Why We Write

A while ago I met a guy named Bo*. Bo was a cool guy. He liked nature and video games and learning about other cultures. He’s currently studying environmental science here at UOW. The first time we met, we were in a large group as part of a University student support program. We were invited to spend some time moving around the room, introducing ourselves to each other and finding out the basics: name, degree, one interesting fact. When Bo and I started talking, he asked what I study.

“Creative writing,” I said.

“Oh really,” he said. “Why?”

I tilted my head to one side.

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Image Credit: Alan Cleaver, 2010

Image Credit: Alan Cleaver, 2010.

 

The suggestion behind Bo’s question was nothing new to me. Once, when I met another friend for the first time and told her I studied creative writing, her reaction was similar. You have to study to write fiction? I thought you just, you know, did it. I laughed at her. She laughed back.

Now, a couple years later, Bo’s questions are equally as interesting.

“I mean, what’s the practical application of that?” Bo asked

I tilted my head to the other side. And then I just nodded, and laughed, and went along with the sort-of-but-not-really joke. Although Bo didn’t know it, and I didn’t mention it, his question summed up what I’d been thinking about for a while.

I recently did a little research into the likelihood of getting published. Sara Megibow from the Nelson Literary Agency recently said, in one year, a literary agent will receive around 32,000 query letters. Of those 32,000 query letters, she’ll ask for sample pages from maybe 2,500 authors. Of those 2,500 samples, she’ll read maybe 98 full manuscripts. Anyone want to take a guess at how many authors she might offer to represent out of those 98? Nine. And how many books out of those nine do you think might sell? Five. Out of 32,000 wanna-be writers, five will ‘make it’. In other words, if you’re a writer, according to Sara Megibow, you have a 0.015625% chance of getting a book published by a traditional publishing house.

Admittedly, there are a whole bunch of reasons to write, other than publication. When I began writing because I wanted to, and not just because I had to, my aspirations were very different to what they are now. My mind was not set on publication. I was in a shitty phase of my life, and as a young 18-year-old girl whose idyllic version of ‘reality’ had been split open with the death of her two sisters the year before, filling my diary was both an outlet and an attempt to understand. And I think this has merit, I really do. I also think, though, that writing for yourself, and writing for a public audience are two very different things. In the context of the ‘why write?’ question, perhaps the biggest difference is the amount of time and effort required. Writing for yourself doesn’t have to be all-consuming. It doesn’t have to be edited or re-worked. It doesn’t have to adhere to formal conventions or follow any rules. But writing for a public audience, despite what my friend thought about ‘just doing it’, requires a hell of a lot of discipline, time and effort. And as a result, sacrifices. And this is what I’m interested in asking. At what point, are the sacrifices involved in pursing writing as a career not worth the benefits?

why we write

Image Credit: Tim Hamilton via Flickr Creative Commons.

 

During the various writing festivals and workshops I’ve attended and conversations I’ve had, I’ve noticed a gap between two very different attitudes towards writing. For some writers, their work is arts for arts sake. It’s something they fit around their paid work. For others, there’s a goal to monetize their practice. But both attitudes are not without their sacrifices. For both types of writers, there’s always a question of what do you give up to put in those bum-on-seat, fingers-on-keyboard hours? Sacrificing time with friends and family for time with story characters is, I think, the biggest issue. It’s one thing to believe both can fit nicely into a lifetime but the reality is, especially with art, it’s often the obsessed that are able to achieve their artistic goals. The crux of the problem is time’s finiteness. Spending time on your art, is time not spent with family and friends. And who will be there on your death bed? Possibly both, likely only the latter. For writers wanting to monetise their practice, there are further issues to be considered. I’m a fan of volunteer work and giving back to the community. But Woolworths doesn’t let you swap apples for stories, and having a list of published by-lines doesn’t help your car get you where you need to go. Which means, for me, at some point, the writing needs to be worth a little moolah. While suggesting one can earn a lot of money from writing would be a sick joke, I do think it’s possible (and indeed, people do) to earn a sort-of decent wage from writing.

