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A Reason for Writing

15th of Jul 2012

When I first started writing, it was for reasons that I think most people who write share. I was going through tough times, and the emotional pressure was constantly at the point where I had to do something, even if it had no effect, to vent it. It was mostly poetry, and my first attempts were rather emo, but being the person I am, I quickly decided that if I were going to write poetry anyway, I might as well learn how to be good at it.

I scoured the Internet for tips and exercises, and studied the works of poets such as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and e.e. cummings, later Eavan Boland and others, with a Borg-like intensity. Resistance is futile. Your rhythmic and literary distinctiveness will be added to my own. When I got fed up with the pretentiousness surrounding poetry, I started writing prose, aiming for literary at first, and you can see where I am now.

Along the way, my life gradually calmed down, which added a new complication. There's a common conception that true art, great art can come only from poorly-adjusted misfits at the edge of society. Too different to ever truly fit in, their art is the safety valve through which they find a way to live in a stagnant, wet-blanket society. But what happens when your life starts to improve? Do you have to choose between being happy and being a good artist?

That idea's bothered me for years, since it's an impossible choice, especially if art's your calling. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell—I think it's in The Power of Myth—the test to see if you're meant to be a writer, if writing's your bliss, is if you can bear the thought of toiling for decades without recognition or success, devoting yourself to a pursuit which people may not understand, and still feel satisfied with yourself and your life. If not (or if you find out it's not to your liking), you're probably chasing the money, status and fame of people like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or Neil Gaiman, chasing an empty dream that will bleed you dry.

Your bliss isn't what you to do cope, what you do to make ends meet. It's who you are, what you'd do even if you didn't have to anything.

So on one hand, there's the idea that great art springs from neuroses and personal problems. On the other is the claim that the true artists don't create art as a sign of sickness. They do it as a sign of health.

I've been thinking about this a lot as Dick Richards: Private Eye gets closer to publication. If I were forced to, I'd choose a happy life over artistic success. So if I'm not writing to communicate the confusion in my soul, not writing to connect with others, not writing to become a millionaire, what's left? I know I'm meant to write, because I've come back to it every time I've tried to give it up—my current record is six months—but why? And why seek publication, instead of just writing for myself and burying the stories on a thumb drive somewhere?

The answer I've found, and am slowly starting to understand, hearkens back to the old bardic/storytelling traditions, when stories were more than a diversion, when they were the myths which shaped societies and taught people how to be people. Society in the U.S. has grown quite cynical, and teaching parables have fallen out of favor as simplistic and pedantic, but that doesn't change the fact that the greatest stories still enlighten and inform. Their style just has to change to suit the times.

When writing is true, it shows people both as they are and as what we could be, often by shining a light on how huge the gap is between. And even if myths are passé, human beings still learn by example. By showing how fictional characters struggle with their problems, stories make an implicit argument about how life is supposed to be lived. Society is far from perfect and human nature is as petty as ever, and writing as vocation addresses both: it shows us who we are, then subtly hints at how to become better.

This is more than writing as self-expression. No matter what you do, self-expression is unavoidable. This is more than writing as entertainment, though if you're going to write, you need to learn how to entertain. This is more than writing as a job, though you still need to approach it with integrity and discipline to succeed. It's writing as a calling, a calling to manifest truth in a way that people can understand and relate to, even if all they find at first is entertainment. It's a daunting challenge, but even if I fail, it's one I can be proud of having attempted.

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