Monday, 10 December 2007

Why do we do it?

Hi – Yet another MNW writer joins the blog-party – my name’s Alis Hawkins and my book Testament will be the January MNW offering.
Many thanks to David not only for inviting me to contribute but also for all the amusing blog entries which I’ve been catching up with. Thanks also to all the rest of you for your posts which i've been enjoying – you are an amusing and talented bunch of people. Faye and Aliyah – looking forward to meeting you in Cambridge in January!

Anyway, as it’s my first post here (though you can catch all my deranged daily thoughts on my own blog) I thought I’d go for the novel-writing jugular…

Why do we write books? We all get asked it and, despite our protestations, I’m sure a most people who ask think it’s for the money. Let’s face it, whenever novelists are in the news it’s for some massive advance or huge sales - novelists plying their trade after a full day at work or barely making enough to keep up the payments on the garret don’t tend to feature much.

But we don’t do it for the money, do we? (Just as well, we’d be poverty-stricken fools if we did.) So, do we do it in the hope of money? I think not; unless you are a champion deferrer of gratification the pay-off is way too long term. And, if you factor in all those years of struggling and try to work out some sort of annual pay-rate…well, it would be well beyond depressing…

Then why do we do it? I can’t answer for other novelists, not even others here at MNW, so lets narrow the field a bit - why do I do it?

Like everybody who write books, I’m often asked ‘Did you always want to write?’ But the answer is that I didn’t. I wasn’t a child scribbler or a precocious juvenile novelist.
Early on, my passion was not writing at all but reading. I read my way through anything anybody gave me and the entire children’s section of the little library in my home-town. Don’t be too impressed, the children’s section was a bookcase roughly the size of an Ikea Billy-and-a-half.

I loved the other worlds that books created. I wasn’t picky. I read historical fiction, Jennings, sci-fi, Enid Blyton, me-and-my-pony stories… I lived in a farming community in rural west Wales, even books about ‘ordinary’ families living ‘ordinary’ lives seemed exotic to me.
I read in bed, at the table, at school, on the bus to school… if there wasn’t a book to hand I would take refuge in any print – the back of the cereal packet at breakfast, the ketchup-bottle label at supper, information on posters in school, rules of behaviour on the school bus, anything.
Was real life so boring or so awful? Not at all, it just didn’t seem as real to me as the life I read about in books. It was as if I couldn’t engage with reality all the time; I had moments of intense self-awareness when I saw myself and my immediate circumstances very clearly but the rest of the time the world I met in books was far more comprehensible.

I think a lot of reality, for me, is unregistered, that a lot of my life goes on beneath the radar of consciousness. I don’t ruminate much, I’m not one of those people who is always thinking, always teasing away at some problem or another. I often don’t know what I think until I’ve said it – either out loud or in print. And a lot of what I find I think is a surprise to me, or at least, the fact that I have such well-developed thoughts and opinions about stuff just sitting there waiting to be articulated is a surprise.

I’m notorious amongst my friends and family for being monumentally unobservant. Unless things are pointed out I’m likely to miss them – I have driven past accidents on the road without registering their horror, walked past people dressed as giant rabbits in the High Street without noticing that they were there. And yet, when I sit down to write, details which I must have been filing away come flooding out. I can describe somewhere in minute detail: architectural flourishes, reflections in windows, the smell of a little-used church hall, the precise discordance of a poorly-tuned paino... It’s weird. I’m clearly storing all this stuff away without any conscious awareness that I’m doing it.

So, do I write to find out what’s in my head? Not consciously. Sorry, that wasn’t meant to be funny, but perhaps it illustrates how little I understand why I do what I do. Consciously, I write because I am happiest when writing fiction, when I am feeling my way into another world, waiting for people to reveal themselves to me, to tell me their story. Nothing else I have ever done matches up in terms of consistent excitement; my other half can always tell when it’s been a good writing day because I’m so totally wired when she gets home.

