Why Do You Write?
I have just returned from a fun and inspiring afternoon at Arts & Media Prep High School in Brooklyn, New York, where author Fatima Shaik and I spoke to a group of 13 students, mostly ninth graders. Their teacher, Michael Guarneiri, had prepared them well. Their questions were interesting and addressed many of the problems experienced writers continue to face: “How do you start a book to get the reader’s attention?” “How do you keep the story developing beyond the first chapter?”–and everyone’s favorite–“What happens when you’re in the middle of writing something and you get a great new idea?”
When we went around the room to answer Fatima’s question of “When did you begin writing?” we found out that most of the students started around sixth grade. They speculated on their reasons–that was when they left the cozy elementary school and met a lot of new people; they began to understand more of their world and gained the skills to write down their thoughts and stories; they were inspired by a book they read.
A few minutes later, Mr. G asked the question he said he could never answer adequately when, in college, someone asked it of him: “Why do you write?”
Nearly all 13 hands went up. And the answers were interesting and inspiring. The first to respond, a ninth grade boy, said “it gives me power over the world.” He had spoken about that a little when he said he started writing in sixth grade, when he realized that the world was big and he felt small and powerless.
The boy sitting next to him said he wrote to express his opinions. He had ideas about what the world was like and how it could be better, and writing both essays and fiction in which his characters had different opinions were ways of getting his views out there.
A girl who writes poetry said she did it to convey feelings, and the other poets, as well as many of the fiction writers, agreed.
“To escape the real world,” another girl said. We talked about different ways of using writing as an escape, including fantasy and science fiction.
One of the older girls talked about when she started writing, again around sixth grade, but it was also when her cousin died. She said she felt very sad and angry, and she had trouble getting over the anger. Writing was her way of handling her anger because she could give it to her characters and didn’t have to express it in the open.
Another girl agreed that writing was a way of working through her problems and trying out various solutions. She described it as a kind of “dreaming for yourself.”
The idea of “dreaming for yourself” was picked up by several other students. It could take the form of giving the main character a good life that one imagines for him or herself–for instance, solving a problem or achieving a goal. “Dreaming for yourself” could also be seen as allowing characters to express thoughts and feelings that one cannot say out loud–in that sense, hiding one’s own feelings behind the characters’.
“Writing is closest to playing God,” concluded one ninth grade boy.
For the students, “Why do you write?” had two basic answers. It is a means of expressing who they are, and it gives them a way of gaining power in a world over which they have little control.
In terms of my own motivations, I felt that I had a lot in common with the students, and I told them that. I hope they feel encouraged to keep writing, because they are doing it for all the right reasons, and if this afternoon is any indication, they have much to say and to contribute.