A Simple (and Complex) Question, A Complex (and Simple) Answer

It was just one of those questions that sometimes pop up during the course of a conversation–unplanned, spur-of-the-moment.

“Why do you write?”

I was having lunch with a friend, an accountant who had just confessed to me that he’d never so much as attempted to write a short story in his entire life, let alone a novel.  What motivated me to create fiction, to invent stories and situations and then share them with others, he wanted to know.

I opened my mouth, then closed it.  It was such a straightforward question.  And yet–no one had ever actually asked it of me so plainly, so baldly.  Why did I write?  On the surface, it seemed, I should have had an answer ready.  After all, writing was my passion, and always had been.  I could remember writing stories as far back as the second grade.

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But I wasn’t sure how to respond.  Did I write because it was fun?  Sometimes.  When a story flowed, when the words spilled out of me so fast I couldn’t type quickly enough, when characters spoke lines that seemingly came directly from them, supposed figments of my imagination, and not from me at all, it was a rapturous experience, a high like no other.  But other times, it was brutal, as I dissected, edited, and picked apart my work.  Was it rewarding?  Yes, of course.  But that, in and of itself, didn’t capture the essence of why I write.

My friend’s straightforward question suddenly seemed more complex.

Drawing a blank, not certain how I could adequately answer it, all I could think to say was, “You know, I’m not sure.  It’s just something in me, that’s all.  Writing is  something I have to do.”

My friend had a thoughtful look on his face, and I expected he’d follow up with more questions.  But then he just nodded, and changed the topic of conversation.

That night, I lie awake, thinking about it, and the exchange bothered me.  My answer seemed too pat, too simple.  My need to write, and to share my writing with others, went deeper than that.  I just wasn’t sure how to express it.  It was like trying to lasso a passing summer cloud, high overhead, force it down to ground level, and then jump inside, hoping it would float away again, taking me along for the ride.  How was I supposed to put something like that into words?

That conversation happened twelve years ago. . . .

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The question of why I write is not unrelated to another question I get often:  “Where do your story ideas come from?”  On the surface, the two questions are different–but in actuality they are linked, two sides of the proverbial coin.  Ideas, I have found, cannot be “forced.”  I cannot wake up one morning and state, boldly, “Today I will think of a new short story and write it.”  It doesn’t work that way–at least not for me.

In my experience, ideas come when I least expect them–while I’m out mowing the lawn, running an errand at the store, taking a walk along a quiet country road.  Sometimes ideas come when I’m at a large gathering, even while in the midst of a conversation.

And sometimes they come in my dreams.

The genesis for The Eye-Dancers came to me over twenty years ago when I dreamed of the same “ghost girl” Mitchell Brant dreams of in the first chapter of the novel.  But when I woke up, I didn’t know what to do with this strange, haunting girl.  I knew I wanted to write about her–but I had no story in which to place her.

It took two decades until I did, when, once again, I dreamed of her.  But this time, upon waking, I had the basic concept of the story in place.  And despite the fact that it all began with the ghost girl, the story would really be about four boys who ultimately go on a dimension-busting journey, where they not only have to overcome the otherworldly dangers they are confronted with, but also the insecurities and hang-ups that plague them.  I knew right away, as soon as I woke up that morning–this was a story I had to write.

It was an exhilarating feeling–it always is when an idea strikes, takes hold of me and won’t let go–not until it forms into a living thing, with flesh and bones and cartilage, heart and mind and soul, right there on the page.  Whenever it happens, I am reminded of a quote from Ray Bradbury:

“Write only what you love, and love what you write.  The key word is love.  You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”

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For me, there is no other way.  I can have–and have had–grand ideas, rich concepts, fantastic plotlines that never will see the light of day.  The reason?  I don’t care deeply enough about them.  The idea, in and of itself, might be interesting, but it doesn’t grab me by the throat and demand a life and vitality of its own.  It just sits there, like a Victorian gentleman sipping his afternoon tea, pondering the benefits of a nap.  If I tried to write about it, it would come out dull and drab–and it would, indeed, inspire a nap!

With a novel, in particular, you have to love your characters, love what you’re trying to create.  It is too long, too formidable of a project to accomplish otherwise.  There were days while writing The Eye-Dancers that I honestly didn’t know if I could continue.  The task seemed too large, too hard, too daunting.  But then, when apathy threatened to take over, I would think of the themes the story delves into–themes I care deeply about:  the essence of childhood, the art of discovery, the struggles and joys of growing up, the curiosity to wonder, the daring to believe in magic, the exploration of the universe, and of what we term “reality” itself.  And perhaps most important of all, I would think of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–four characters inspired by friends I knew growing up.  The Eye-Dancers is their story, and I wanted, needed, to tell it.

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And maybe that’s the best way I know to explain why it is I write fiction, and why I desire others to read what I have to say.  I write to explore and further awaken pieces of me, and I want nothing more than to share those pieces, those memories and truths, those fears and loves, with you.  It is my hope that The Eye-Dancers accomplishes all of that, and more.

When it’s all said and done, I look back at this and smile.  Because maybe, just maybe, the answer I gave my friend all those years ago is, ultimately, the best answer of all.

Why do we do what we do?  Why do we follow our passions?  What makes us driven to write and sing and dance and act and garden and play and cook and paint and love, and do those things we were put on this earth to do?

Why do I write?

It’s just something in me, that’s all.  It’s something I have to do.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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