Why I Write

I write because I like words. The way they sound. Alone. In sequence. The way they mean things. How their meanings change, multiply, when collected together. I like sentences even better. I like to tinker with a sentence until it’s perfect. A perfect sentence is a crazy impossible dream. Like a perpetual motion machine, running entirely and eternally on its own creative fuel.

I love it that when you surround one sentence with others, and connect those to even more, and eventually get a theme or a story out of them, that first sentence acquires a weight and a beauty it didn’t have on its own. 

I began to know I was a writer in the same way that a person who plays with blocks as a child and comes to enjoy the feel of them in his hands and finds himself compelled to keep stacking them together one on top of another then grows up to become an engineer.

My early experiences with self-conscious writing—the times when I knew I was engaged in a craft, when I had the sense of being a writer as opposed to something else, when I learned that the writing mattered independent of any other external purpose the words might have had—still shape what and how I write today.

One summer as a teenager I sat on a beach and wrote poetry. I watched a line of pelicans in the sky and tried to write the wonder of their flight into my notebook. I loved how I could line up the words, arrange them in different orders, and make them look and sound beautiful. Have them signify things other than what they appeared to be and hint at the secrets of the universe, things I could feel but not see. 

I remember studying poetry in high school. The only essays I enjoyed writing, the only ones that took me in their thrall and actually made me giddy, were about literature. The purity of ideas excited me, and the power of poetic language. That discovery first came in a paper I wrote on Doctor Faustus, the renaissance play by Christopher Marlowe, a poet of the first order, known for his mighty line.

In college I made new discoveries as a writer, even without majoring in English. I managed to encounter works of great emotional impact and beauty, like James Joyce’s “The Dead” and E. M. Forster’s Passage to India. Even as I studied biology (briefly) and then political science (longer-term, through and past a PhD), I only wrote with passion about literature. Outside of classes, my poetry writing became private, a way to reckon with difficult emotions. But I also wrote for a public: movie reviews for the college paper. Movies for me were like that line of pelicans, and I tried to translate their beauty and mystery into words.

My life has taken all kinds of detours since, but nearly every turn has involved writing. I became a reporter, then an academic. Newspaper editors, television producers, and professors took my writing apart, forced me to build it back up. They would break it down more and I would built it up again. I was better off for it. Simplicity and concision alternated with nuance and complexity, most often inelegantly, but I learned so much. 

I often thought about writing novels. But I didn’t pursue it until half a lifetime later, after leaving journalism and academia behind. What drew me back were the things that had drawn me in to begin with: poetry, powerful ideas, movies. (Because books speak not only of other books – apologies to Umberto Eco – but of films, and other art forms, as well.) And specifically Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, which had somehow gotten itself lodged in my head and never left, after all those years. The novel I’ve written and hope to publish soon, One Too Many Devil, draws inspiration from each and every one of these things. 

I continue to make discoveries. When you decide you’re going to write a book, you obligate yourself to a lot more than just writing—or at least more than just tinkering with words and sentences. It takes a lot of thinking, and gathering, and researching, and then making connections between all the things you’ve thought, and gathered, and researched. Especially the gathering. The collecting of bits of life as you live it, consciously or unconsciously. 

When I knew I was going to write a novel, I also knew it was going to be historical, set in a period I knew very little about, so the research was going to be intense. But the research wasn’t an obstacle; it was a crutch. Having done a PhD in political science, I hadn’t the slightest idea how to write a novel, but I had thousands of dark, musty, endless-rows-of-shelves, library hours under my belt and boy could I do research. I had the kernel of an idea for a story, but I spent several years in library basements and rare book rooms before I had a plot.

After ten years, I’ve just put the finishing touches on my book manuscript. I was tinkering with the words and sentences right to the very end. It always comes back to those basic building blocks, those essential particles of the writer’s art and science. They are why I write. 

Thanks to author Tim Weed, who earlier this year tagged several writers to post on what and why we write, or, “what might loosely be termed aesthetic philosophy.”