Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why Write? ... by John Paul McKinney

By John Paul McKinney

“You won’t make any money writing,” a friend recently informed me, “That’s just a pure ego trip.” While I didn’t agree with him (Hate to think of myself as that narcissistic), it made me wonder: “Why do writers write?”

Maybe my friend is right in that only a small percentage of writers make a living putting words together. But what about the rest of us? I can think of a number of reasons for sitting down every day and hammering out a few more lines, and I don’t think all of them are extrinsic rewards (although I am a sucker for stickers, ever since Mrs. Butler put gold stars on our fifth grade essays). But here are some other possibilities:

A love of words. Our tenth grade English teacher was fond of quoting Jonathan Swift: “Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style.” For me it’s like playing the harp. I can hear when I hit the right chord and I’m able to get the sound I want. It’s the same with writing. When I’ve finally crafted a sentence that gives me pleasure, even though it may have taken hours, there’s a sense of satisfaction – makes me want to get a glass of wine to celebrate.

A love of communication. Crafting the felicitous phrase or the engaging character or exciting plot isn’t enough if we can’t share it with somebody else, a reader. We write letters, office memos, and all sorts of notes to one another to share ideas and information. I think it’s the same with creative writing. We want to share that glass of wine with somebody else.

A love of relationships. Along with communicating, we enjoy the relationships involved in writing. For example, the relationships we create among our characters. We want characters who love or hate one another, who argue and fight or who make up, who understand one another or who never listen to each other but in any case, characters who are fiercely connected to one another. We like to create dialogue that will not only allow the characters to communicate with each other, but also will reveal the sort of relationship they have.

Another set of relationships we nurture are those between our characters and our readers. We want readers to love one character and despise another, or to be puzzled by one and very sure of another. We’d like readers to be involved in the relationships within our fiction, to want two characters to stop fighting, or to meet one another, or to fall in love, or for several of them to work together.

Finally, of course, the relationship between ourselves, the authors, and our readers is vital, even though it should be handled more in the paratext (preface, cover jacket, reviews, etc.) than in the fiction, itself, where we need to step out of the way and let the characters tell their own story. “Show, don’t tell,” I think is the maxim. Readers frequently return to the work of an author whose earlier writing they have enjoyed, proof of the author’s relationship with his or her readers.

All of this is not to say that external rewards are not important. It’s a sort of confirmation that we’ve hit the right note for readers as well as for ourselves when we get a sticker that acknowledges the value of our work. I recently got a big sticker, an EVVY award for literary fiction, for my novel, Charlie’s Angle. I had apparently connected with readers in a way they found satisfying.

Why do you write? Do you like connecting and relating? If so, connect with me by commenting below… oh, and stickers are always welcome. And by the way, if you want to connect at a fictional level, check out Charlie’s Angle. It’s a story about a high school principal engaged in a feud that may cost him his job. It’s available on Amazon, or you can use my website to order a signed copy.

And thank you, Pat, for inviting me to your blog today. It’s been a pleasure.


Many thanks to you, JP, for being my guest today. Every time I sit down to add a few words to whatever manuscript I'm working on at the time, I wonder why I write when there are so many wonderful books I could be reading instead (lots of them on my coffee table and in my bookcases). The only answer I ever come up with is, "I just can't help it."

John Paul McKinney holds a PhD degree in developmental and clinical psychology from Ohio State University. He was a full professor in Psychology at Michigan State University until his retirement. Author of numerous articles, chapters, encyclopedia entries and widely used text books, and former North American book reviews editor for the international Journal of Adolescence, McKinney has also written short stories, one of which won an award (Writers-Editors Network International Competition) and another of which was published in The Mountain Scribe Anthology.

Charlie's Angle is his EVVY award-winning first novel. John Paul and his wife, Kathleen, live in Colorado near three of his children and their families. For more information, visit his website.  You can also find him on Twitter.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I write because my fans won't let me quit.
The relationships with other authors has been the best payoff for me.

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting J.P.

J.P. - Thanks for sharing your own reasons for writing. I think that the writers whose work I admire most write because they have stories to tell, because they love words and the act of using them to create stories, and because, as you say, they love to communicate. Stickers are cool, too. ;-)

The Irish Avenger said...

Well said, J.P. I don't think I've ever been able to put my finger on why I write, or put it into words, anyway. If it was purely for the money I'd have quit long ago! I enjoy painting a picture with words. To get appreciation and acknowledgement from others who understand the message you're trying to convey is very nice.

Oh, by the way, this is Chris Nugent. For some reason my online nick, The Irish Avenger, is coming up as my ID. Have to change that. Whoops.

Dean K Miller said...

I agree with Alex (above in comments) that the biggest payoff is with the writing community and specifically the authors one meets along the way. J.P. is a shining example of that! (You, too, Pat and Alex and Margot and Chris.)

Why I write? Because life is better when I do.

teresa funke said...

Great comments! And a very thoughtful post, John Paul! In all of these comments, I'm sensing an undercurrent of pleasure and purpose. Pat suggests that when she says that she writes because she can't help it. I've heard many writers say that. But we COULD help it. If we didn't want to write, we could stop. No one is forcing us. So we write because we want to and we hope that our little stories bring as much pleasure to others and they do to us!

Jerry Eckert said...

JP, Enjoyed your thoughts. I would add just one. I write because I am driven. I have stories that need to be told: of lives now lost that need my witness, eras now forgotten to which a whole new generation needs sensitization. Cheers, Jere

John Paul McKinney said...

Thanks for all the perceptive comments. Pat, I agree that there are a lot of good books already on the shelf and it's sometimes hard to decide, "Do I write or do I read?" Alex and Dean, I think you've nailed it; a lot of joy in connecting with other authors. Just look at these comments as proof. Margot and Jere, Yes! Stories to tell and stories that need to be told. I'll bet many writers can recall this compulsion to tell stories even as children, and seeing the world, as Chris mentions, as a painting in words. Teresa, I agree that we could stop writing but we don't and we won't. Thank you, too, for your expert guidance in this process. JP

John Paul McKinney said...

And, Pat, once again, thank you for inviting me to be a guest on your blog. I've enjoyed it.

Patricia Stoltey said...

You're very welcome! I wish you the best of luck with Charlie's Angle and lots more books in your future.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I like telling stories and always have. When my kids were little they used to all climb into one bed and I would tell a bedtime adventure story with them as the main characters. They would all be heroic and we would end on a cliffhanger. Now I try to do the same for adults but I write them down.

John Paul McKinney said...

How wonderful for your kids, Susan. I suspect at least one of them will be a writer, maybe already is. Now I need to find out if you're writing cliffhangers for us.