This is a question I ask my students to pose themselves when they take my creative writing class. I want them to be clear about why they do what they want to do right at the start of the semester because so many people have this idea that creative writing is so much fun and easy, and if you just put a little effort into it you can make lots of money with it, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Most writers I know, continue to have to ask themselves that question: why do I do this to myself? Most writers I know are professional creative writers and it’s a thankless profession to say the least. As the saying goes: “Writing is easy. You just sit at a typewriter and open your vein.” (No, Hemingway did not say that).
I think that sums it up nicely.
Writing creatively is such an intimate act that it’s rape when we get criticism. Those of us who pursue the Master of Fine Arts path end up traumatized by the brutal process of being criticized for what we put on the page. Why does it hurt so much? Because it’s impossible to write creatively without putting all of yourself, heart and soul, into each and every word, even when you think you’re just writing some silly thing. You discover how untrue that is the minute someone says, “I really liked it, but –” You don’t really need to go past that “but” to feel like what comes next is going to strip you of any shred of dignity you thought you had. No matter how much you try to dismiss what you wrote, it still came out of you, your thoughts, your passions, your emotions, your perspective on the world. When someone says they don’t like your writing – there is no other way to mince it — they’re saying they don’t like you.
I’m not only a writer but also a teacher, which means I’ve had to mete out my share of criticism, which I try to defend by saying, hey, look, you took this class: you wouldn’t want me to kid you. And in fact, I really hate it when people kid me. I love writing enough, and so much, that I am willing to subject myself to being flailed with every word of criticism, and willing to feel like I’m crimping with shame, and stupidity, and utter self-hatred just so I can make my work better, my writing a little sharper and shinier. So I can not spare my students the criticism, though I try to be as gentle as I can be.
And that’s one of the reason, so often, a writer like me will ask herself, why do I do this to myself? Why do I bother? I could just write, without showing my work to the world. I could just keep all my words and all my stories to myself, and never, ever, ever have to subject my poor battered soul to another word of criticism.
But the weird thing is that if you’re compelled to write, you simultaneously want to hide away from the world and also bleed all over it with your words, smear your stuff on every page, computer screen or wall, to infect as many eyes as possible. Why?
Recently, at work, I was required to try to articulate this to my colleagues. We all had to do it as one of those weird (and frankly sometimes embarrassing) corporate efforts to find consensus. We were a room full of technical writers, scholars and creative writers, and for some reason the powers that be thought that this would mean we would disagree about what made our professions meaningful. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. The easiest thing in the world was for all those twenty or so writers, each coming from completely different perspective and backgrounds, to come to a consensus of the grand and absolute importance of writing. We each knew exactly why we chose not only to be writers, but also to teach it. We didn’t argue one bit, although we each articulated that importance to varying degrees of eloquence.
Homo Sapiens Sapiens have been walking this earth roughly 235,000 years, but civilization began 35,000 years ago when men began writing stories on cave walls. Before then, there was no sing at all of humanity’s ability to build, organize, develop or in other ways distinguish itself as a race from other animals inhabiting this planet.
So-called civilizations began, with anthropological certainty, with the Sumerian culture in 4,000 BCE. Guess what else made its grand entrance on the planet then?
(Jericho at 11,000 years is thought to be the most ancient city, but Dravidian writing, presumably also the oldest writing in the world, made its entrance onto the planet at precisely the same time. No wonder so many cultures believe in the divinity of words).
It’s easy enough to see how the onset of language was the onset of civilization: everything that represents the ability of the human race to manifest ideas into realities, to build, to trade, to teach, to convey abstract esoteric principles that eventually led to the development of sciences, all had their origin in the invention of writing.
We need only look at our own lives to see how we are shaped by words. We have no memories of our pre-language childhood. Scientists have confirmed that memories occur with the onset of language. Without memory there is no possibility of any kind to advance consciousness beyond the moment to moment concerns of survival. It is memory that enables us to develop theories, to learn, to adapt, to construct, to share information and to grow. And memory is a function of language.
What is the importance of writing in institutions of higher learning? Must we really ask that? Must we?
But more importantly for me is creative writing: we learn to share our ideas and to empathize with one another, to observe, to impress beyond memory into our limbic brain through story. We never question the importance of art to the intellectual health of a society, but how much more trenchant is that art when it is made up of language, the very building block of civilization? If language is the building block of intelligence, story is its brick and mortar.
I just completed my novel, The Faithful Son. I sent the manuscript to an agent just yesterday, and I was rolling in bed, filled with a strange sense of loss and longing at no longer having my novel to work on, at having “delivered it” into the world, at least for the time being. I have developed such a close relationship to my character, Gilgamesh, that I feel now he’s part of my world. I can sense him breathing in a room. I feel as though he’s following me around, wanting to know things, wanting me to change his destiny. It’s as if he’s calling out to me, asking me, why, why, the way we ask of our gods, with a lot of anger and despair, and also a lot of love and wonder.
I wanted to tell Gilgamesh, I am sorry, but you are only words, and it hit me than what a stunning miracle that is. I created a man, a life, a king — out of nothing but words.