Author Insights: The Perennial Writer’s Question

Why I Write

We asked literary YA author Craig Terlson, whose new book Fall In One Day launches this May, a simple question: Why do you write? His answer reveals that there’s more to this question than many assume! 

As long as there have been writers, people have been asking them, “Why do you write?” Now for me, this question differs from those other oft-repeated questions such as, “Where do you get your ideas?” (Value Village.) “Is the main character you?” (Yes. And so are all the rest.)

I actually find the question of why a writer writes intriguing. I love to collect famous writers’ responses. To be honest, some writers are kind of sourpusses about it. Cormac McCarthy says, “I don’t know why I started writing. I don’t know why anybody does it. Maybe they’re bored, or failures at something else.” Ouch, Cormac. Or Richard Ford, to paraphrase, says, “Only become a writer when you have tried everything else, and have no choice.”

Don’t get me wrong, these are two of my favourite writers. But being more of an optimist, I lean to this wonderful quote from Gloria Steinem: “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” Or a poet friend who told me that “she wrote herself into the world.” Or perhaps the best, and shortest answer: “Why do I write? Because I can.” I used to think that Flannery O’Connor said this, or maybe Walker Percy, or maybe the guy who bags my groceries. It doesn’t matter; it’s a great answer that cuts right to it.

I believe the impetus behind the why write question is that the typical reasons for doing something are not present. Case in point: writing isn’t easy. If taken seriously, writing is damn hard. I often think of a novel I’m working on as the longest chess game ever. I need to see the whole board, both where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. (Chess geeks, do you feel me?)

Okay, but what about money? This needs to be a reason, right? Pardon me while I recover from laughing for a sec. Sure, Stephen King’s grocery list would become a bestseller, James Patterson writes a bestselling novel in the time it takes to watch an episode of This is Us—okay, half-an-episode—and publishers just send JK Rowling money directly now–it saves time. But for the rest of us in the fiction trenches… let’s just say not so much on the money thing. Here is why I love the J.D. Salinger quote, “The definition of a writer is someone who writes. Publishing? That’s just business.”

Digression here to just say that I really love Blue Moon Publishers—and not just because they are publishing my novel—they have one of the most wonderful teams I have ever worked with. Oh, and they sent me a bucket of money just because they believe in me. And chocolates.

Where was I now? Oh yeah, the fiction trenches.

My answer to this question has changed over the last two decades of serious writing. Though, the answer hasn’t strayed that far from my original intent. I was lucky enough to have a career as an illustrator for 25 years. I drew and painted pictures for an actual living. This was to the delight of my family, and great surprise of my neighbours, who sorta thought I was unemployed. All those years of drawing, and then teaching drawing and illustration, taught me something that I carried into my writing.

When teaching, I told my students that if they really wanted to understand the form and structure of something, they should draw it. Nothing teaches you the complexity of a tree, a still life, or the human body better than when you try to capture it in a drawing. All sorts of fascinating observations arise; even a kind of truth emerges when you really study something. That is what I discovered about writing. If I really want to know something, to understand it, to bring out the truth from a subject, I need to write about it.

When I wrote a story called “The Plate Spinner,” I didn’t begin with the idea of exploring the emotion of anxiety. I would never suggest starting a piece of writing with a theme, because you will end up with a didactic story only a few steps away from your classic Aesop fable. But as I wrote, and got deeper into the character—a stressed out man, who juggles too many things in his life—I learned that I was exploring what it meant to be anxious. I was deeply studying anxiety both in fiction and in my own life, and hopefully in the human condition. Wait… how did I start reading a blog and end up in a Literature 101 class? Did he just mention the human condition?

Well, yes. But good writing is a mirror for all of us humans, which is yet another reason that I write. It’s not just for Lit. class.

A few days ago, I finished George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders is probably my favourite living author, and I’ve read everything he’s written. His latest, which is actually his first novel, is about a lot of things. But at the core of it, I believe, is the idea of death, the afterlife, and what is a good death? I could say more, but this is just to say that Saunders explores the Buddhist notion of the Bardo (similar to the Catholic version of Purgatory) in a way that makes me consider new things about myself, and, gasp… about the human condition.

So maybe writing is about being an explorer—writing drills through the layers, to get at not just the good stuff, but the true stuff. I know if I ever get to meet George Saunders, I’m going to ask him about how he explores the human condition.

But first I’m going to ask him why he writes.

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