We’ve all heard about the importance of finding your voice as a writer. Maybe you’ve had a critique from an editor who felt the narrative voice wasn’t sharp enough. Or maybe a critique mentioned the author’s voice creeping into the narrative and you found yourself thinking, huh? Isn’t that the voice I worked so hard to develop in the first place?
Well, yes. And no.
We each have a voice that we write in, and it’s as individual as a fingerprint. A novel by Margaret Atwood will sound different than one by Stephen King, and while this might be related to both genre and characters, there’s an ineffable quality to each author’s voice that seeps into their work regardless of how hard they might try to keep it out.
The trick is not to let that voice break the fictional dream you’ve created in your work.
This can happen in several ways: when the author has an agenda they’re trying to slip into the story; when they inadvertently break the POV by stepping in to comment on something; and when they succumb to the temptation to use what Elmore Leonard calls hooptedoodle.
Having an Agenda
When we write a novel, we often (hopefully) have something to say. Let’s call it a theme, the answer to the dreaded so what? question. The line between theme and message, however, is a thin one, and if you’re not subtle enough about your intentions, your reader will sense you’re trying to teach them something and will back away.
Having something to say should not be the same as telling readers what to think.It’s always better to give readers questions to ponder rather than answers to swallow. So, if you have an agenda, shelve it. Give us something to think about. But don’t tell us we have to think like you.
As Ursula le Guin so elegantly puts it, a story’s job is to achieve meaning; it’s a door that opens onto a new world. Messages are for sermons. If all you see in The Hobbit is a message about greed, you’ve missed the magic.
Let the Narrator Narrate
When the author’s voice creeps into a defined POV, you pull your reader out of the fictional dream. It’s jarring. In fact, this gets to the heart of POV, where consistent character voice is crucial to reader immersion.
In any deep POV you choose, you’ll be seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That means everything—from what they notice to the analogies they draw—must be filtered through a lens that is not your own. Douglas Glover calls this language overlay, and it’s one of the most useful POV pointers I’ve ever come across. A sailor will not think the same way as a baker, and this difference can run deep. As an example, the sailor might always have one eye on the weather; a baker might be perpetually attuned to smells. Your teen narrator who suddenly knows the Latin names of plants will pull readers out of the story scratching their heads and wondering how this narrator has such easy access to this specialized information. Not to say it can’t work. If the narrator’s mother is a botanist and has been teaching him the Latin names of plants from the time he was a toddler, it will add another layer to his character. But that has to be established in the story.
An objective POV is all about what can be seen on the surface, so the author’s voice definitely shouldn’t be part of that. And in omniscience, there is still a narrator—but unless it’s you, the reader shouldn’t hear your voice.
Our name might be on the cover of the book we’ve written, but we should never take center stage in our novel unless we’re doing something funky with metafiction. One of the ways we sneak ourselves into our work is with fancy writing that calls attention to itself for no other reason than to wave a flag and say look what I can do.
I’m a huge fan of poetic writing, but I’m also a firm believer in the importance of double duty. Every element in a novel should do more than one thing. A pretty description of the weather should also be a reflection of mood or an ironic foreshadowing or whatever else you have up your sleeve. If you’ve written a whole paragraph about the dark billowing sky, let it also reflect a building dread in the narrator or allow it to serve as a reminder that the body he dropped into the lake might not have been weighted down with enough rocks.
But if that billowing sky is only there for the reader to admire, then it sounds like writing. And as Elmore Leonard also said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Do your readers a favor: either take it out or give it a second job.
Finding Your Voice
The notion of finding your voice has never made sense to me. Your voice is who you are. No matter whose shoes you’re wearing in a particular novel, your voice will come through. If you don’t believe that, try reading one author’s entire body of work. You’ll meet a room full of characters who might all sound different, but there will also be something humming beneath them that they share: the person who created them.
You don’t have to find your voice. You are your voice.
What you have to do is write. A lot. Learn how to handle POV so that you, the author, remain the silent partner in this weird agreement you make with your readers when you bring a world to life. Don’t remind the reader that they’re reading a story. Allow them to believe in the dream.
