Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction

Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction

by Will Blythe

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In this anthology, 26 writers illuminate the motivations at the heart of their creative lives in original essays that are as surprising and varied as their fiction. The contributors include Pat Conroy, Norman Mailor, Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace.  See more details below


In this anthology, 26 writers illuminate the motivations at the heart of their creative lives in original essays that are as surprising and varied as their fiction. The contributors include Pat Conroy, Norman Mailor, Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace.

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Why Do You Write?

If you are looking for a how-to book on writing, you might want to peruse the other shelves. But if you're looking for a touch of inspiration, a peek into the minds of some of today's best fiction writers, or an answer to the question "Why not?" then this is the book for you.

Why I Write explores the magic and logic behind the creative process by gleaning the thoughts of 26 of America's most successful fiction writers. The result is an enlightening and eclectic collection of essays that reflect motivations as varied and intriguing as their owners.

The cast of literary luminaries featured in Why I Write includes Terry McMillan, Pat Conroy, Norman Mailer, Ann Patchett, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Stephen Wright. Editor Will Blythe explains that he made the decision to use fiction writers for two reasons. The first is that it's his favorite form of writing. The second is because he believes fiction possesses a pure truth hidden behind "beautiful deceptions and artful lies," revealing far more about the writer, the reader, and humans in general than any facts can. It's a noble concept, but it's hard to imagine any fiction being more honest and revelatory than the essays in Blythe's anthology.

The essays provide a liberating look at the creative process, the nurturing and harvesting of imagination, and the incredible diversity present amongst this impressive collection of talent. They run the gamut in terms of style, voice, and content, from Stephen Wright's repetitive one-liner, replete with typos, to McMillan's intimate and introspective analysis. The reasons the contributors offer for their drive to write range from the intrinsic rewards gleaned from self-expression -- what McMillan calls deliverance -- to the slightly less noble extrinsic reward of making money.

Rick Bass draws a distinction between the reality of the physical world and what he views as an almost existential existence in the world of art and creation, where the senses are engaged, stretched, and keenly alive. According to Bass, the unbridled exploration of the latter is the key to full enjoyment of the former.

For Jayne Anne Phillips, answering the question of why she writes is a pursuit she doesn't care for, as if understanding the why will somehow destroy the process. Thom Jones's essay is pithy, raw, and sometimes harsh, whereas Pat Conroy's lyrical words read like an ode to his muse. James Salter dismisses the cynics who claim that writing for money is the only reasonable motivation, whereas Mark Jacobson, while admitting to the occasional side benefit reaped from his writing, claims he does it primarily for the greenbacks.

The differing journeys each of the contributors have taken and their very different interpretations of the sights along the way suggest there is no one reason for writing, nor any common path leading to creative expression. The reasons one writes are as personal and intimate as any emotion and represent a soul-searching process that each writer must sort out for herself. But while there may be no magic formula, the process and the end results do possess a certain wondrous magic, and the collective essays in WHY I WRITE are a tribute to that magic, a celebration of the life-affirming liberation and sharing of imagination inherent to writing fiction.

—Beth Amos

Beth Amos is the author of several mainstream suspense thrillers, including Second Sight, Eyes of Night, and Cold White Fury.

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Why I Write

By Will Blythe

Little, Brown

Copyright © 1998 Will Blythe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-10229-6


From sea to shining sea, in bookstores and homes, and even in those Swiss chalet-style condos dotting the purple-mountained majesties, the shelves of America are groaning under the weight of "how-to-write" books. These sprightly, optimistic manuals suggest some odd, unspoken consensus that imaginative writing is an activity well worth pursuing for us Americans, perhaps as a kind of graphomaniacal self-therapy. Evidently, it's no longer enough to read stories; we must write them as well. Everybody in the pool! But given that we all seem to want to know how to write, shouldn't we first take a step backward, away from the water's edge, and ask the big question lurking furtively behind the how, which is why even attempt to write literature in the first place? Why, oh why? That's what this book is about.

Unquestionably, there are many compelling reasons not to write. Some are mundane, like having a job, a spouse, a headache. These things can take time and energy away from the creation of literature. So can not having a job, a spouse, and a headache. (In regard to the absence of headache, it must be said that you can feel too good to write.) There are other mighty rationales for shirking the pen. Not enough money. Too little experience. Bad speller. Not good enough yet. Not good enough compared to Garcia Marquez. Not good enough compared to Shakespeare. Better than Shakespeare but no one seems to agree. Too much ambition. Insufficient ambition. Paranoia. Alcohol. Heroin. Gas pains. Gout. Hay fever.

And of course, there are always powerful metaphysical reasons for not writing. For instance, deep existential dread. The distortions of solitude. The ravages of time. Black holes. The eventual death of the solar system. Being adrift in a meaningless universe in which everything is floating away from everything else. The temptation of silence. By this, I mean that sometimes silence seems more articulate, more full of possibility than language itself; it is the realm of the vision, of the masterfully unwritten, of astounding books that will forever be undiminished by their narrowing in reality.

