My mother is writing a novel. I may have mentioned it.
She’s had her concept for years but in the past eighteen months she’s actually started writing the thing. At the start of the process she was brimming with confidence and wore her task with no sense of burden or doom. As she’s descended further into the pain and agony of writing a book that she very much wishes to be good, she’s decidedly less chirpy. My mother is the first to say that she has a lot to learn about writing; she’s joined several writing workshops, she’s read or is reading lots of books on how to write effective, engaging fiction, and she’s working every day on this project. She’s going at it the right way, now. She’s going at it like she’s going into battle.
When I’m home in Iowa or up at the lake house as I was for the past five days, I am the first to greet my mother each day. This is because she and I wake up about the same time and do the same thing every day, wherever we are: we write. She gets her coffee and her laptop and stabs away at her novel there on the couch; I get my Earl Grey and my current journal and write away in that, sitting in an easy chair (in another room.) We don’t say much at that hour — it’s usually before 6am — because neither of us has gotten up to chat. We’re up to write, good, bad, or ugly. What is true for me is true for my mom, too: that morning writing time is usually the best part of our day. No matter where I find myself in the morning — a Holiday Inn in Omaha, a brownstone in Manhattan, an airplane, etc. — I find my pen and spend time on paper.
Why do it?
Mom and I have different reasons for writing, but whatever compels people to get up before dawn to put thoughts into words is complex, so it’s hard to sort motivational distinctions. Most writers want all the things being a “good writer” confers; the order of the list of stuff might change, but the stuff stays the same. My mom wants to write a novel because she loves to read; because she wants the sense of accomplishment that being a published fiction writer would bring; she wants to show the world she’s good at something other than quilts; she loves and believes in her book concept; because writing it is hard but it is frequently fun; because it’s a challenge. She wants to be interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, too, and has a few of her replies already prepared for when the time comes.
I write for different reasons and before I say what those are, I must emphasize that Mom’s reasons are not better than mine, nor are mine better than hers. They’re just different reasons. I write because I would lose my mind if I didn’t. That’s not hyperbole; that’s the straight dope. The only way I can make sense of my life, this planet, what I see, what I experience, how I think, what I do, what you do, and what it all might possibly mean, is to write it down. If I don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. That’s figurative (read: “If it’s not written down, it didn’t matter that much”) but it’s also literal: If I don’t write it down, I fear it did not happen. There isn’t always reliable proof of the past. Were we there? Did she say that? Is he really gone? When did we go? What was I wearing? Could we have really felt that way and then felt another way? Life is but a dream: I’d better keep a record or risk waking up and forgetting it completely.
I also write because of something American philosopher John Dewey said that, when I came across it many years ago, stuck to my brain like a wad of gum on a theater seat:
“If you are deeply moved by some experience, write a letter to your grandmother. It will help you to better understand the experience and it will bring great pleasure to your grandmother.”
To make sense of the world, I have to write it down. If it brings pleasure to someone else, well, that’s some pie a la mode, right there. Most of it sucks. I’ll never be Mark Twain. I’ll never even be Erma Bombeck (who was great, in her Bombeckian way.) I’ll just be me, sorting it all out.