According to the Australia Council artists survey, Don’t give up your day job (even the name seems to be poking fun at the artistic and cultural life of Australia), in 2000-01, artists earned an average of just over $24,000 from creative and other arts-related work. Take away the ‘arts-related work’ income, and the figures get scary. From their creative work alone, writers earned an average of $20,400, visual artists an average of $12,600, actors an average of $22,500, musicians an average of $17,700. When you start adding the non-creative work related income, the numbers brighten a little. And when you add in the non-creative and non-arts related work, the numbers, for a writer at least, seem to sprout little stars around their edges. Including all work forms, writers earned an average of $46,100, visual artists an average of $29,300, actors an average of $41,700 and musicians an average of $41,100. All income is gross (pre-tax). While I understand the sentiment that taking up an art practice solely to make money is a rather stupid idea, I think pretending the numbers don’t matter is an equally stupid idea. While these statistics seem to suggest it is possible to pay the rent on time and make art, they seem to also suggest that any artist who can’t juggle ten balls at once won’t survive in the industry.

But perhaps there’s hope and reason for artists to learn how to juggle. Perhaps we aren’t as far off Berlin’s attitude towards arts (and it’s just our government and funding bodies that need to catch up) as we think. The Government recently set up the Art Facts website, “the new home for statistics about Australian arts”. Although the site is currently focused on music and visual arts, the statistics they’ve put up still reveal something interesting about Australian culture and the importance we place on art as a whole. According to Art Facts, art exhibitions draw bigger crowds than the footy. While Australia’s most popular spectator sport, Australian Rules Football, had 10 million attendances in 2009-10, art galleries had 11 million. When it comes to music, once again the statistics suggest a country crying out for arts. While 9 in 10 Australians listen to music each week, only 4 in 10 exercise.

writing advice

Image Credit: Sarah Reid, Creative Commons.

 

I often worry I’ve become known around campus as ‘the girl that cries’. In our first class of first semester of the first year of our degree, UOW academic and creative writing teacher Merlinda Bobis went around the room and asked each of us to explain why we write. I was in the middle of the room and so it took a while for her to get to me. As she moved closed and closer, I could feel my tears moving closer and closer to the surface. Later, in her office, Bobis would say they have, in her first language (Bikol), a phrase for people like me. Mababaw ong luka: Tears so close to the surface. In the classroom, when she got to me, my face was wet with tears and I could not speak. She continued moving around the room and came back to me at the end. Again, the tears strangled my voice. Later in the degree, when Bobis read aloud a poem about a political assassination in the Philippines during the Total War, a similar thing happened. And then, most recently, when I was granted a one-off mentoring session with Melissa Lucashenko, and she asked what a story I wrote was really about, the tears came again. Outside of the story-related classroom, the tears do not come so easily. Probably, they do not come easily enough. Which makes me wonder: What is it about stories that are so powerful?

Bobis, on her website writes: “the joy of writing is in the power of transformation”. Given that Bobis is a strong supporter of the idea “we write for the other”, the former quote, to me at least, suggests two things: in writing, the reader is forced to see something for the first time, or in a new light, and come out changed (presumably for the better) because of it. Simultaneously, the larger social/political/psychological systems being explored within the work are named, exposed and therefore transformed from something ‘private’ or ‘secret’ to something ‘public’ or ‘known’. Perhaps, it is for the act of this transformation that writing becomes worthwhile.

In her 2009 TED talk, Elif Shafak takes this idea a little further by arguing storytelling is a way of “reaching beyond the cultural circles we are part of, as a way of growing and expanding our knowledge of the world”. It is through storytelling that we can begin to understand the ‘other’. And when we begin to understand the other, we can begin to know them and empathise with them. Malala Yousafzai recently opened the new Birmingham library. In her speech, she declared “pens and books will defeat terrorism”. I think part of what Malala was suggesting is very much in line with what Shafak was suggesting: stories create space for empathy.