As for crafting a character’s voice, well… that’s a topic that deserves its own post. Which it will have next time you see me here.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author, editor, and writing teacher who lives in Vancouver, BC. Her newest novel My Long List of Impossible Things, came out in 2020 with Annick Press. It was a finalist for the Vine Awards and is a Junior Library Guild gold standard selection. She is the author of The House of One Thousand Eyes, which was named a Kirkus Best Book of the Year and won numerous awards including the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award. She’s also the author of the historical picture book, A Year of Borrowed Men, as well as the fantasy novel, The Beggar King, and a chapbook, Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in literary reviews around the world.
Michelle holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC and has been a senior editor at The Darling Axe since its inception, though she’s been editing and teaching creative writing for decades. She loves working closely with writers to hone their manuscripts and discuss the craft.
In recent years, scientists have been writing books about the reasons why we tell each other stories.
Neurobiologists have discovered that when a person is immersed in a story, their brain patterns are similar to what they would be if that person were actually performing the actions they are reading about or watching. So if a recipient is emotionally engaged in a story, they are essentially “living” it – at least in terms of the brain patterns. The excitement is real, the fear, the empathy, the arousal. See Boyd, 2009, or Gottschall, 2012*.
This has given rise to the analogy of the flight simulator.
Stories are everywhere. We create and consume them from an early age. Homo sapiens have done so for millennia – our modern media are a result of our ancient need for stories. We have been telling them to each other ever since we, as a species, have been human. It’s what homo sapiens do. It’s a defining characteristic. What evolutionary biologists call an “adaptation”.
That means there is a reason for us to tell stories: They help us survive.
And that’s where the flight-simulator comes in. Pilots sit in flight simulators for many many hours, practicing and practicing until flying jumbo jets becomes second nature. Only when they don’t have to consciously think about what to do, but have done it so often already they do it “automatically”, are pilots allowed to actually fly a plane with real live passengers in it.
Since our brain “does” the stories we consume, we have “done” all sorts of things already, even though we have never done them in the flesh. We have been practicing from the first bedside story to the latest instalment of our favourite series.
What have we been practicing?
Conflicts of interest
Humans live in groups because there is more safety in numbers than as a solitary little homo, however sapient. When a group of homo sapiens get together, three things happen: 1) some of them become allies, 2) some of them compete, 3) some of them mate.
And that’s essentially what happens in the group of characters in a story. The characters make friends or allies, they squabble and get into conflict over something they want, they form a union or get together romantically.
Competing over something as well es finding a mate involves problems. Keeping and maintaining an ally can too. There are potentially infinite problems involved with living in a group. And that’s not even to consider all the potential threats and problems that come from outside the group.
The idea that stories are like flight-simulators suggests that fiction exists to allow us to practice problem-solving in a safe environment. We can “live” through conflicts of interest without dire real-life consequences. That the stories may not be “realistic” is not relevant, since the emotions we feel while consuming them are genuine, at least as far as our brain patterns are concerned. Thus when we encounter real-life problems, we automatically do what we have learnt in our life-simulator that is story.
Hence stories are not merely entertainment. They have helped us survive as a species by helping us as individuals to deal with conflicts of interest within the social group.
For stories to work as life-simulators, they must be constructed within a certain very broad framework. Which is to say, they must feature conflicting interests – which boils down to characters solving their problems. Problems come from without and from within, they result in wants and needs, i.e. the want and need to overcome the problems.
There is a whole host of things that typically go on in the stories we like and care about. We examine them in detail in this blog.
On March 7, 1942, writing from university to his best friend and literary-minded comrade-in-arms, Eugenio Scalfari, in the typical tone of irreverent facetiousness the two shared, 18-year-old Calvino extols the joy and art of writing letters::
A fine thing it is to have a distant friend who writes long letters full of drivel and to be able to reply to him with equally lengthy letters full of drivel; fine not because I like to plunge into captious polemics nor because I enjoy getting certain ideas into the head of some idiot from the Urbe, but because writing long letters to friends means having a moral excuse for not studying.
