The answer to that question has changed for me over the years. In the beginning, I told myself that writing was my calling, a destiny I had to follow, lured on by the love of language. Writing was a magic power to capture some little part of the world and remake it into something perfect and brilliant. I remember thinking of myself as a crystal prism that refracted a single beam of white light, and giving back a full spectrum of color. Such is the hubris of youth!
Later, with one rejection after another piling up, writing was an act of defiance, something I’d do to show the world that I wasn’t a quitter. Every notice that came in the mail – this was long before the days of online submissions – got put in a stack. The stack grew, and so did my resolve. Staying at it was better than giving up, because I’m crazier when I’m not writing than when I am.
I focused on my characters. Many of these were alter-egos, versions of myself, people with similar traits who were able to live a very different life from mine. I had to keep writing to find out who I was, and how I managed adversity in a number of circumstances and settings. This felt a lot like putting on a new life for a while, and then safely taking it off.
Then the people I wrote about bore less resemblance to me, and became themselves. I felt that I owed them something, maybe not a simple resolution to their problems, but time spent and invested in their hopes and fears. Sometimes, when I felt like abandoning a story I was writing, I’d tell myself that I couldn’t leave so-and-so hanging, that I needed to see them through. They were counting on me, and more often than not, I stuck it out so they could, too.
With time, and its inevitable result, many of my characters, modeled on family members close to me, died. I didn’t write about them so much as I wrote to them. Letters I could have sent. Conversations I wish we’d had. In this way, they became people I wanted them to be, people I wouldn’t have been so unhappy with.
In my first novel, Pen’s Road, my protagonist, Penny Stillman, is modeled very loosely on myself as a young woman (I guess my alter-ego returned). Penny’s world is bound by her father, mother, aunt, and father’s second wife. These four cause harm, do good turns, demonstrate their shortcomings in ridiculous, often funny ways, and always seek to hold Penny fast. I had an identical group of four adults in my early life. They’re gone. The last to go was my father, who died only this year, at the age of 90. His character, Stanley, isn’t as smart as my father was intellectually, but he’s just as clueless, emotionally. Unlike my father, Stanley was able to talk about deeper issues, especially when grief shook them loose from the safe place he’d always kept them. Penny’s mother is just as critical and distant as my own mother was, but with a deeper vein of evil; her aunt as flamboyant, but less “with it;” the father’s second-wife is the same hard drinker she was in life, only more so. Penny’s approach to these people is usually to avoid them, then confront them, and ultimately go on her way alone. That is pure wishful thinking, on my part, in that I never really let any of them go. Nor, I suspect, did they ever loosen their hold on me.
And as for right now – today – why do I write? Out of a long-standing habit, all of the reasons I’ve laid out above, and also because I’ve discovered a greater distance and objectivity about the odd things people do. A state of detachment, if you will. Being hyper-vigilant without an emotional investment has made what I hope is a blank canvas for my reader to see for themselves what’s important on the page. By being a little quieter, my reader can occupy the space themselves, unhindered.
More than anything else, I know what I knew from the moment I first put pen to paper: we write to remind ourselves that we’re not alone.