From the Archives: Andromeda: Why Do You Write What You Write?

Here is why Peter Selgin, author of By Cunning and Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers, writes:

“I write fiction for the same reason some people believe in God, to give meaning and order to life, or at least to give it some shape here and there. I’m uncomfortable with chaos and disorder. … Lives are messy things, events loosely (if at all) related, some momentous, most trivial, strung along the thread of time. We dig through the pile of events, hoping to unearth a solid premise or theme or any hint of meaning, and end up with a handful of irrelevant details and long digressions. … To the shapeless chaos of life the fiction writer brings order.”

Selgin also quotes Samuel Beckett: “To find the form that accomodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.”

Finding patterns. Creating meaning. Distilling the mess of existence and the information overload of our present cultural moment into something that can be examined, questioned, and perhaps better understood. Those are the main reasons I write, too.

To those I’d add: To learn more about human nature. To practice empathy (easier on the page, sometimes, than in life) and to have a chance to live multiple lives. And to remind myself to keep trying to participate more in life, to be an observer of detail; to notice, marvel, appreciate (these were the things that drew me into writing — especially nonfiction writing — in the first place.)

That’s my very short, uncrafted, bloggy version. In response to MFA assignments, I’ve written personal “Why I Write” manifestos twice this year, and I raise the topic here not to tell you what my full answers were, but to share the observation that just putting it down on paper was an enriching exercise worth doing.

Also helpful to me was writing specifically, “Why Do I Write What I Write.” In my case, I became an accidental historical fiction writer nearly a decade ago, and up until last year, I still thought it was something I was trying to move away from. (Why historical fiction? Why any subgenre at all?) But reading a spate of literary historical novels this year, and writing responses to them, and writing down my own thoughts about how I fell into this genre, have solidified things for me. I am fascinated with the past. I believe that stories set in the past, especially stories with difficult political, philosophical, or moral themes and questions are better-suited to guiding both writer and reader past what we think we know (we are skilled at defending our presumptions when a story is set in a familiar place and contemporary time) and toward the uncomfortable and challenging unknown. So, although I will continue with other genres, I can finally drop the “accidental” part in my own self-identification. I often choose to write historical fiction, and I understand now why I do it.

Journalling about these thoughts in a private way is probably the most helpful form of this exercise. Sharing can be helpful, too. Last year, I attended a workshop where, on the very last day following the workshopping process, we all free-wrote the “Why I Write” exercise and shared it. The results were enlightening and inspiring. I assumed we’d all have the same things to say. Not at all. Furthermore, what each writer said about their motivations shed new light on the fiction pieces that we’d already workshopped. The experimental writer whose work was, in at least a few places, just one hair away from being indecipherable wanted to write to change and disrupt the world, to force people to see things in new ways, to create chaos rather than tame it, or something along those lines. And I realized: yes, her piece did achieve that. It rattled and challenged all of us, and we were the better for it. Her writing and her reasons were very different from my own, and that’s all right. I was glad I didn’t read her “reasons” first. A story or essay should stand on its own. But I was also glad to know more about her process, and to feel greater confidence that she had achieved what she meant to achieve.

What are your reasons for writing in general? For writing the particular kind of pieces you write? Of course, you know we’d love a few sentences here, just to get a sample of the diverse reasons out there. But personally, I also hope you’ll consider writing some longer notes for your eyes only, to track your evolving path as a writer.

1 thought on “From the Archives: Andromeda: Why Do You Write What You Write?”

  1. I mostly write non-fiction. Putting my thoughts, emotions and memories into words helps me preserve those things that pictures cannot always show. In presenting these thoughts to potential readers, I hope they will find in themselves an identifying whisper of truth or commonality in what I have written.

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