Wait, there's more. Back here in the brawling American marketplace, it's easy to feel that this is a society in which literature all too often gets shoved behind the traffic barricades by the beefy cops of hype while the clamorous parade of mass culture goose-steps triumphantly down the avenue. "Get over to the cultural margins, you losers," the police yell, vexed by such unglamorous duties. As Don DeLillo has said of his fellow novelists, "We're one beat away from becoming elevator music." Plus-and I think this is widely known-a writer with a capacity for composing novels and short stories can usually make more money slaving away for the movies and TV. So, really, why does anyone write fiction?

This is evidently a question that has been occurring to people (mainly writers) for quite some time, and for good reason, it seems. I remember the first moment it occurred to me, way back in the balmy spring of 1968. I was soldiering through the fifth grade at Glenwood Elementary School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. One sunny afternoon in Miss Farrior's reading class, in between casting frequent and admiring glances at my new desert boots and sending the same sort of looks over my shoulder toward the lovely Patty Midgette and Mitzi Cherry, I came across an article in my Weekly Reader about the mortality rates of various professions (in retrospect, this study seems altogether too wonderfully morbid for the Weekly Reader-might it have actually appeared in that brutal, unsparing Scholastic magazine?). Right down there with lumberjacks and stock-car drivers in terms of suffering early death were professional writers. Now, I could understand buying the farm by chopping down a tree on top of yourself, or by spinning into a concrete wall at 165 miles an hour. Death loves the woods and the racetrack. But what precisely were the risk factors associated with sitting quietly at a desk, scribbling onto a sheet of paper?

Those statistics seemed inconceivable to me at the time (sadly, a little less so now) because my grandfather LeGette Blythe was a writer, and he was one of the happiest people I've ever known. I'm not talking about spritzy, bubbly, lick-your-face happiness; no, I mean the deep, underground-river kind that makes a person steady and content and a boon to his fellows. Unless you are family or from a certain generation of North Carolina readers, mostly died out now, you probably haven't heard of my grandfather. He was born in 1900 in the tiny town of Huntersville, North Carolina. As a child, he won a pair of shoes in an essay contest sponsored by the Mecklenburg County Fair. I always thought it was his first pair of shoes, but I'm now told that it wasn't; it wouldn't have been unlike my grandfather, honest though he was, to embellish a story ever so slightly. (There are a few overly literal-minded members of my family who say I've inherited this tendency from him.)

He eventually became a newspaperman in Charlotte, famous among his peers for not taking notes and not playing poker. He published several books while still a reporter, including one novel, Bold Galilean, that became a best-seller for the University of North Carolina Press. When the editors of the Charlotte Observer wouldn't give him a leave of absence to write a new novel, banking on their suspicion that he couldn't afford to give up employment, he called their bluff and quit. He was fifty years old, with a wife, three children, and bills to pay. Over the next four decades, he paid those bills, turning out plays, biographies, history, and fiction (including several biblical novels), some twenty-nine works in all.

The citizens of the Bible were as real to him as his family and neighbors. The story is often told in my family of how he once drove up to the edge of Lake Norman, where he was mistaken for a game warden by several locals who were fishing without the benefit of a license. "How y'all doing?" he said. "Catching anything?" "No sir, no sir," they insisted, pretending to be unaware of the poles bobbing in front of them. (In truth, no one could have been further from a game warden. My grandfather's sympathies tended entirely toward the underdog. He evinced a mild truculence toward improperly or heavily asserted authority, having as a young reporter been bashed into unconsciousness by a hired thug outside a textile mill in Gastonia during the strike of 1929.)

The fishermen relaxed that day by the lake only when my grandfather, apparently oblivious to the discomforting effect he was having, began telling them how Lake Norman was the exact size of the Sea of Galilee, and how the location of the grand town of Cornelius corresponded precisely to that of the Judean city of Capernaum. "Is that right?" the fishermen said, sensing that this might indeed be a day of deliverance, not to mention free fish. It wasn't so much that Pappy, as we called him, saw the Holy Land superimposed on the local map in a kind of geographical allegory. Instead, Mecklenburg County was the Holy Land. Who needed Jerusalem when you had Caldwell Station? Over the years, he defied every chance he had to actually visit the dry landscape of his waking dreams. If you were openhearted and sympathetic, history was here now. For my grandfather, it was a mere quirk of chronology that Paul and Judas (the subjects of two of his novels) were not there beside him on the clay banks of Lake Norman, admiring the view.

For as much as the world-at-large intrigued him, no part of it fascinated him more than his home, Mecklenburg County, in western North Carolina. He lived just a hundred yards or so away from the house he had been born in. He knew the night skies, the vegetation, the fields, the creek beds, the old homesteads, even the cats that lived (because he fed them) in the woods behind the house. He knew the citizens of Huntersville as if they were kin, and if you were kin ... well, either way you had better be prepared to talk for a while when you saw him coming. Many was the noon-time when my grandmother had to drag him away from the informal gatherings on the lawn after church. "Come on, Gette," she'd bark, being made of sterner stuff than he. It was a hopeless task. He could ask you questions until your head spun, as my father's frequently did when he tried to explain to Pappy some obscure point about sodium transfer in the kidneys. Pappy liked to keep abreast of things. Some days late in his life, he would stand at the window of the house he built for his family in 1928, counting the cars that rolled by on the highway. This wasn't some senile arithmetical mania so much as another way of proudly determining how much his hometown had grown. He had never acquired the antidevelopment bias that is understandably rampant late in this century. He would return from one of his walks shaking his head in delighted, open-eyed wonder at the establishment of a Dairy Queen in some old, kudzu-ridden pasture.