In the same letter, Calvino admonishes Eugenio about the mixed motives of the publishing world — at least as an 18-year-old aspiring writer saw it:
Don’t trust the big names that support youth movements: it’s fashionable to show you’re favoring youth.
Several weeks later, Calvino — who had gone to university to study agriculture but found himself increasingly drawn to literature as he immersed himself in the dullness of his major — shares with Eugenio an intense expression of the inner contradiction that defines being human, the increasing inner tug-of-war between the disinterested agronomist and self-conscious poet:
It will perhaps please you to know that, as regards the famous italcalvinian dualism, the agronomist is about to lose out, and the poet will emerge as the clear winner. My revision for the exams is still today in a deplorable state and offers no hope of recovery. The Easter holidays, which were filled with the pleasures of cheerful cycling trips along the Via Aurelia and daring but unsuccessful pursuits of Riviera Amazons, have long disappeared. The poet, on the other hand, has been more productive: he has finished the famous Brezza di terra (Land Breeze) and would now do well to go off and hide. The work is solemn rubbish and I don’t think I’ll have the courage to present it, not even in Florence. Rhetoric, artifice, and trite Pirandellian ideas grafted onto pompous D’Annunzian language. But also daring, warmth, enthusiasm and, what counts above all, real poetry.
In early May of 1942, after Eugenio sends Italo one of his poems, Calvino echoes Wordsworth as he articulates his budding philosophy on poetry, then trails off in a meta-affirmation:
I’ve read your poem. I too, if you remember, wrote a Hermetic poem in my early youth. I know that gives enormous satisfaction to the person who writes it. But whether the person who reads it shares this enthusiasm is another matter. It’s too subjective, Hermeticism, do you see? And I see art as communication. The poet turns in on himself, tries to pin down what he has seen and felt, then pulls it out so that others can understand it. But I can’t understand these things: these discourses about the ego and the non-ego I leave to you. Yes, I understand, there’s the struggle to express the inexpressible, typical of modern art, and these are all fine things, but I …
I’m a regular guy, I like well-defined outlines, I’m old-fashioned, bourgeois. My stories are full of facts, they have a beginning and an end. For that reason they will never be able to find success with the critics, nor occupy a place in contemporary literature. I write poetry when I have a thought that I absolutely have to bring out, I write to give vent to my feelings and I write using rhyme because I like it, tum-tetum tumtetum tum te-tum, because I’ve got no ear, and poetry without rhyme or meter seems like soup without salt, and I write (mock me, you crowds! Make me a figure of public scorn!) I write … sonnets … and writing sonnets is boring, you have to find rhymes, you have to write hendecasyllables so after a while I get bored and my drawer is overflowing with unfinished short poems.
In July of the following year, still in school and approaching his 20th birthday, Italo grumbles to Eugenio in frustration over his creative process, which seems to disobey the general principles of intuitive incubation and unconscious processing:
I’m still too ignorant to write articles and as for my output of short stories, a famous summer of overproduction has been followed by years of crisis. … All the ideas currently in my head are subject to a strange phenomenon: while I work on them and perfect them continuously from the philosophical point of view, they stay rudimentary and barely sketched on the dramatic and artistic side. In my creativity thought has the upper hand over imagination.
Having long left school and working on his second novel, Calvino found himself no less full of inner contradiction and resistance to the calling of the writing life and its grueling routines. In a November 1948 letter to his friend Silvio Micheli, he voices, as if in a desperate effort to reconcile, his conflicted desires :
When you’re working you get buried, drowned under things. You’ve no more friends nor art. Only when you’ve an evening or afternoon free can you roam the streets or court a girl. That’s all. In short, working is pointless. I mean, from the point of view of education. But it’s essential. I cannot — and I don’t want to — live the writer’s life, that is to say write for a living. The novel I was writing, which for months and months had sucked all my blood (because, stubborn as I am, I was determined to finish it even though I no longer felt it was going anywhere), is dead, awful, full of wonderful clever things but desperately bad, forced, it’ll never work and I must not finish it. And I must not write for some time now otherwise I’d make more mistakes. I hope that Einaudi will publish my short stories eventually, they’re the only thing I believe in and which I believe are useful.
