Brain Pickings

Why We Write: Mary Karr on the Magnetism and Madness of the Written Word

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“Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver.”

Why do writers — great writers — write? Literary history has given us some timeless answers from George Orwell, Joan Didion, Joy Williams, and David Foster Wallace — but the question remains ever-open. That’s precisely what editor Meredith Maran sets out to address in the anthology Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library; UK), which features such literary all-stars as Jennifer Egan, James Fray, Susan Orlean, and Michael Lewis.

One of the volume’s sharpest contributions comes from memorist, essayist and poet Mary Karr, author of the humorous and harrowing memoir series The Liar’s Club (1995), Cherry (2000), and Lit (2009). With her signature blend of uncompromising honesty, wry wit, and exquisite self-awareness that somehow manages to keep from bleeding into the naggy self-consciousness chronic of writers, Karr faces the written word with equal parts faith and irreverence.

I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money.

I’m almost always anxious when I’m writing. There are those great moments when you forget where you are, when you get your hands on the keys, and you don’t feel anything because you’re somewhere else. But that very rarely happens. Mostly I’m pounding my hands on the corpse’s chest. The easy times are intermittent. They can be five minutes long or five hours long, but they’re never very long. The hard times are not completely hard, but they can be pretty hard, and they can go on for weeks.

On remembering, despite the painful labor, to write with joy:

I usually get very sick after I finish a book. As soon as I put it down and my body lies down and there’s not that injection of adrenaline and cortisol, I get sick. I have a medium-shitty immune system so that doesn’t help. All of that said, writing feels like a privilege. Even though it’s very uncomfortable, I constantly feel very lucky.

On defeating the demons to access the gods of clarity:

When I went into a mental institution after I stopped drinking, my writing took a great leap forward — or at least people started paying a lot more for it. I was more clear and more openhearted, more self-aware, more suspicious of my own motives. I was more of a grown-up.

On the broken economics of the literary world, the myth of the rockstar-writer, and the choice of creative purpose over money:

I still don’t support myself as a writer. I support myself as a college professor. I couldn’t pay my mortgage on the revenue from my books. The myth is that you make a lot of money when you publish a book. Unless you write a blockbuster, that’s pretty much untrue. Starting when I was five, I always identified as a writer. It had nothing to do with income. I always told people I was a poet if they asked what I did. That’s what I still tell them now.

On the routine joy of unhinging oneself from the writing routine:

For me the best time is at the end of the day, when you’ve written and forgotten. You wrote longer than you expected to. You’ve been so absorbed in it that it got late. You unhitch yourself from the plow.

On the present state of book publishing, with a reminder that it’s only as dystopian as we make it:

Currently nobody really knows how to sell books. The whole system is changing, and nobody knows how to make money in this industry in any kind of reliable way. The industry has this blockbuster mentality that permits a shitty TV star to publish his shitty book and sell three million copies in hardcover, and then you never hear about it again. All the energy is focused on those blockbuster books because they have the most immediate, short-term return. People have been saying it’s the end of the novel since Hemingway. I don’t feel that dire about it. I think more people read than used to read. You have more people reading worse books, but they’re still reading books.

Karr ends with some synthesized wisdom for writers:

  • The quote I had tacked to my board while I was writing Lit is from Samuel Beckett, and it’s really helpful: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.”
  • Any idiot can publish a book. But if you want to write a good book, you’re going to have to set the bar higher than the marketplace’s. Which shouldn’t be too hard.
  • Most great writers suffer and have no idea how good they are. Most bad writers are very confident. Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver, the bat girl in Yankee Stadium. That’s a more fruitful way to be.

Why We Write is excellent in its entirety. Pair it with H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Photograph via Poetry Foundation

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