The Joy and Folly of Motives

There are many reasons to write, and they’re almost all good. Revenge has its merits. Very satisfying if it works. To impress people who matter to you is another, especially if you know more about the subject you’re writing about than they do. It can warm you to hear them speak about you in glowing terms to others. That brings to mind respect or prestige as a motive. When you are treated as an expert about anything—profound or mundane—it’s difficult not to swell a bit. These days, you can’t beat fame as a reason to write. It has become a kind of currency, worth, in its own way, more than money. People and organizations and even governmental agencies will give money and objects and exposure to famous people, simply to bask in the reflected glow of their fame. A sort of secular benediction. Of course, there is power. And there is that old standby, sex.

I begrudge very little in people’s reasons for wanting to write or to write better. I have a problem with writing solely to harm others, though that can get dicey because even words written in innocence can do harm. Meanness would be a motive I am against. But try to talk about writing here in ways useful for any motive beyond malice. An investment broker writing a prospectus, I hope, can profit as much from learning to romance language as a short story writer or an academic or an attorney working on an appellate brief. Some motives, though, can lead to more trouble than others, and mine fall into this category.

To put it simply, I write because not writing leaves me feeling incomplete. In a way, I always write, even during the odd weeks or months when I avoid putting down words because of fear or life distractions or depression or whatever other malady offers itself. In my mind, I write all day long, every day. I work over ideas for novels that I’ve had in my head for more than a decade at least; I compose parts of poems, essays, letters, emails, plays. I consider characters, hear different narrative voices, think of sentences from speeches I’d like to deliver, and even wonder whether I could ever become proficient enough to write well in a foreign language (probably Spanish, but Arabic interest me too). Given my mental state, the only question becomes when and how to put this output down on the page.

The problem arises because this motive provides no objective measure of success. No amount of fame or compliments or money or customers or awards (not that I’ve had any of those things) proves that I’ve gotten it right. I spend my time trying to create an experience in words that not even I can really explain outside of the writing itself. This leaves me with few resources for telling others what I’m writing at any given time.

People who know that I write sometimes ask me what kind of writing I do, or what I’m working on. I’m convinced that no honest answer I give would make much sense to them. Recently, for example, I’ve been working on a novel in which the main character is a woman who experiences the death of her last surviving parent and begins to consider suicide. That is how I described it recently to someone at a party; that is the “plot.” But I’m as interested in creating a narrative voice that interests me, or pushing the limits of description, or seeing how much non-chronological presentation I can combine with chronological presentation, or playing with a first person plural (we) narration. I could go on. Eyes would glaze over if I did; believe me, I’ve seen it happen while I talk.

The effect on me as a writer is one of solitude. Imagine standing alone at night on a street corner, in a city where no one speaks your language, talking to yourself under a lamppost whose bulb has burned out. It mostly feels like that.

Here is the upside: I get to immerse myself in language. And, as I grow older, it helps to inoculate me against the fear of failing. I’m probably the only one who will know whether I’ve done what I set out to do, and even I will have doubts. The biggest gift has been this ongoing romance with language. I find whatever small insights I might have—and the act of sharing them—immensely satisfying. It gives a meaningful, challenging arc to the curve of my life, and when you get down to it, what more could a person ask for?