The Secret Why For Writing

By: Gary Crow

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error." -- John Stuart Mill

When to write? Where to write? What to write? How to write? These four simple questions prompt enough complexity in their answers to fill articles and magazines, books and libraries. They stimulate enough interest and mental energy to fuel casual discussions and writers' groups, conferences and university courses. They hint at profound mysteries and hidden wisdom, secrets known only by the literary elite, the potential for sudden insight and heretofore elusive discoveries.

We think about these questions. We dream about them. We talk about them. We listen. We read. We ponder and then we try to push the questions away so we can focus on the hundred more important things we absolutely have to do. We try and then there we go again. We think about these questions. We dream about them. We….

Is this behavior normal? Is our preoccupation with when, where, what, and how within the acceptable range so we don't have to guard against others learning our little secret? Sad but true. It's definitely not normal and is so unimportant that it falls far outside any range of interest to most people so it doesn't even make it on the scale where acceptable and unacceptable issues are considered.

I randomly stopped twelve people and posed the questions to them. When should one write? Where should one write? What should one write? How should one write? Three just stared, shook their heads, and walked away. Four didn't bother to shake their heads. That left five, two of whom asked, "What are you talking about?" Of the remaining three, two said, "Whatever," and the one still seeming interested thought for a few seconds and said, "It would be easier to just leave a voice mail. Why do you want to write anything?"

Why? Why do I want to write anything? Here I am worrying, nigh obsessing, about when, where, what, and how and then the one person in a dozen asks why. How frustrating is that? What do I say to someone who thinks that leaving a voice mail is preferable to writing? It might work if I can write the message and then read it onto the voice mail, but maybe not.

It's tempting to dismiss the why question as the query of an idiot but, of course, it is much more fun to write about it and certainly we all know about the attraction of fun. Let's take another pass at those four questions and add the why question to the list just for fun.

I'll take a few editorial liberties with the questions since it's my piece and we all know about editors and their taking liberties. I'll start with what to write. The best advice as measured by how many times I have read it is to write about what you know. An alternative thought worth considering measured by my experience is to write about what I don't know but really want to know. When I have done enough research and have given it enough thought so I can clearly explain it to me, writing about it is fun.

Sure, I know. You got me there. When I write about it, it's writing about what I then know. Those writing gurus, they always seem to get the last word.

Maybe the going will go a tad easier with the where question. Measuring by how often I have read it, the best advice is to have a quiet place where I won't be interrupted and everything I need is at hand. -- Not in my lifetime. -- Do you realize how organized I would have to be to pull that one off? Suffice it to say that, if I wait until I achieve that level of environmental control and self-discipline, writing would be merely one of those "wish I had" laments. I'll have to be satisfied with wherever the keyboard is and hope for the best. Maybe I will find the piece and quiet somewhere inside me.

When to write? The writing gurus strongly recommend a regular daily schedule. That's just fine so long as they don't mean every day at the same time for the same amount of time or even most days at about the same time for nearly the same amount of time. You don't suppose they mean that, do you? Sad but true. That's exactly what they mean and they are very serious about it. It's sort of like responsible drinking. Only have one or two drinks, always after 5:00, and then doing it most days should work out okay.

Unfortunately, I happen to be one of those binge writers. I can go for weeks without so much as a complete sentence and then there is a day or a week or a month where I can hardly stop writing long enough to get anything else done. Sure, I come staggering back to reality sooner or later but the binge has to run its course. Is it an addiction? Is it a compulsion? Is it an obsession? I don't have a clue but know that it's way too much fun to stop or to want to stop. I'll just keep bingeing.

That brings us to the how question. This may be the most guru-answered of the four questions. The obvious advice is to decide what you want to say and then say it, in writing. Perhaps the next most obvious advice is to write what you think you want to say and then read it. It probably isn't quite what you had in mind so write it again. Maybe by the third or tenth or twenty-fifth pass at it, you will read what you want to say. There you go. You're a writer. It's sure fun, isn't it?

That does it for the what, where, when, and how questions. Nothing to do now but take a crack at that why question. Here we go. It's not profound and I already let that cat out of the bag. I'm a binge writer, am having too much fun to stop, and way too much fun to wonder why. One of the twelve people in my survey came up to me later and asked, "You spend a lot of time writing but what else do you do?" I didn't hesitate, "I write and then everything else is research!"

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