Wednesday, October 19, 2011

RTW: Why I Write (besides the PJs)

This week's Road Trip Wednesday question from YA Highway: What's your numero-uno reason for writing?

I'll be honest: some days I want to be a professional writer because I really enjoy flexible schedules and working from home in pajamas (though I actually find dress pants supremely comfortable; it’s the dress shirts and the heels that are the problem). Clearly that’s not my primary motivation though, because I don't think I was concerned with a professional wardrobes and schedules when I dreamed of being a writer as a three-year-old.

A lot of people say they want to have to write because there are stories and characters inside of them that need to get out. I certainly have tons of stories swirling around in my brain, and every once in a while a character deigns to speak to me, but they aren't quite my primary reason for writing. (Some days I wish they were – there are definitely times I could use more cooperation from my imagination!)

The number one reason I write is the language. I love writing and wordplay and word origins, I love crafting sentences that sing, I even love line editing and grammar. But why slog through the difficult process of becoming a creative writer then, when it's probably much easier to get other writing or editing jobs? Well...

I grew up writing stories, but for some reason I was too chicken to take creative writing classes in college – instead I stuck to essay writing, which I knew I could do well. In the Writing Center I also discovered how much I enjoyed teaching others to write, so I went to grad school in English Language and Literature, planning to spend my career teaching college classes and writing articles about other people's creative works. 

But I noticed something when I compared my grad school essays to my undergraduate ones: the complexity and critical thinking levels were better in my grad school essays, but the quality of writing was not. Bogged down by concerns about entering the “critical conversation” without sounding dumb, I had lost the sense of playing with language, and the writing often didn’t flow as smoothly. There were a lot of reasons I decided not to pursue a PhD program after graduating with my Masters, but the stifling effect on my writing was one of them. I also tend to lose my writing voice when I'm doing professional nonfiction things, like those dreaded cover letters. Editing/grant writing/freelancing etc. could be acceptable money-making jobs for me, but they'd never give me the relationship with language that I really wanted.

After grad school, I found a community college teaching position that I loved. For the first time in a while I could choose the books I read, which turned out to be a lot of dystopias and YA fiction. I also discovered Nanowrimo and jumped back into the creative writing that I had ignored for far too long. I was hooked on YA writing, and it felt so incredibly right.

So I write for the language, and I write YA fiction for the freedom and the love.

What about you?


  1. It's amazing how different all of our core-reasons for writing are! I think mine is the incredible satisfaction I get from creating something (an entire world! people!) that didn't exist before.

  2. As a grad student, I really understand the dilemma between writing with feeling and an eye for aesthetics, and writing clearly and precisely.

    However, what would make me favour creative writing over academic writing in the end is the substance, rather than the form. Of course in humanities you can stay fuzzy to a degree when it comes to defending a position. But in the end, you always have to extract some kind of theory from your reasoning. And while I love theory, I keep finding fiction more appropriate a medium to convey the complexities of the human nature, life and the world. The Western scientific approach is so binary, if I may say so. It's that, or it isn't. In fiction, you can play with both at the same time, without having to account for such a logic.

  3. I certainly can relate to the difference between writing for academia and fiction writing. I enjoyed writing the papers I wrote for my Master's, but the constraints of academic style chafed. And I knew the things I wrote about could be presented in a much more entertaining way if I could write more as if it were a novel, or a conversation. And that's one of the things I hope to do with my fiction: present ideas in a way that's compelling and entertaining.

  4. That's the same reason I'm in the fiction game and not journalism (which is something I considered at one point). Even my little nonfiction vignettes read like stories and not facts. Great contribution!

  5. As a refugee from a Comp Lit grad program, this post really spoke to me. One of my favorite aspects of fiction writing is crafting a voice--something I never got to do in academic or technical writing.
    Getting to wear sweatpants and work from home would be lovely, too. :)

  6. Thanks everyone! It's great to hear from like-minded academics-turned-fiction-writers, and "refugee from a Comp Lit grad program" may be my new favorite phrase :-D.

    I definitely see the fuzzy/binary issue, asiamorela. I really did enjoy all of the essays I had to write, but at the same time I was always amused and bothered by the fact that here we were, writing about our SUBJECTIVE analysis of CREATIVE works, yet we were usually expected to approach them with the inflexible seriousness of a hard scientist dealing with absolutes, including attacking other academics' theories as "wrong."

    I find I much prefer true fiction. :-)

  7. Thank you for sharing this, Jillian. This was my favorite part - "but they'd never give me the relationship with language that I really wanted." That was exactly why I decided against nonfiction/freelance writing. I tried it for awhile and found it just didn't sit right with me, not the way fiction does.

  8. I love this answer! Creative writing is a big shift from 'professional' or 'academic' writing; it took a while for me to embrace the freedom of writing fiction.

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