The question of why writers write holds especial mesmerism, both as a piece of psychological voyeurism and as a beacon of self-conscious hope that if we got a glimpse of the innermost drivers of greats, maybe, just maybe, we might be able to replicate the workings of genius in our own work. So why do great writers write? George Orwell itemized four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise.
In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library) by Meredith Maran — which also gave us invaluable wisdom from Susan Orlean, Mary Karr and Isabel Allende, and which was among the 10 best books on writing from my recent collaboration with the New York Public Library — Michael Lewis, one of today’s finest nonfiction masters, shares his singular lore.
Lewis begins at the bumpy beginning, echoing Ray Bradbury’s insistence on perseverance in the face of rejection: Even though his thesis adviser at Princeton praised the intellectual angle of his senior thesis but admonished him to never attempt making a living with that kind of writing, Lewis was drawn to the writing life. He wrote a piece on the homeless and pitched it to various magazines. It was rejected, with one magazine editor noting that “pieces on the life of the underclass in America” were unsuitable for publication. (One has to wonder whether the defiant remnants of this early brush with gobsmacking censorship spurred Lewis’s provocative look at the housing and credit bubble more than twenty years later.) Still, he “kept plugging away” and, in 1983, applied for an internship as a science writer at the Economist. He recalls:
I didn’t get the job — the other two applicants were doing their PhDs in physics and biology, and I’d flunked the one science class I took in college — but the editor who interviewed me said, “You’re a fraud, but you’re a very good fraud. Go write anything you want for the magazine, except science.” They published the first words I ever got into print. They paid ninety bucks per piece. It cost money to write for the Economist. I didn’t know how I was ever going to make a living at writing, but I felt encouraged. Luckily, I was delusional. I didn’t know that I didn’t have much of an audience, so I kept doing it.
True to Alan Watts’s philosophy and the secret to the life of purpose, Lewis remained disinterested in money as a motive — in fact, he recognized the trap of the hedonic treadmill and got out before it was too late:
Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.
My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.
More than a living, Lewis found in writing a true calling — the kind of deep flow that fully absorbs the mind and soul:
There’s no simple explanation for why I write. It changes over time. There’s no hole inside me to fill or anything like that, but once I started doing it, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else for a living. I noticed very quickly that writing was the only way for me to lose track of the time.
I used to get the total immersion feeling by writing at midnight. The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.
Still, Lewis admits to being stirred by the awareness that he can change minds and move hearts — a somewhat nobler version of Orwell’s “sheer egotism” motive:
The reasons I write change over time. In the beginning, it was that sense of losing time. Now it’s changed, because I have a sense of an audience. I have the sense that I can biff the world a bit. I don’t know that I have control of the direction of the pinball, but I can exert a force.
That power is a mixed blessing. It’s good to have something to get you into the chair. I’m not sure it’s great for the writing to think of yourself as important while you’re doing it. I don’t quite think that way. But I can’t deny that I’m aware of the effects my writing will have.
“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeod famously wrote. It might be an overly cynical notion, one that perpetuates the unjustified yet deep-seated cultural guilt over simultaneously doing good and doing well, but Lewis echoes the sentiment:
Once you have a career, and once you have an audience, once you have paying customers, the motives for doing it just change.
And yet Lewis approaches the friction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — one experienced by anyone who loves what they do and takes pride in clarity of editorial vision, but has an audience whose approval or disapproval becomes increasingly challenging to tune out — with extraordinary candor and insight:
Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. And they really want you to do it.
That dynamic has the possibility of constraining the imagination. There are invisible pressures. There’s a huge incentive to write about things that you know will sell. But I don’t find myself thinking, “I can’t write about that because it won’t sell.” It’s such a pain in the ass to write a book, I can’t imagine writing one if I’m not interested in the subject.
And yet his clarity of vision is still what guides the best of his work:
Those are the best moments, when I’ve got the whale on the line, when I see exactly what it is I’ve got to do.
After that moment there’s always misery. It never goes quite like you think, but that moment is a touchstone, a place to come back to. It gives you a kind of compass to guide you through the story.
That feeling has never done me wrong. Sometimes you don’t understand the misery it will lead to, but it’s always been right to feel it. And it’s a great feeling.
Lewis adds to famous writers’ daily routines and seconds Maira Kalman’s faith in the power of deadlines:
When I was writing my first book, I was going from eleven at night till seven in the morning. I was very happy waking up at two in the afternoon. My body clock would naturally like to start writing around nine at night and finish at four in the morning, but I have a wife and kids and endless commitments. … My natural writing schedule doesn’t work with my family’s schedule. I actually do better when I have pressure, some mental deadline.
Aware that he is “mentally absent” from family life while immersed in a book project, Lewis considers himself lucky to be a “binge writer” who takes lots of time off between books … “which is why I still have a family,” he jokes. His immersion, in fact, is so complete that it changes his physical experience:
When I’m working on a book, I’m in a very agitated mental state. My sleep is disrupted. I only dream about the project. My sex drive goes up. My need for exercise, and the catharsis I get from exercise, is greater. When I’m in the middle of a project, whether I’m doing Bikram yoga or hiking up the hill or working out at the gym, I carry a blank pad and a pen. I’ll take eight hundred little notes right in the middle of a posture. It drives my yoga instructor crazy.
Like many of history’s great minds, from Henri Poincaré to T. S. Eliot, Lewis is a believer in the power of unconscious processing and creative pause, or the “mental mastication” period of which Lewis Carroll wrote:
At any given time I usually have eight new ideas. … I need time between projects. It’s like a tank filling up. I can’t just go from one to the other.
Lewis ends on a note of advice to aspiring writers, adding to the collected wisdom of literary greats with his three guidelines:
- It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money, find another one.
- I took my biggest risk when I walked away from a lucrative job at age twenty-seven to be a writer. I’m glad I was too young to realize what a dumb decision it seemed to be, because it was the right decision for me.
- A lot of my best decisions were made in a state of self-delusion. When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.
Why We Write remains a must-read of the most highly recommended kind, featuring contributions from such celebrated authors as Jennifer Egan, Ann Patchett, and Rick Moody.