A few weeks prior, Calvino had written to another friend:
For seven or eight months now I’ve been mucking about with a novel that I began in a moment of weakness and it’s turning out to be very bad, causing me to waste lots of my time. But at least it’ll get rid of my desire to write novels for four or five years, which is what I dream of doing, and will allow me to study kind of seriously and learn to write decently.
On July 27, 1949, Calvino writes to Cesare Pavese:
To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being just as Proust, Radiguet and Fitzgerald did: what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.
In early December of the same year, Calvino writes to literary critic Geno Pampaloni, who had just reviewed the author’s second major published work, the short-story collection The Crow, expressing once again his inner turmoil:
My problem today is how to escape from the limits of these books, from this definition of me as a writer of adventures, fairy-tales, and fun, in which I can’t express myself or realize myself to the full.
In a lengthy letter to literary critic Mario Motta dated January 16, 1950, Calvino addresses the alleged death of the novel, a death toll still nervously resounding today:
There have been so many debates on the novel in the last thirty years, both by those who claimed it was dead and by those who wanted it to be alive in a certain way, that if one conducts the debate without serious preliminary work to establish the terms of the question as it has to be set up and as it has never been set up before, we’ll end up saying and making others say a lot of commonplaces.
The fact is that I already feel I am a prisoner of a kind of style and it is essential that I escape from it at all costs: I’m now trying to write a totally different book, but it’s damned difficult; I’m trying to break up the rhythms, the echoes which I feel the sentences I write eventually slide into, as into pre-existing molds, I try to see facts and things and people in the round instead of being drawn in colors that have no shading. For that reason the book I’m going to write interests me infinitely more than the other one.
As dangerous as the blind adhesion to a style, Calvino writes in a May 1959 letter, is the blind reliance on tools, the cult of medium over message — but harnessing the power of tools is one of the craft’s greatest arts:
One should never have taboos about the tools we use, that as long as the thought or images or style one wants to put forward do not become deformed by the medium, one must on the contrary try to make use of the most powerful and most efficient of those tools.
You can imagine how slowly my fictional output has been going this summer, you who know how much labor, dissatisfaction, irritability, uncertainty this work costs … However — and this is the point — it is worth it. Or rather: one does not ask if it’s worth it. We are people, there is no doubt, who exist solely insofar as we write, otherwise we don’t exist at all. Even if we did not have a single reader any more, we would have to write; and this not because ours can be a solitary job, on the contrary it is a dialog we take part in when we write, a common discourse, but this dialog can still always be supposed to be taking place with authors of the past, with authors we love and whose discourse we are forcing ourselves to develop, or else with those still to come, those we want through our writing to configure in one particular way rather than another. I am exaggerating: heaven help those who write without being read; for that reason there are too many people writing today and one cannot ask for indulgence for someone who has little to say, and one cannot allow trade-union or corporate sympathies.
In the same letter, he returns to the question of the novel and his relationship with fiction:
Even more annoying are those who theorize that the novel has to be like this or like that, that one must write the novel, etc. Let them go to hell! How much energy is wasted in Italy in trying to write the novel that obeys all the rules. The energy might have been useful to provide us with more modest, more genuine things, that had less pretensions: short stories, memoirs, notes, testimonials, or at any rate books that are open, without a preconceived plan.
Personally, I believe in fiction because the stories I like are those with a beginning and an end. I try to write them as they best come to me, depending on what I have to say. We are in a period when in literature and especially in fiction one can do anything, absolutely anything, and all styles and methods coexist. What the public (and also the critics) require are books (“open” novels) that are rich in substance, density, tension.
Three years later, in April of 1962, Calvino returns to his conception of fiction, this time with more dimension and more sensitivity to the inherent contradictions of literature:
One cannot construct in fiction a harmonious language to express something that is not yet harmonious. We live in a cultural ambience where many different languages and levels of knowledge intersect and contradict each other.
