Why do writers write? Do readers think about this at all? I know writers do — especially when times are tough, when an editor says no to the seventh pitch in a row, when work on the book stalls, when we are stupid enough to stop and figure what our hourly wage is. So it's not about money, at least not for the tens of thousands of us writers who aren't J.K. Rowling. And it's not about fame, at least not for the tens of thousands of us writers who aren't J.K. Rowling. (In fact, most writers do not want to be public figures. Writing is a solitary activity, and it tends to attract people who like solitude.) And it's not about power. (This country's powerbrokers are politicians and CEOs not wordsmiths. Dammit.)
So what is it about? Why do writers write?
Okay, I admit it. Sometimes I lull myself to sleep thinking about how a great great great grandchild of mine will discover my name in the Library of Congress catalog. I am immortal! And I didn't even have to sell my soul or have my blood sucked.
Orwell goes on to list three other somewhat less self-aggrandizing motives, all of which I can claim as my own: aesthetic enthusiasm (the joy of working with words, of creating art out of language), historical impulse (the desire to find out what happened and preserve it for posterity), and political purpose. This last one comes close to the motto the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) used above the masthead of their newspaper: The power to transmit ideas is the power to change the world. I love that. On good days, I even think it's true.
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even a hostile act.
I don't like to think of what I do like that — hostile, aggressive — but Didion is right, as she almost always is. Writers do impose themselves on readers. That's pretty much the gig. We want to grab you, transport you from your world to ours, make you look, make you pay attention, make you see what we see. And that is a kind of aggression, and a kind of egoism, or at least it comes from a place of self-confidence.
I write for many reasons, but mostly I write because I am intensely curious about... well, about most everything... and writing funds my curiosity and gives legitimacy to my nosiness. It allows me to ask questions without being a nuisance (usually). It allows me to immerse myself in people's lives without being arrested for stalking. I can even eavesdrop. At one point early in my writing career, I thought maybe I should specialize. But I just couldn't do it. I couldn't set those boundaries. And so, during the past decade, I've written about exotic plant smuggling and assisted suicide, about communist spies and women's basketball players, about a whorehouse in the Mojave desert, about my mother. And, most recently, about Alzheimer's. I've tackled each one of these topics for reasons both Orwellian and Didion. But mostly, I write to learn.
The question I was asked most frequently when I went on the road for Dancing with Rose a few weeks ago was "What did you learn?" I loved answering this question because it got to the heart of why I write, why I wrote this book in particular, why I spent four months changing adult diapers at a memory care facility, why I spent a year at my desk, laboring to craft scenes and give life to characters. I wanted — I needed — to learn about this disease that took my mother's life and affects more than five million Americans. And then I needed readers to see what I saw, to learn what I learned. (I, I, I... as Didion says.) And what did I see? What did I learn? Here are the SparkNotes:
We are more than the sum of our remembered pasts. When memory fades, when people no longer have access to their histories, they do not cease to be individuals. Personhood remains. People with Alzheimer's are not empty shells.
When people lose the ability to use language, as those in later stages of Alzheimer's do, they do not lose the ability to communicate. Music transcends words (this was a BIG lesson for a writer to learn). So does touch. So does, at times, a chocolate chip cookie warm from the oven.
The people who care for our elderly — mostly nickel-and-dimed, working poor women — really care. Not all of them are Mother Theresa material, but for a surprising number, these gritty, in-the-trenches, underpaid jobs are a calling.
Alzheimer's, despite everything you've read, despite all you fear, is NOT the worst way to end your life.
I write so I can learn stuff like this.
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Lauren Kessler is the author of five works of narrative nonfiction, including the Washington Post bestseller Clever Girl and the Los Angeles Times bestseller The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O magazine, and The Nation. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.
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Lauren Kessler is the author of five narrative nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Nation. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Lauren Kessler is the author of My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey through the Thicket of Adolescence