Although he always made himself available to his seven grandchildren, being forever willing to take us out to the garden or bend our ears with family history, he wrote very hard until near the end of his life. He kept deadlines, his own and others', disappearing into his cluttered study (books, old shoes, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a hornet's nest) for a few hours almost every day, when we heard his typewriter clattering as he pecked away with two fingers, like the old-fashioned reporter he had been. In the closet of his study, he brewed homemade wine that occasionally detonated when the fermentation became too extravagant for its container. There was also, I think, an extra bit of fermentation, of vim, of force, in my grandfather when he wrote-a kind of bottled intensity that ended up on the page. Photographs of him at the typewriter reveal Pappy in a light we rarely witnessed at close range-lost to us, to the world, deep in concentration, utterly elsewhere. And yet he made the process of composition sound maddeningly simple. I once asked him how he wrote his books.

"Well," he said, "if you know the beginning of your story, and you know the end, all you have to do is get from one to the other."

For Pappy, writing was part and parcel with the rest of his life, not an extreme quest requiring a hermit's hut in the desert. No, several hours a day upstairs in that maze of a study would do. He was no literary naif: he wanted to make money, as his deal-making letters to agents and editors confirm, sometimes poignantly. And he was aware that he wasn't exactly famous in the way of, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I remember his reading The Great Gatsby at the beach one summer. After he finished, he pronounced it a "pretty fine book," which was high praise since he was not a florid man. "I guess he did pretty good, didn't he?" my grandfather said of Fitzgerald. "But I don't believe he had a happier life than I've had. No, I don't think I would trade with him." He died on Halloween afternoon, 1993. He had asked my grandmother if his dying would be all right with her. She probably told him to hush.

Why did he write? His life is emblematic of fiction writers in that he wrote, in part, because he was good at it. He got paid for it (not an insubstantial thing); he made a name for himself with it. And as with other fiction writers, making stories put him in contact with otherwise inaccessible regions, in his case, the Holy Land. I also think that writing was his gift, as it is the gift of the authors who have contributed to this book, and that a gift avoided and unexercised is deep trouble indeed. My grandfather would surely have seen the Old Testament story of the talents applying here. He located his motivation somewhere between the customs of a trade and the dictates of compulsion. Not every novelist dives deep under the ocean of existence, nor does every one wield an ax with which to strike the frozen sea within. Would my grandfather have been a better writer if he'd been an unhappier man? Perhaps, though unhappiness takes its toll, and what it offers in the way of insight, it can take away in energy and conviction. Anyway, he had his sadnesses and disappointments, mind you, and he felt the pain of many beyond himself. It's not as if any of us escapes sorrow for long. My grandfather's virtues were not exactly simple. Goodness never is.

As with the heart and most criminal defendants, writers always have their reasons.

There are, actually, dozens of reasons, as the following essays attest. And that's the way it's been through the ages, apparently: a myriad of private compulsions, a welter of incontestable desires. In his midtwenties, Franz Kafka, insurance man, remarked, "God doesn't want me to write, but I must write." E. M. Cioran proposed that "a book is a postponed suicide." Jorge Luis Borges scribbled to "ease the passing of time."

Other writers betray evidence of a bloody psychic shootout between misanthropy and altruism. William Gass creates literature, he says, "because I hate. A lot. Hard." He also asserts that the "aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love." Samuel Johnson famously proclaimed that "no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." (Mark Jacobson, in his apologia on page 116, asserts the same.) But Johnson also declared that the "only end of writing is to enable readers to better enjoy life or better ... endure it."

These are large, compassionate sentiments, their enormity the province of philosophers, who are willing to make the sort of grand pronouncements about art that most fiction writers shy away from. The latter's capacities are more often for the specific at the expense of the general, for the exception rather than the rule; they are well aware of the psychological burdens that come with grandiosity, with overclaiming for one's work. In fact, let's allow a philosopher, the Spaniard Ortega y Gasset, to step in where fiction writers fear to tread. "The possibility of constructing human souls," he wrote, "is perhaps the major asset of future novelists."

Now, constructing human souls is a pretty big responsibility. In fact, it used to be God's job. If writers had to think of salvation every time they sat down to type ... well, they might as well be preachers. It's not that literature doesn't save souls; I suspect it has a better record in that department than the church. But God help the writer who pulls up to his desk with soul-saving in mind. Not that many American writers could acknowledge such an impetus for their own work, so great is their inherent modesty or their inherent fear of seeming immodest.

That said, I'm convinced that writers, in spite of themselves, do preserve souls, even make them.


Excerpted from Why I Write by Will Blythe Copyright © 1998 by Will Blythe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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