A few weeks ago, I agreed to write a guest blog for Chris while he’s on vacation. What could be easier? I blog like a cow pisses.
But writing a blog post guaranteed to be read by many people, rather than writing in a desperate plea for attention as per my usual mode, turns out not to prime my pump. As my deadline loomed with no idea in sight, I realized I had violated one of my own cardinal rules: I had volunteered to do work.
So I messaged other pony authors with these questions:
- Why do you write?
- Does your writing make the world a better place?
- Do you care whether it does?
- There's such a thing as a bad story, but is there such a thing as an objectively great story?
Then I gave an evil laugh, sat back, and waited for them to do the work for me.
I should have added, “in under 1000 words.” No one is as verbose as a fan-fiction writer writing about writing. My work-avoidance scheme backfired; I now have 16,000 words of answers to summarize. darf spent many hours searching for patterns in the answers, gathering and categorizing quotes, and writing beautiful sentences which we eventually took out so that he could write his own post on the subject, on his blog.
I’m going to tackle just the first three questions today. (#4 will probably show up on my blog in a few weeks.) I asked more writers for comments than I could possibly quote. I feel like the organizers of Los Pegasus after they booked more stars than they could pay. Sorry to everyone who wrote an essay in response! Which was most of them. So I’m linking to their complete, original responses here. If you’re interested, you should skip what I write below and read that instead. And if you aren’t interested, you should just stop now.
So why are you still reading this? [Because to blather is human; to summarize is divine. -Chris]
Why do we write?
Throughout western civilization, most people have agreed on what the purpose of writing was. Agreed with their contemporaries and associates, that is. But what people agreed on kept changing.
From classical antiquity through perhaps 1800, everyone agreed that the purpose of writing was the instruction and edification of others in ways that would perpetuate the existing power structure. (Well, everyone powerful agreed.) Then the middle class got all uppity once they could afford to and knew how to read, and public opinion splintered into a multitude of factions that never shall be reconciled until the rightful king sits once again on the throne and this “toleration and diversity” fad is finally laid to rest.
The romantics said the purpose of writing was to stir strong emotions (generally bad for power structures). The pendulum swung back again around 1900 when some people, such as landscape painters and the Georgian poets, said the purpose of art was to be bland and soothing, to relieve the stress of modern life. The modernists and the social reformers swung it back the other way, saying the purpose of all art was to subvert, to defy expectations, and to overturn political and academic institutions. The nationalists had their day in the sun saying exactly the opposite, but their appeal faded after all the enemies had been defeated, all the counter-revolutionaries executed, and red and black had become tiresome. The modernists became post-modernists when they finally had the power to change the world and realized they didn’t know what they wanted to change it to, and anyway all they really wanted was to annoy the middle class. One of the defining aspects of post-modernism is giving up on meaning, purpose, or grand unifying schemes for art. Which brings us to the present.
None of our writers said anything about upholding the great chain of being or shaking off their bourgeois oppressors. There’s some ideological or educational ponyfiction out there (Mortal and Friendship is Optimal come to mind, and some Conversion Bureau stories about the evil nature of humans), but not much. The new ideology is anti-ideological. Aquillo wrote that trying to change someone’s mind feels “half like an assault and half like an act of extreme arrogance... I think stories should entertain.” Fiddlebottoms said, “Someone will only accept the ideology of a story if they share it, otherwise they will get offended and/or completely miss the point.”
No; our authors’ reasons for writing fall mainly into two basic categories: (A) For fun, or (B) due to personal neuroses.
I’m largely in category B. I often try not to write, but it never sticks. AugieDog, Skywriter, Wanderer D, and presentperfect highlighted this compulsive aspect of writing. The Descendant put it this way:
I write because the ideas that I have for stories are all running around screaming in my mind. If I don't sit down and slave away over my keyboard then they run around and around and around until I have no choice but to dig them out with an ice pick. So, I write to avoid medical bills.
When others ask how to motivate themselves to write, my impulse is to tell them: Don’t. Far better to start a rock band or study accounting. Run away and be glad you aren’t afflicted with this perverse and self-destructive obsession.
But that’s because I haven’t shaken the popular conviction that writers must aim at publication and perfection. This leads to believing that therefore you need to make writing your career, and that you should never give it away. Then you end up agreeing with Heinlein, who said, “Anyone who writes for any reason other than to make money is a damn fool.” But anyone who writes in order to make money is also a damn fool. Ipso facto, writers are fools no matter what they do. No wonder they drink so much.
