Must I?



The question of whether a writer “must” write has come up in a number of comments on this blog.

This question has troubled and stymied me much of my life. It comes from a time in my life, as university was ending, when I could have taken the fork in the road whose sign said “Damn the torpedoes, you are meant to write” and not the one I took which said “this way leads to “getting along in the world”.

Before I elaborate, here are some other reasons why I think some people want to write.

There are people who write themselves out of depression and there is the excellent site Storied Mind to attest to it.

There are people who like reading so much that they’d like to write some of that stuff, too. I can relate to that. From childhood, I have liked music so much that I wanted to write and play it. Try as I might, I couldn’t get with it. Blame it on the bossa nova (it’s the dance of love).

Then there is matter of lifestyle and identity. A lot of people fall in love with romantic ideas of the sensitive artist, the camaraderie of the writing “fellowship”. Think of the “moveable feast” gang in Paris in the 1920’s, the Iowa writers workshop, Greenwich village, the Bloomsbury Group, the Algonquin Hotel Round Table and many other groups that have attained cult status.

There is the romantic ideal of the mysterious observer, the one who sees (and can express!) what others miss, what others think but do not say. I can hear someone ask: “Oh God, what little joint did Bob Dylan write that song in? What did Leonard Cohen eat on that Greek Island?”

A lot of this has to do with wishing a for a“splendid isolation”: the writers wilderness cabin, the garret. This may be a longing for a place of refuge, a safe and beautiful place from which one can carry on a long-distance connection with the rest of the world by putting down thoughts gathered in the “real” social world and assembling them quietly to be sent back into the mainstream.

While some of the above may smell a bit of magical thinking, there is also something to be said for the lack of distraction, interruption, and perspective that an unspoiled landscape – a clean slate of nature – that a “Walden Pond” environment can offer.

There is also the traveler, the Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, the outdoorsman and adventurer.

There are the pub writers (Dylan Thomas), the cafe writers (J. K. Rowling) and those who write on trains (Tony Judt ). I’m not entirely sure how this works for me

I, personally, write a lot while driving around country roads at night. (Nobody has emulated me, to my knowledge).

All have their cachets. All have influenced or attracted people to want to write. To feel like these writers write.

The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve worked with, however,  have a very workman like approach to their craft, working in offices at home or in business settings (yes, some of the sharpest writers around work in “bull pens” whether they’re doing the  next episode  of “Six Feet Under” or the next commercial for OxyClean.

It’s the successful writers who write from their home offices who seem to generate all those “10 rules for writing” lists you see. I expect it’s because writing from home demands a lot of rules and boundaries, just to get the job done.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some real ass-in-the-chair journeymen and journeywomen writers who churn out book after book whom I think are terrific: Philip Kerr, Henning Mankell come to mind. Sadly, there are a lot a really bad writers, typists really, who seem to dominate world book sales.


Ok, enough rational thought. The question was “Must a writer write?”

I think it is often true. I think there is a lot to the line: “If a creative person doesn’t create, they get sick.”

Whether you call it drive, catharsis, purpose, gift, doesn’t matter. It’s going to come out. Like, how long can you hold your breath?

In this case, it’s not  a decision you make after weighing your career options. It’s the difference between wanting to write and having to write. It’s not a hobby or gentlemanly occupation.

How to explain the urge? How about:  when I am writing, I feel I am doing the most important thing I can be doing? Or, I get lost in it? Everything else is a waste of time? If these thoughts are going through your head, I expect you must write. You don’t even worry if you get published or not. There’s an acid test for you. Now you’ve crossed a line. You have separated writing from money.

For some, and I am thinking of someone like Raymond Carver, it can be a bumpy road to hell and back. Maybe not back. At what point does your passion take over and your life become an unsupportable fantasy? Do you need to have something to “show” for your efforts? If the answer to the question is, yes, some writers absolutely have to write, then I guess it doesn’t matter. You get some job like Carver did, as a hospital janitor, and find the time to compose.

Every day, and this goes back 30 odd years, I have wondered what would have happened if I’d had the faith in myself to take that other path when I was 20. There is some regret, but as Frank Zappa said:  “The world won’t end with a whimper, but nostalgia and paperwork.”

I realize this will be total gibberish for the personal branding set, but if you ever find yourself thinking: nothing else but my writing, (or music or art) will do, then you have answered the question for yourself. Can you bring yourself to believe it?

And how about this: does just picking up a pen make you feel that something is going to happen?

Today’s Listening:

1. “Please Call Me Baby” by Tom Waits fr: The Heart of Saturday Night
2. “Driftin’” by Dan Hicks (with Rickie Lee Jones) fr: Beatin’ The Heat
3. “Lydia” by Jonathan Richman fr: Buzz Buzz Buzz
4. “That Summer Feeling” by Jonathan Richman fr: I, Jonathan (what the heck  I’m in a Jonathan Richman mood)
5. “One of These Things First” by Nick Drake fr: Bryter Later

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