Why we write

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It’s embarrassing to admit this: I read a few pages of Big Little Lies.

Have I no standards at all? Usually I do. To wit: This book is currently #1 on the New York Times best-selling hardcover fiction list, and I’d never even heard of it before one of my NYT alerts alerted me to a brief item about its author. Never heard of her either. I follow a lot of book news, but I pay minimal attention to bestseller lists, since there’s generally very little on them that interests me. Like Big Little Lies.

So the Times led me to a paragraph or two about the author of BLL and the blog she doesn’t write anymore, and I caved and read a few pages of her best-selling book.

The excerpt blew me away, and not to a good place. The first character who appeared was a dithering Mrs. Patty Ponder, at which point I checked the top of the page to be sure I was reading the right book. Goodreads had given this novel 4.23 stars. I’d say it read like a bad children’s book, but that would be insulting to bad children’s books.

I got through about three pages and stopped without regret. And no, I do not believe I had any obligation to give it more of a chance. There’s no way I’ll ever attach to an adult novel that speaks to me as if I were in sixth grade. I kept thinking that Mrs. Patty Ponder (who will forever be Mrs. Potty Pander to me) sounded a lot like Mrs. Daisy Duck. I don’t do comic books anymore.

This four-minute reading experience led me to mull, once again, why we write. By “we” I mean the writers I know, the writers I teach, the writers I read (and love), and the writers whose work I may not always love but who are unquestionably serious about writing. And “serious” includes writers whose work may be playful or funny or quirky, but who are still exacting about their craft.

Why do we write, when so many readers want Big Little Lies? Actually, I mean why should we try to write well when so many readers would just as soon read Big Little Lies?

I don’t know. I’m not sure. I never feel as if I have a choice.

What I say to the Girl Group–too often–is this: Write because you love writing, since that’s the only thing you can count on. You cannot count on getting published (unless you plan to self-publish) and if you get published you cannot count on being read. There are no guarantees, least of all that your writing will capture both a publisher and an audience. Even a genius may have trouble finding an agent.

If that daunts you and you decide that the reason to write is to write a sure-fire bestseller, forget it.  You cannot “write a bestseller,” no matter how many how-to books you study. Ask any experienced agent, editor, or publisher, because every one of them has chortled gleefully over a sure-fire bestseller and cursed bitterly when it…wasn’t.

There’s another reason we write, personified by a close friend: he’s a wonderful novelist and nonfiction writer too, and he does not like to write.This is hard to fathom: how do you repeatedly sustain an activity that you don’t enjoy and are not required to do? The process of writing doesn’t usually give him pleasure; it often undermines his confidence and frequently makes him question his own worth. And yet he continues to do it and do it brilliantly. He can’t live with it, and he can’t live without it. So he keeps writing.

I would delight in dismissing the author of Big Little Lies as not a real writer; unfortunately, that wouldn’t be logical. She isn’t a good writer, though that appears to be irrelevant to her popularity. (Personally, I would shoot myself before I named a character Mrs. Patty Ponder, but that’s just me.) Talent isn’t a prerequisite for being a writer; the case for quality is hard to defend.

Why do we write? We just do. Good or bad, writing is what we do. Sometimes we can’t live with it, but always we can’t live without it.

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 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Posman Books, New York, NY

Vero Beach Book Center, Vero Beach, FL

The Well Red Coyote, Sedona, AZ

 

 

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