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Into the Lion’s Den (2): Why do Writers Write?

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Lucinda Crowden and Jacob Antolini at my reading of Muffins At the Death Café

On a day following the death of Nelson Mandela, when everything seems greyer and less substantial, I’m writing this post conscious that anything I produce may seem trivial and irrelevant. Yet it’s been a big week for me in many ways, and some of you have asked me how my reading went – and I’m happy to share.

I’m pretty sure all writers experience six degrees of separation when they hear their work read aloud: on the one hand, they know what’s coming next; on the other, the fact that the words they wrote are being articulated by someone else gives the text a degree of unreality. Did they actually write this? Where did it come from?

This is especially true of a play, when characters physicalise their existence on stage. An actor and director’s interpretation may be very different from how the writer envisaged the character to be, which can either create a grievous disconnect, or conversely throw a brilliant light onto the character and give the writer a whole new lead on motivation or even plot.

Workshops, such as the one my play Muffins At the Death Café was part of last week (only last week!!) are hugely useful opportunities for actors, director and writer to see what works, uncover new ways of staging, get rid of dead wood or stagnant passages, and re-evaluate the flow of the play. I arrived nervous, I left empowered.  Yes, there were areas I felt needed more exploring, some characters whose arc needed strengthening, some scene rejigging, some cutting, some expanding, but overall the play – plot, construct, character – worked. It was a living, breathing thing which I hoped the audience would respond  to at our Monday public reading.

At the same time, I started thinking about why I wrote this play, why writers write in general, and reproduce some interesting findings by Charles D Deguara, (cj @authorspromoter.com). One hundred writers were interviewed and asked, “why do you write?”

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15% of writers write as a way to express themselves

13% of writers write because they have to

13% of writers write to help others

11% of writers write to educate

8% of writers write because their imagination shows them unimagined worlds

6% of writers write to influence

6% of writers write because they were influenced by authors they read

10% of writers write because it’s therapeutic

5% of writers write because it’s a passion

3% of writers write primarily because it’s their job

2% of writers write primarily to entertain

2% of writers write to immortalise themselves or others, leaving a lasting mark on earth

2% of writers write for exposure and fame

2% of writers write because they were victims of circumstance

2% of writers write because of curiosity

Now, I can understand  many of these motivations – in particular the wish to influence (the basis of course for Sartre’s artiste engagé), the desire to leave your mark, the overwhelming need to write because it’s the itch you have to scratch and of course art as catharsis. But I also feel there the survey could have gone far deeper.

For example, George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Why I Write, examines the four underlying motives for writing: “sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose”. There’s an honesty here: let’s not forget that healthy dash of ego. Without it, you’d probably never put pen to paper. There has to be a fundamental conviction, despite the angst, that you have what it takes.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means”, says Joan Didion.  And that’s true too. The deeper you get into your characters, the more you understand what and why you’re writing. For Don de Lillo, writing “frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write …. mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”  Writing as lifejacket – I haven’t got there yet. This is what separates full-time writers from those like me who squeeze in writing whenever they can. On my “aspirational” list.

For Truman Capote, writing is an aesthetic wonder. “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” Making something beautiful, of course!  Isn’t that part of the drive – to get the words just right?

And then there’s screenwriter and lecturer Robert Mckee, whose seminal textbook “Story” is probably on every first year film student’s reading list. Writing for him imposes order on chaos. That’s something I really relate to. When I delve into characters, I can often make a lot more sense of their lives than I do of my own. Writing creates a structure to the equivocation of everyday life that defines purpose and meaning. And that’s essential.

But what surprised me most about this survey was that not one of the writers interviewed talked about the need to communicate a really good story! I found that almost unbelievable. Why would you write, unless you felt your yarn would reach out to people, touch them, force them to sit up, shock them, get them laughing, weeping, make them angry or motivated? Why would you write if you felt your story didn’t have wings?  “Those of us who write do it because there are stories inside us burning to get out”, says Isabel Allende. And the joy of sharing those stories is part of the motivation, too.

So back to my reading. How did it go?  Better than I could ever have hoped. What a wonderful, wonderful response!  I can’t tell you how gratified I am, as a writer, when audiences get your jokes, laugh in the right places, say your characters are totally believable, feel moved by their dilemmas, share their anxieties and tell you that the play has a storyline that resonates.