In October of the following year, feeling yet constrained by that “cultural ambience,” Calvino fantasizes about freely and wholeheartedly immersing himself in modernism:
Secretly I dream that soon, once the kingdom of literature has been divided between the two opposing factions of traditionalists and innovators, who are united by a common and equal insensitivity to words, I will be able finally to write works that are clandestine, pursuing an ideal of modern prose to hand down to the generations which eventually, God knows when, will understand …
But he is far from conceiving of the writer as a solitary creature working in isolation, in service of some egoic genius. In a December 1967 letter, he parenthetically acknowledges the labyrinth of literature:
One writes most of all in order to take part in a collective enterprise.
Similarly, in a letter penned a few months later, he recognizes the writer’s mind — like that of any great thinker — needs to be a cross-disciplinary one:
Every field of writing cannot be indifferent to other fields.
As a young man my aspiration was to become a “minor writer.” (Because it was always those that are called “minor” that I liked most and to whom I felt closest.) But this was already a flawed criterion because it presupposes that “major” writers exist. Basically, I am convinced that not only are there no “major” or “minor” writers, but writers themselves do not exist — or at least they do not count for much. As far as I am concerned, you still try too hard to explain Calvino with Calvino, to chart a history, a continuity in Calvino, and maybe this Calvino does not have any continuity, he dies and is reborn every second. What counts is whether in the work that he is doing at a certain point there is something that can relate to the present or future work done by others, as can happen to anyone who works, just because of the fact that they are creating such possibilities.
The public figure of the writer, the writer-character, the “personality-cult” of the author, are all becoming for me more and more intolerable in others, and consequently in myself. In short, if a critic writes about a problem and makes reference to one (or more) of my works in relation to that problem, this gives me the sense that my work is not pointless. Whereas the prospect of my bust crowned with laurel appearing along with the other busts in the hall of famous writers gives me no joy at all.
The only kind of literature that is possible today: a literature that is both critical and creative.
In the summer of 1973, he returns to the idea that all literature is interconnected or, as Virginia Woolf memorably put it, “words belong to each other,” and laments the literary landscape of the time:
I am very discouraged by this general dearth of books coming out, a desert that also affects me, removes my desire to write, because books cannot grow if they don’t find around them the company of other books their same age and that are congenial to them.
One of his most prescient and timely meditations comes from a November 1975 letter and, once again, dissents against the artificial and detrimental hierarchies of the literary world:
The distinction between journalists and writers put in those terms does not distinguish anything at all: one cannot say a priori that a writer just because he is a writer is more capable of handling ideas and of seeing what is essential than a journalist when we are dealing with a good journalist.
In late 1979, having just turned fifty-six, Calvino reflects on his nature as a writer, reflecting also on the era’s evolution and presaging our present culture of compressed timelines:
The fact is that I have always been more a writer of short stories than a novelist, and it is second nature to me to close — both in formal and conceptual terms — even a story that remains open; to condense into a short narrative space all the elements that give a sense of completion to the story. However, I do not mean by this that I am in favor only of short time-spans — or rather, there is no doubt that we are living in a period in which time has been shattered, there is no room to breathe, no possibility of foreseeing and planning ahead, and that this rhythm is imposed on what I write — but ideally I believe more and more that the only thing that counts is what moves in long, very long time-spans, both in geological eras and in the history of society. Trying to work out the directions in which these things are moving is very difficult; for that reason I feel more and more incapable of understanding what really is happening in a world which does nothing but prove each model wrong.
This jack-of-all-trades kind of writing does not give me any satisfaction at all, even though, yes, it is also a vocation of mine, but it is certainly the most time-consuming and least useful activity I could be doing, and what’s more in recent times what I manage to come up with are only boring things and my conscience is only at peace if I manage to entertain people.
