Why Writers Write

Part I

I’m always fascinated to hear why and how authors write. What makes them tick? How do they get all those words down in one place?  What do their days look like?  How do their marriages stay together?  Or not.  I’ve read a number of authors who are willing to go public with their personal stories about their motives and how they go about their life and craft: Mary Karr, Amy Tan, Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, Henri Nouwen, Anne Lamott… to name a few.

“Why I Write” is a theme I return to again and again to check myself for the truth.

My motives and reasons, demons and victories have changed over the course of a couple decades. As I look back over my musings and rantings, I see how I’ve grown from being a little girl with no name and hollow eyes who ran and hid if she wasn’t being gently invited to come sit on my lap, and “type” at the keyboard. With some encouragement she grew toward dreamy idealism, and then into scattered and unfocused wanderings.

Eventually, my young writer self reached early pre-adolescence. Like a budding girl who stands for hours in front of a bathroom mirror doing whatever it is pre-teeners do, I stood in front of my writer’s mirror examining each pore, making faces, trying different hair styles, posing, grimacing, and play acting.

A ten-year-old certainly does not anticipate suffering through the pains of puberty that sets in around age 12, and my writer self was no different. Maybe I’d rather have stayed little and innocent. As it was, I received affirmation from friends, but I knew they were in the same camp as my mother when she said, “Donna Kaye, you’re the prettiest girl in the county,” as if her words might just turn into reality by having said them. 

But, I knew what pretty looked like. I admired the literary beauties strutting past who communicated sheer eloquence and grace from their lofty realms. Transfixed, I stood swaybacked with my toes turned in, feeling clumsy and without any style at all—a fashion nightmare nudged along by an unforeseeable force.

Part II

Then one day, I was approached by a well-dressed buyer. 

One of the first famed authors I would collaborate with said he wanted to see my heart and soul on the page, with his. It was a dream come true.

I believe now that he wanted to mean it. We set to work and I quickly fell in love with the melding of our words. We were making art together. It was magical and we  were happy then, energized by a message that was much more than the sum of its parts…until he met with his publisher. 

Strange, unexplained things began to happen, such as my name went missing from the book cover and my bio was forgotten. The publicist who was happily on our team early on, now refused correspondence with me, and would speak only to the primary author. I was only as useful as I was able to embellish and make him look good to guarantee a sale. I cried bitter tears from the far corner of our first book signing; I was a mistress crashing his party. 

That might have been the end if it hadn’t been for the realization that I helped created something remarkable. I wanted to create again.

My determination was merely stoked into a hotter flame. I refused to have my literary naiveté thrown out on the street. I would not be silenced. I am not typically angry nor would I remain so, but my anger then provided energy to move on. I would find my words, my people, my story.

When a writing career begins with the pressure of needing to pay the mortgage and to feed a family, it’s like acquiring a guitar with the desire to play, but needing to sell tickets to a show before you know how or what to perform. I had to produce. My family’s wellbeing depended on it.

About that time, I was reading the now classic primer for any human being who wants to put pen to paper, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Specifically, I was stuck on the part where Lamott claims, we write for the experience of it. I thought, Right. If only, Anne. You don’t have any idea of where I am right now. How the need of a paycheck dictates what I write, that deadlines determine when and for how many hours I write–a gun to my temple on some days. I was pissed off, but kept reading. 

I happened to be hanging out with my husband while half-listening to local musicians standing around drinking beer talking shop and spouting worn out humor at a bar called Little John’s. It was a total dive with a black and white checkered floor, painted cinderblock walls, a poor excuse for a stage, and a few signature crusty cowboys to round out the scene. 

I considered going outside and sitting on the curb to read in peace while waiting for the performer to show up. I glanced up and saw an attractive guy with wild dark curls pulled back and corralled by a hairband walk in the door. He wore a burgandy colored turtleneck, jeans, and biker boots.  He’s not from around here. The turtleneck was a dead giveaway.

Neil Zaza, a Peavy rep at the time, was paid to play for music stores and small concerts across the country to showcase equipment. He’d just come from Bozeman’s Music Villa, a famed spot for headlining musicians traveling on the I-90 between Seattle and Minneapolis.

Zaza changed my world. When he began to play, everything I knew and believed up to that night spun out of kilter. I dared to believe in mastery as I had never believed before. 

The other musicians in the room stood silent, not drinking, not being stupid. Their jaws hung slack. They too were mesmerized. Zaza didn’t seem to notice. His head was thrown back, there was no need to perform, no other instruments, no vocals–no words. He was just playing the music. 

Musicians can never completely divorce themselves from their performance self, but if it’s ever possible, Zaza came close that night. Mastery will do that for a person, I guess. I had never seen such seamless technique, style, and speed. He was so vulnerable and surrendered, yet still fully in control. We all needed a cigarette when the last note hung in the smoky air. 

Will I ever come to this place in writing? I wondered. Able to lose myself and run in reckless abandon and write with that kind of passion or pleasure? Will I express myself with such unfettered vulnerability that my readers are drawn in and forget to breathe, forget to leave? Oh, to craft words to make people feel that alive! 

As never before, I tasted art for the sheer enjoyment of it. I was fully aware of the work and frustration and long hours and money being exchanged. I know musicians face the drudgery of the bus and another city and another setup and endless sound checks. They will face mobs of fans screaming and asking ridiculously repetitive and meaningless questions. Patrons will flirt and toss fifty dollar bills in the kitty to coerce them to play that song one more time. Though it didn’t happen on this night, Zaza was sure to be plagued by media pressures. But he knew the bliss of a moment, of being alive—of going far beyond the reach of the ordinary. And that night he took us there.  

These moments happen on stage because they first happen in dark, smoky hotel rooms, or musty basements in Cleveland, Ohio. “To participate requires self-discipline and trust and courage, because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, as Anne Lamott’s friend Dale puts it, ‘How alive am I willing to be?’”