I’m happy to be taking part in Get Lit!’s Cyber Author Panel on “What Keeps Me Writing” — and the topic reminded me of an essay I came across recently: Geoff Nicholson’s New York Times essay, titled “Can’t. Stop. Writing.” Addressing the same topic, the essay first focuses on the prolificacy of authors (Nicholson’s own 20 books in 22 years; Joyce Carol Oates’ more than 100 books in 45 years; the late John Updike’s 50 in 60).
It focuses less on prolific unpublished authors (though the essay does mention the romance novelist Barbara Cortland’s unpublished 160 novels, of 700 books total). I myself am somewhere in between, with some two dozen published stories, a just-published collection, and a (yet) unpublished novel. And, as a writer who is still “emerging” after a decade of slowly but surely getting published stories into the world amid my various day jobs, this makes the question of what keeps me writing very relevant, as in “Why do I keep writing fiction when I could pursue a more sustainable, lucrative career path?”
For one, when I was young, I never imagined doing anything else. When I grew up and realized that no one was going to pay me to sit around and write, I did the next best things: I taught English. I went to graduate school. I moved to New York and worked in publishing. I wrote for magazines and newspapers and newsletters. I wrote fiction on the side and eventually carved out more and more time for it in what increasingly became a patchwork life of teaching and freelancing and writing, writing, writing. And this alone keeps me writing – my knowledge that the ability to live this way is a gift too valuable to be wasted.
What also keeps me writing is, most often, the little things. When I see or hear something interesting, it becomes the kernel of a new story. Every moment, to me, is a story waiting to be born; I’m not sure I’m capable of looking at the world in any other way. And these little things eventually lead to the bigger things: the chance to step outside my world and delve into another, to take a part of my own world and transform it into something that is broader than my own experience — and I hope, the ability to do the same for readers.
Eventually, these little and big things multiply and become another source of inspiration to keep writing: publishing a new story in a literary magazine helps me recognize how much I’m still growing as a writer; teaching at a conference makes me realize how much I’ve learned along the way; getting feedback from readers tells me I’m making a connection somewhere out there.
For me, Nicholson sums it up perfectly: “…perhaps the real reason we keep writing is the hope, naïve perhaps, that we’ll make a better job of it next time. Unless you’re a genius or a fool, you realize that everything you write, however ‘successful,’ is always a sort of failure. And so you try again.”