And still, for all his tremendous insight and wisdom, Calvino is also a relentless devil’s advocate against himself, brimming with mischievous self-consciousness and self-derision that bespeaks one of the grand truths of creative life: No great artist can afford to take himself too seriously. Even in his formative years, Calvino intuited this: 19-year-old Italo tells Eugenio after writing his friend a lengthy letter full of youth’s typical early grapples with philosophy:
I found this letter that I had started to write yesterday evening and I reread it with interest. Dammit, what a lot of drivel I managed to write! In the end it’s impossible to understand anything in it. But better that way: the less one understands the more posterity will appreciate my profundity of thought. In fact, let me say:
if it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it. unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don’t do it. if you have to sit for hours staring at your computer screen or hunched over your typewriter searching for words, don’t do it. if you’re doing it for money or fame, don’t do it. if you’re doing it because you want women in your bed, don’t do it. if you have to sit there and rewrite it again and again, don’t do it. if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it, don’t do it. if you’re trying to write like somebody else, forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of you, then wait patiently. if it never does roar out of you, do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife or your girlfriend or your boyfriend or your parents or to anybody at all, you’re not ready.
don’t be like so many writers, don’t be like so many thousands of people who call themselves writers, don’t be dull and boring and pretentious, don’t be consumed with self- love. the libraries of the world have yawned themselves to sleep over your kind. don’t add to that. don’t do it. unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket, unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder, don’t do it. unless the sun inside you is burning your gut, don’t do it.
when it is truly time, and if you have been chosen, it will do it by itself and it will keep on doing it until you die or it dies in you.
It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole, of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process. Writers are like eremites or anchorites — natural-born eremites or anchorites — who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place. Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with works, mere works, phantoms?
A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. This, unsurprisingly, is not enough. (Making contact with the self — healing the wound — is even less satisfactory.) Writers end up writing stories — or rather, stories’ shadows — and they’re grateful if they can but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough.
She considers the generative power of awareness:
The significant story possesses more awareness than the writer writing it. The significant story is always greater than the writer writing it. This is the absurdity, the disorienting truth, the question that is not even a question, this is the koan of writing.
A writer’s awareness must never be inadequate. Still, it will never be adequate to the greater awareness of the work itself, the work that the writer is trying to write. The writer must not really know what he is knowing, what he is learning to know when he writes, which is more than the knowing of it. A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light. The writer is separate from his work but that’s all the writer is — what he writes. A writer must be smart but not too smart. He must be dumb enough to break himself to harness.
The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered. The writer’s style is his doppelgänger, an apparition that the writer must never trust to do his work for him.
Recounting critical reactions to some of her essays, Williams offers:
But a writer isn’t supposed to make friends with his writing, I don’t think.
On language, and the metaphor from which the essay title comes:
Language accepts the writer as its host, it feeds off the writer, it makes him a husk. There is something uncanny about good writing — uncanny the singing that comes from certain husks. The writer is never nourished by his own work, it is never satisfying to him. The work is a stranger, it shuns him a little, for the writer is really something of a fool, so engaged in his disengagement, so self-conscious, so eager to serve something greater, which is the writing. Or which could be the writing if only the writer is good enough. The work stands a little apart from the writer, it doesn’t want to go down with him when he stumbles or fails to retreat. The writer must do all this alone, in secret, in drudgery, in confusion, awkwardly, one word at a time.
The good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life. The work — this Other, this other thing — this false life that is even less than the seeming of this lived life, is more than the lived life, too. It is so unreal, so precise, so unsurprising, so alarming, really. Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, either is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face. Whenever the writer writes, it’s always three o’clock in the morning, it’s always three or four or five o’clock in the morning in his head. Those horrid hours are the writer’s days and nights when he is writing. The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve…something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness — those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.
Williams ends with a direct yet wonderfully poetic answer:
Why does the writer write? The writer writes to serve — hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve — not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us.
A writer I very much admire is Don DeLillo. At an awards ceremony for him at the Folger Library several years ago, I said that he was like a great shark moving hidden in our midst, beneath the din and wreck of the moment, at apocalyptic ease in the very elements of our psyche and times that are most troublesome to us, that we most fear.
Why do I write? Because I wanna be a great shark too. Another shark. A different shark, in a different part of the ocean. The ocean is vast.