Bell Hooks’ theory of ‘coming to voice’ is another idea that ties in with writing as a form of activism. According to hooks, providing people with space to speak up and tell their story gives them both voice and agency, an act that is both political and personal. I first heard about hooks’ theory during a conversation with Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Director of Sweatshop. According to their website, “Sweatshop is a movement devoted to achieving equality for Western Sydney communities through literary and critical thinking. Sweatshop believes the best way for Western Sydney communities to identify issues that affect them, take control of how they are portrayed and perceived and build alternatives is through literature.” The result is a group of people from various cultural, racial, religious and class background coming together to tell their stories in their own way. Writing is one tool used to achieve this. Often, to not write or tell stories is to be silenced.

I was recently hanging out with a mate in a tutorial aimed at preparing us for the professional side of life as an artist. Resumes, pitching, grant applications—all that stuff. My friend and I were talking about our different approaches to our practice and I asked something about his writing goals. His response kind of blew my mind. It went something along the lines of him just doing whatever he feels like and not being real worried about professional or publishing success. I think I asked him to repeat himself. “There’s no point doing it if it’s not fun,” he said. “I just wanna have fun with it.” I wasn’t sure how to respond. I’ve always been driven to ‘succeed’ by kicking whatever goals I think constitute success in the particular situation. But to do something just for the hell of it, with no regard for the outcome, was like a whole new way of thinking.

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Image Credit: ‘The Written Word’, Paloetic Photography, Creative Commons.

 

But perhaps this is an equally valid reason to write. Perhaps transcending political barriers and offering transformation and knowledge are valid reasons for writing, but perhaps there are less complicated but equally valid reasons also. Since beginning my creative writing degree at UOW and moving into the ‘literary’ side of writing, my work has become more reflective and subtly political, and has moved further and further away from the ‘fun’. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy writing (or rather, as Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing, I love having written”), but that I began to think writing which does not aspire to make a positive contribution to society, by showing up the negative side of humanity or recounting a story that contributed to someone’s growth, was not writing that ‘mattered’. And therefore, not writing that was worth the sacrifices mentioned above.

Felicity Castagna (Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia) recently said “I think I write because I love to play with words and images”. Such a simple, almost child-like reason for writing struck me as something new. Michelle Lloyd talks about the joy of reading being the driving force behind her writing. She says:

I love books. Because of books I've been to Mordor with the Fellowship, discovered Narnia with the Pevenseys, and fallen in love with Mr Darcy alongside Lizzie Bennett. I've experienced the death of Beth March and the heartbreak of Marianne Dashwood. I've lived and died a thousand times in a thousand different ways, with a thousand different people. This is the power that words on paper can have over us, and if through my writing I've created a life that someone else has lived by reading it, then I'll consider my job as a writer to be done, and be proud of what I've accomplished.”

And Sam Cooney’s response to my email asking ‘Why write?’ really summed it up: “Why write? Because it's something to do! Because I'm better than many at it. Because when it feels good, it feels real real good. Because I can.” So simple, so easy, so enjoyable.

While I love the idea behind these joyful and simple attitudes towards writing, I think a much wider reality must also be taken into account. With the economy down the drain, families struggling to make ends meet, and things like climate change, what gives someone the right to do something, that often relies on public/government funding or takes away time with family and friends, that is potentially so selfish (depending on how you look at the value of art in society)? This is the question that drove me to write this article. The most obvious answer is to write because we have to write, because we simply can not not write, but to do so with balance for the other important things in life. But this seems too simple, too straightforward. Even Tsiolkas recently wrote: “I don’t yet have the confidence to believe that … I can answer adequately the question of why I write. That exploration is still ahead of me.”

(Later in the year, when I got to know Bo better, I found out he harboured a dirty little secret: One day, he hoped to write and publish his own science fiction novels.)

*Bo: Not his real name.