to write to find my inner peace, otherwise at times, I become so depressed and broody, no one will imagine. If not writing, I am hunted by all the characters in my head until I write about them and get them out of my system.

      Martha

      • Martha, I love your “hunted by all the characters in my head”—that’s such an apt description about stories and characters that pursue you, rather than the other way around. Scary when they corner you and you have to face them, eh?

        I have a story like that, that’s been following me around for a while now, popping up to show its face from the reedy fringes of unconsciousness, and gesturing at me. I’ll have to step forward and pin it on paper soon so it will stop haunting me.

  11. Hi Tom, for my personal reasons I found your post a little eerie, if I may say so.

    I, too, used to lie on the floor in my local library reading (Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle, in my case, with their mysterious islands and lost lands of dinosaurs).

    And the first piece of writing that I was publicly praised for was a story about how I almost drowned three times as a child, and how every time I was desperate for help, watching adults stand around on the shore, laughing and pointing at me, unable to believe I was actually drowning. Ha, those were the days.

    Anyway, a beautiful piece of writing — going off to bookmark your website.

    • Austin, sorry I missed your comment last time through—but maybe I avoided it because you’re my Doppelgänger, and are keeping pace with me in some parallel universe? (Hey, if that’s the case, will you pay my utility bills?) Interesting stuff on what pulled at your writing core—those imaginative islands in our early imaginations seem to be places we visit again and again.

      And yeah, those dramatic moments, such as when your life is threatened, put you in that reflective space where writing can emerge. Glad you survived, and thanks for the nice thoughts.

  12. Paul Novak says:

    Ha! Spend a year or two steadily churning out 15,000 words a month of dry, souless, market driven copy. Then get a dozen or two emergency-gotta have now- press releases thrown in every couple weeks along with four or five “oops we forgot these are due in two days can you do it?” newsletter and ad copy assignments. Then we’ll see how ya feel about words!

    Hehe, sorry but I couldn’t resist.

    I had similar feelings and even similar situations in my younger days when it came to writing. Even now I still dream of writing that book of short stories I’ve had floating in my brain for the last 5 years, and maybe pushing once again to land a column in a local publication. Love of writing is what motivated me to begin writing for a living, of course.

    But after a few years of writing nothing but sales copy, white papers, advertising and press releases, “burn out” doesn’t even begin to describe how I more often than not feel when it comes to writing aything these days. I’m now more apt to avoid the keyboard rather than lose myself with it.

    It’s depressing at times how something you once enjoyed can become a tedious chore when the creativity is taken away and a deadline takes its place. But until I find that dream gig willing to pay me for writing whatever and however I want, that’s the way it goes.

    Writing may not make my soul dance or free my inner thoughts these days, but it does pay the bills.
    :)

    • Paul, I hear you on writing marketing copy for dough, and then trying to turn on the creative spigots—I’ve been writing marketing copy for 20 years, and after I’ve spent some hours at the screen bathed in my commercial blather, it can be challenging to get pumped up to pump out a character-driven narrative that has some soul.

      However, I feel strongly that east can be west here: copywriting can certainly be a creative art, and a venue for drawing in your audience with a writer’s tools of character, drama, conflict and resolution. It’s a neighbor to the fictional stage yes, but it’s within shouting distance. (I even wrote a little guide called Creative or Commercial: You Don’t Have to Choose on the very subject, free on my site.)

      But a full day wheeling words in the commercial sphere often leaves me spent too, so I try to set aside some portion (schedule willing) of most days to also work on an essay or article or story, even as little as a half-hour, rather than waiting until day’s end. Of course, you have to be able to work at home to get away with it, unless you’re a skillfully sneaky office worker. And it is amazing how small chunks of time can add up: I finished my newest novel by just writing in half-hour stretches—it adds up.

      I get the burn-out feeling you’re talking about as well, but luckily, the skies also open up now and then to a sense that the blank page is ready to hold some magic. Keep at it!

Trackbacks

  1. […] his attachment to the world of words from boyhood, Tom Bentley in Why Do You Write? at Men With Pens recalls: I came to see that the world of imagination is the biggest world there […]

  2. […] a bit of my own news: Men With Pens put up a post of mine about “Why I Write.” Go there and tell me why you write as well. Or why […]

  3. […] Think about why you write, and what you love about it. Where did it begin? What keeps you writing today? This article explores why Tom Bentley writes – and he shares his story with you.  […]

  4. […] a bit of my own news: Men With Pens put up a post of mine about “Why I Write.” Go there and tell me why you write as well. Or why […]

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