Lewis begins at the bumpy beginning, echoing Ray Bradbury’s insistence on perseverance in the face of rejection: Even though his thesis adviser at Princeton praised the intellectual angle of his senior thesis but admonished him to never attempt making a living with that kind of writing, Lewis was drawn to the writing life. He wrote a piece on the homeless and pitched it to various magazines. It was rejected, with one magazine editor noting that “pieces on the life of the underclass in America” were unsuitable for publication. (One has to wonder whether the defiant remnants of this early brush with gobsmacking censorship spurred Lewis’s provocative look at the housing and credit bubble more than twenty years later.) Still, he “kept plugging away” and, in 1983, applied for an internship as a science writer at the Economist. He recalls:
I didn’t get the job — the other two applicants were doing their PhDs in physics and biology, and I’d flunked the one science class I took in college — but the editor who interviewed me said, “You’re a fraud, but you’re a very good fraud. Go write anything you want for the magazine, except science.” They published the first words I ever got into print. They paid ninety bucks per piece. It cost money to write for the Economist. I didn’t know how I was ever going to make a living at writing, but I felt encouraged. Luckily, I was delusional. I didn’t know that I didn’t have much of an audience, so I kept doing it.
Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.
My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.
More than a living, Lewis found in writing a true calling — the kind of deep flow that fully absorbs the mind and soul:
There’s no simple explanation for why I write. It changes over time. There’s no hole inside me to fill or anything like that, but once I started doing it, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else for a living. I noticed very quickly that writing was the only way for me to lose track of the time.
I used to get the total immersion feeling by writing at midnight. The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.
Still, Lewis admits to being stirred by the awareness that he can change minds and move hearts — a somewhat nobler version of Orwell’s “sheer egotism” motive:
The reasons I write change over time. In the beginning, it was that sense of losing time. Now it’s changed, because I have a sense of an audience. I have the sense that I can biff the world a bit. I don’t know that I have control of the direction of the pinball, but I can exert a force.
That power is a mixed blessing. It’s good to have something to get you into the chair. I’m not sure it’s great for the writing to think of yourself as important while you’re doing it. I don’t quite think that way. But I can’t deny that I’m aware of the effects my writing will have.
“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeod famously wrote. It might be an overly cynical notion, one that perpetuates the unjustified yet deep-seated cultural guilt over simultaneously doing good and doing well, but Lewis echoes the sentiment:
Once you have a career, and once you have an audience, once you have paying customers, the motives for doing it just change.
And yet Lewis approaches the friction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — one experienced by anyone who loves what they do and takes pride in clarity of editorial vision, but has an audience whose approval or disapproval becomes increasingly challenging to tune out — with extraordinary candor and insight:
Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. And they really want you to do it.
That dynamic has the possibility of constraining the imagination. There are invisible pressures. There’s a huge incentive to write about things that you know will sell. But I don’t find myself thinking, “I can’t write about that because it won’t sell.” It’s such a pain in the ass to write a book, I can’t imagine writing one if I’m not interested in the subject.
And yet his clarity of vision is still what guides the best of his work:
Those are the best moments, when I’ve got the whale on the line, when I see exactly what it is I’ve got to do.
After that moment there’s always misery. It never goes quite like you think, but that moment is a touchstone, a place to come back to. It gives you a kind of compass to guide you through the story.
That feeling has never done me wrong. Sometimes you don’t understand the misery it will lead to, but it’s always been right to feel it. And it’s a great feeling.
When I was writing my first book, I was going from eleven at night till seven in the morning. I was very happy waking up at two in the afternoon. My body clock would naturally like to start writing around nine at night and finish at four in the morning, but I have a wife and kids and endless commitments. … My natural writing schedule doesn’t work with my family’s schedule. I actually do better when I have pressure, some mental deadline.
Aware that he is “mentally absent” from family life while immersed in a book project, Lewis considers himself lucky to be a “binge writer” who takes lots of time off between books … “which is why I still have a family,” he jokes. His immersion, in fact, is so complete that it changes his physical experience:
When I’m working on a book, I’m in a very agitated mental state. My sleep is disrupted. I only dream about the project. My sex drive goes up. My need for exercise, and the catharsis I get from exercise, is greater. When I’m in the middle of a project, whether I’m doing Bikram yoga or hiking up the hill or working out at the gym, I carry a blank pad and a pen. I’ll take eight hundred little notes right in the middle of a posture. It drives my yoga instructor crazy.
It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money, find another one.