But, exciting or not, revelatory or not, writing for me is much more like hide-and-seek than show-and-tell. Often, I feel that I am sneaking up on my story and reading it over its own shoulder, sidling up and catching snatches of conversation, seeing fleeting glimpses of people and their actions before they move away from me. Obviously, it’s my own subconscious I’m actually sneaking up on so the question is, why don’t I have access to it all the time? Why do I have to play grandmother’s footsteps with it and rush back shrieking when I turn around and catch myself looking?

Maybe it’s that mystery which keeps writing so exciting and interesting for me – maybe in writing my books I’m also finding out who I really am.


Eliza Graham said...

Welcome, Alis!

Akasha Savage said...

Excellent blog post Alis. :)

Aliya Whiteley said...

It's a question I've always avoided, in case dissecting the chicken means it won't get up and squawk again... but it's great to see you here Alis! Will see you in the flesh soon!

Alis said...

Thanks guys - it's a pleasure to be here. Aliya - may your chicken squawk loud and long. See you soon! By the way - so sorry for putting an 'h' on the end of your name - don't know how that happened!

David Isaak said...

I can tell you exactly why I write books: 'Cause I can't write short stories worth a damn.

Sorry. That wasn't what you meant, was it?

The point you raise about discovering what you really think is an important factor. When Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature, a reporter called him up and asked him how he felt on hearing the announcement. "I don't know," Bellow said, "I haven't written about it yet."

Good to see you here!

Matt Curran said...

Hi Alis, and welcome to the MNWers blog!

That whole motivation-conundrum is something I dabble in on occasion, but sometimes I find its like an old winter jumper; the hem is fraying, there's a big hole under the arm, and those loose threads are so tantalising... just to pull them a little... but I'm afraid what will happen when I do. It’s a rather cosy jumper, you see. Makes you feel safe and warm.

But as you’re asking…

…If I'm honest, the idea of some riches is enticing but only as a means to an end: writing full-time. The idea of the writing itself is a far greater motivator for me – I love to tell stories, plain and simple. It entertains me perhaps in the same way a person laughs at their own jokes.

(Though I always hope my readers are laughing with me, not at me.)

Alis said...

Matt - Ah, yes - that's the gold standard for me too. To give up work altogether and not to have to rely on the Other Half bringing home huge lumps of bacon. To feel that your writing keeps your family in beer and skittles (or whatever are the necessaries in your particular household) must be an ambition for all of us. Will (Atkins) said to me some people feel the need to keep a day job or they'll lose touch with reality. For some of us, that happened long since...!

David - thanks for the Saul Bellow quote - slightly startling to find myself mentioned in the same breath but interesting to know that i'm not alone in this 'oh look, here i am' feeling.

Faye L. said...


To be honest, I can never really explain why I write, and any attempts I do make tend to leave me looking rather pretentious (I do it because I can't not do it, dahling!). I suppose it's like any form of navel-gazing, really - the most you can do is develop a theory, because no one can be objective about their own motivations.

(Or to put it another way, I haven't a clue.)

F (too lazy to log in)

Tim Stretton said...

Welcome, Alis. Good to 'meet' another member of the gang.

Why do I write? Because I can.

OK, that's a bit glib. But I'm sure all of us here realised at some point in our lives that we could do something most other people couldn't. That doesn't necessarily make it worthwhile (I have a friend who can put her entire hand in her mouth, but she hasn't felt the need to devote her life to exploiting the talent)but it's a decent starting point...

Alis said...

Faye, Tim, thanks for commenting. I definitely share a bit of both your motivations - yes,Faye, however pretentious it's something I can't not do as well. Looking forward to meeting you in Jan!
And you're right, Tim, there's nothing like being told you can do something better than most people for making you want to do it even better and be even more praiseworthy. By the way, you don't have a mini-video of your friend doing her party trick do you? Sounds amazing! My older son used to have a friend who could voluntarily dislocate his shoulders and put them back in so he could clasp his hands behind his back and bring his arms over his head without ever unclasping hands. It was truly weird to watch...

Tim Stretton said...

Alis, sadly my friend has now gone all showbiz. She no longer performs the hand swallowing on request.

It's a simple enough trick -- she has a very small hand (the alternative explanation is not one a gentleman should put forward...)