The Q&A session we held with the audience after the reading was invaluable, generating many ideas for my next draft, pointing out some highlights, a few inconsistencies, but overall re-iterating their positive reaction. It was just the kick of confidence I needed to swing back into the writing saddle and finish the second draft, which I hope to do over the Australian summer.

So to my marvellous actors, Lucinda Cowden, Jacob Antolini, Chloe Ng, Mason Gasowski, Donna DePalma, Aston Elliot, director Tammie Kite – thank you!  It was a joy to work with you, and I’m so grateful for your enthusiasm and excitement working on my new play.  All I can say is – watch this space!  Because now I can’t wait to get scribbling…..

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Chloe Ng at the Muffins At the Death Café reading

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Author: Dina Ross

Dina is a writer, reviewer, journalist and broadcaster. It goes without saying that she loves books. Her blog, Books Now! can be viewed on www.dinaross.com.au and offers news, reviews and interviews with writers from around the corner to across the world.

15 thoughts on “Into the Lion’s Den (2): Why do Writers Write?

  1. Congratulations, Dina, I wish I could have been there. I don’t get to enough plays, which is bad management on my part because I always enjoy them, no matter what style or approach is used.
    And what a fascinating survey: I agree, and I would have ticked many of those same boxes, but for me, I need Didion’s reply because that’s what it is for me:
    “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means”.
    Often I don’t know what I think until I start to write, and often I find that as I write, what I think changes because having to express it in a reasoned argument (as one tries to do in a book review) forces me to clarify and sometimes jettison ideas.
    I used to find exactly the same thing when I was writing student reports. Often I would begin with a great long catalogue of what the kid could do well, and what he/she needed help with and then I’d look at it the next day and jettison most of it and write about the kid as a person instead. Writing is very, very good for sorting out ideas and I don’t know how people who can’t do it manage to think properly!

    • Thanks Lisa! Hopefully the play will get a second life. And I’m with you – writing shows the way and it’s only by writing that you find the path. (Please remind me to tell myself this next time I lose my nerve….)

      • I was with a friend at the Kingston Writers Festival when her play was performed for the first time, and I could see how proud and nervous she was, all at the same time!

      • And it never gets any easier! I’ve now had 5 productions and 4 readings – I’m still huddling at the back of the stalls on the first night until that first guffaw from the audience; for some reason, when audiences laugh at my bons mots, it calms me down!

  2. How wonderful that your play was received so well. Congratulations! Isn’t it wonderful when all our hard work pays off and people enjoy what we have worked so hard to create? Hang on to that moment and take it out and remember it when things aren’t quite so rosy. It’ll get you through those rough spots, until it all happens again.

    • Thanks so much! Yes, I am definitely encouraged to press on and it’s such a good feeling. You’re right: remembering those “golden moments” does help when you feel creatively lost.

  3. To set characters into situations, it’s compulsive. I write to understand the dynamics of relationships, how they reflect in me. But how wonderful to get people engaged in reading, find resonance and be encouraged. Congratulations, and best success for your plays :)

  4. I’m so glad the reading went well. Feeling empowered by feedback is priceless. As I read your blog, I naturally tried to work out why I write. First reaction, I write because I love reading. Second, because I spend so much time imagining stuff, whole conversations, unhelpful anxiety trips that end with funerals, that it seemed a good idea to channel it into something unreal and more pleasurable. Third, I started because it was a new enterprise. You are right though, the most important thing is a moving, life-enhancing story, anyway, that’s the aim.

    • Thanks Hilary – it’s so interesting discovering why people write; and the ways in which people write are so different, for example some writers have to have everything planned out before putting pen to paper, others muddle thru’ as they go along….

  5. Double-like. Love the chart. Thanks for the rich, thoughtful post. I explored this very question, backward:

    http://aholisticjourney.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/the-writing-process-ii-why-we-read-part-4/

  6. Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular post!
    It’s the little changes that produce the biggest changes.
    Thanks for sharing!

  7. I absolutely love your blog and find the majority of
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    • Hi there and thank you so much for your kind words! I’m glad you’re enjoying Books Now! I’m always happy for contributors to guest post, so please feel free to pick a subject that you feel would suit Books Now! and send it to me at dina@dinaross.com.au. About 600-800 words. Looking forward to receiving it!

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