I took my biggest risk when I walked away from a lucrative job at age twenty-seven to be a writer. I’m glad I was too young to realize what a dumb decision it seemed to be, because it was the right decision for me.
A lot of my best decisions were made in a state of self-delusion. When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.
Why We Write remains a must-read of the most highly recommended kind, featuring contributions from such celebrated authors as Jennifer Egan, Ann Patchett, and Rick Moody.
“Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
On the heels of the highly anticipated new David Foster Wallace biography comes Both Flesh and Not: Essays (public library) — a collection spanning twenty years of Wallace’s nonfiction writing on subjects as wide-ranging as math, Borges, democracy, the U.S. Open, and the entire spectrum of human experience in between. Among the anthology’s finest is an essay titled “The Nature of the Fun” — a meditation on whywriterswrite, encrusted in Wallace’s signature blend of self-conscious despondency, even more self-conscious optimism, and overwhelming self-awareness. It was originally published in 1998 in Fiction Writer and also included in the wonderful 1998 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction.
After offering an extended and rather gory metaphor for the writer’s creative output and a Zen parable about unpredictability, he gets to the meat of things:
In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while. Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You’re no longer writing just to get yourself off, which — since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow — is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you’re good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing — your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal.
At some point you find that 90% of the stuff you’re writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked. This results in shitty fiction. And the shitty work must get fed to the wastebasket, less because of any sort of artistic integrity than simply because shitty work will cause you to be disliked. At this point in the evolution of writerly fun, the very thing that’s always motivated you to write is now also what’s motivating you to feed your writing to the wastebasket. This is a paradox and a kind of double-bind, and it can keep you stuck inside yourself for months or even years, during which period you wail and gnash and rue your bad luck and wonder bitterly where all the fun of the thing could have gone.
The smart thing to say, I think, is that the way out of this bind is to work your way somehow back to your original motivation — fun. And, if you can find your way back to fun, you will find that the hideously unfortunate double-bind of the late vain period turns out really to have been good luck for you. Because the fun you work back to has been transfigured by the extreme unpleasantness of vanity and fear, an unpleasantness you’re now so anxious to avoid that the fun you rediscover is a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun. It has something to do with Work as Play. Or with the discovery that disciplined fun is more than impulsive or hedonistic fun. Or with figuring out that not all paradoxes have to be paralyzing. Under fun’s new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable. This process is complicated and confusing and scary, and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is.
The fact that you can now sustain the fun of writing only by confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you’d first used writing to avoid or disguise is another paradox, but this one isn’t any kind of bind at all. What it is is a gift, a kind of miracle, and compared to it the rewards of strangers’ affection is as dust, lint.
Both Flesh and Not is excellent in its entirety and just as quietly, unflinchingly soul-stirring as “The Nature of the Fun.”
“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
The question of what propels creators, especially great creators, is the subject of eternal fascination and cultural curiosity. In “Why I Write,” originally published in the New York Times Book Review in December of 1976 and found in The Writer on Her Work, Volume 1 (public library), Joan Didion — whose indelible insight on self-respect is a must-read for all — peels the curtain on one of the most celebrated and distinctive voices of American fiction and literary journalism to reveal what it is that has compelled her to spend half a century putting pen to paper.
Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this: I I I In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.
I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas — I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in The Portrait of a Lady as well as the next person, ‘imagery’ being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention — but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. I did this. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.
Which was a writer.
By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?
Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene.
It tells you. You don’t tell it.
Didion concludes with a quick shot of her signature wry wit:
Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.
Orwell begins with some details about his less than idyllic childhood — complete with absentee father, school mockery and bullying, and a profound sense of loneliness — and traces how those experiences steered him towards writing, proposing that such early micro-traumas are essential for any writer’s drive. He then lays out what he believes to be the four main motives for writing, most of which extrapolate to just about any domain of creative output.
I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.
After a further discussion of how these motives permeated his own work at different times and in different ways, Orwell offers a final and rather dystopian disclaimer:
Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
This, of course is to be taken with a grain of salt — the granularity of individual disposition, outlook, and existential choice, that is. I myself subscribe to the Ray Bradbury model:
Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say ‘Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…’, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.