The question of why writers write is one of literature’s most enduring siren calls. George Orwell ascribed it to 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. In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library), which also gave us poignant answers from Mary Karr and Isabel Allende, celebrated journalist and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean offers her wisdom on the craft.
She considers the critical difference between fiction and nonfiction, exploring the osmotic balance of escapism and inner stillness:
When it comes to nonfiction, it’s important to note the very significant difference between the two stages of the work. Stage one is reporting. Stage two is writing.
Reporting is like being the new kid in school. You’re scrambling to learn something very quickly, being a detective, figuring out who the people are, dissecting the social structure of the community you’re writing about. Emotionally, it puts you in the place that everybody dreads. You’re the outsider. You can’t give in to your natural impulse to run away from situations and people you don’t know. You can’t retreat to the familiar.
Writing is exactly the opposite. It’s private. The energy of it is so intense and internal, it sometimes makes you feel like you’re going to crumple. A lot of it happens invisibly. When you’re sitting at your desk, it looks like you’re just sitting there, doing nothing.
A necessary antidote to the tortured-genius cultural mythology of the writer, Orlean, like Ray Bradbury, conceives of writing as a source of joy, even when challenging:
Writing gives me great feelings of pleasure. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. It’s very physical. I get antsy. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying. When it’s working and the rhythm’s there, it does feel like magic to me.
Echoing E. B. White, who famously admonished that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” Orlean prides herself on her situational nonchalance:
I don’t need to be in a perfectly quiet place to write. I don’t need a lot of fussy special conditions. But I do need the material that I work from within reach, and I do need a certain sense that I’m not going to be interrupted for a chunk of time.
Bespeaking the common resistance that people in creative fields tend to have towards being called an “artist,” Orlean nonetheless honors the inherent artistry of her craft:
It makes me cringe to call myself an artist.
Even if it’s true. I’m making art of a kind. At the same time I’m very pragmatic. I don’t treat myself as this precious flower. The fact that writing is a job doesn’t undercut the fact that it’s also an art.
She ends with four pieces of wisdom for writers:
- You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.
- You should read as much as possible. That’s the best way to learn how to write.
- You have to appreciate the spiritual component of having an opportunity to do something as wondrous as writing. You should be practical and smart and you should have a good agent and you should work really, really hard. But you should also be filled with awe and gratitude about this amazing way to be in the world.
- Don’t be ashamed to use the thesaurus. I could spend all day reading Roget’s! There’s nothing better when you’re in a hurry and you need the right word right now.
The rest of Why We Write features insights and advice on the craft from such contemporary icons as Jennifer Egan, Michael Lewis, and James Frey, among others. 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.