Decades after people turned away from each other and towards radio and television for stories, fan-fiction is re-introducing the sport of storytelling. Imagine if we treated baseball the way we treat writing: “You’re thirty years old, you haven’t even got a contract in the minor leagues, and you’re still playing softball? For free?” No, it’s perfectly acceptable for people to play baseball with no intent of turning pro, and without angsting over the fact that they’ll never be as good as Derek Jeter. [I fully intend to use this comparison at every available opportunity in the future. -Chris]
(Maybe this is why professional writers and aspiring professional writers despise fan-fiction. It threatens their elite position, the strict division of the world into readers and Writers.)
So my posing the question shows I haven’t fully embraced the brave new zeitgeist of fan-fiction. This is reflected in the confusion my questions generated in the more well-balanced, zen-like, and probably younger category (A) individuals, who said they write because it’s a fun form of artistic expression. Sometimes they added that it was strange to even ask. Chromosome said, “I just keep doing what I love, and what happens as a result, happens.” Art Inspired, Chris, Crowley, DuncanR, Pen Stroke, PoweredByTea, and Hoopy McGee also fall into the non-neurotic, mentally-healthy writer category. (Although Chris is traveling to Arizona in July, so he may have other issues.)
Art should be fun. Huh. Well, I feel silly now. Can... can anybody help me sew this ear back on?
Cold in Gardez came down on both sides by saying , “I think everyone needs some way to express themselves artistically. Some people draw, some play an instrument or sing, some people play sports, and some people write... I think anyone who’s written a story knows the feeling – it’s in our minds and we need to share it somehow.” I like that way of looking at it—art is fun, and having fun is a legitimate need. I suppose the need to write is no more or less mysterious than the yearning of fly-fishermen for the stream, or the compulsion a mechanic friend of mine has to endlessly rebuild old Volkswagen engines.
Changing the World?
So what do people want to express with their art?
Stories, basically. Big surprise. Dennis the Menace: "I write... because I have stories to tell.” DuncanR: "I love storytelling." Hoopy McGee: "I enjoy making up stories." kits: “I guess because I have a story-concept in my head.” Wanderer D: "I need to share stories with others."
Many of these people can analyze their stories and break them down into themes, but few (none?) mentioned anything like that as being part of the initial spark that makes them fall in love with a story idea (Aquillo’s phrase). It starts with a story, a character, or an image. So, while a lot of people talked about “expression”, most of us aren’t trying to express anything analytic. We think of a story and it grabs us, emotionally. Analysis comes later. That’s usually my experience as well.
Perhaps we turn to fiction because we don’t know what we want to express. If we knew, we could write an essay. (I’m probably more Machiavellian than most. I often have an axe to grind, though I might not realize it until the story is half-finished. But I’ve tried writing essays. They don’t work. Only peer pressure, propaganda, advertising, and stories ever convince anyone of anything important, and I don’t like the first three.)
But if we don’t know what we’re trying to say, how can we change the world?
The near-unanimous answer to question 2 was, We can’t. Fiddlebottoms said "Expect[ing writing] to change the world is silly. You can't even make Fimfiction a better place. If I thought I could fix the world, I would be out there doing it. Instead, I write about Scootaloo refusing to eat her green beans or Rarity getting run over by a car.” Chessie said, “Does it matter?” Aquillo said, “God, what a pretentious and overwrought cliche... I don’t think artists have that power, if I’m being honest. I would bet that economic factors, armies and politicians have done more good for the world that a novel ever has; a story might work as a catalyst, but I doubt it loaded the gunpowder.” Four different writers said they weren’t curing cancer, which is apparently the current gold standard for changing the world. [I was one of them. I guess me and three other writers have some very similar mentalities... -Chris]
Unless by changing the world you mean changing how people feel. Changing the world is out; touching individuals is in. Chromosome wrote, “Making someone's day a little more interesting is satisfying enough for me. As for the world? One step at a time. We're dudes writing about cartoon ponies.” Cold in Gardez wrote, “Some of the comments people have left on my stories make me believe I’ve had a positive impact on them, and there are lessons about life I’ve learned from this fandom that have shaped me in a positive fashion.” DuncanR wrote, "You can never fall into the trap of trying to make 'the world' better... what you should be worried about is people." Wanderer D said, “If [my] words inspire someone to go ahead and become a better person 10 years in the future when they have forgotten all about me... but remember a phrase that struck them deep enough to affect their lives in a positive way, I will have done my job.” The Descendant wrote: "My writing won't cure cancer or any other disease (indeed, some people say it actually makes them ill), and it won't feed the hungry, but at the end of the day, if it makes people laugh or think, it has been one tiny little drop of change in the world."
Specifically, people wanted to make other people feel good. Bookplayer said "...each [story] is a random act of kindness tossed into the world; you never know if it will be noticed... but it could be the most important thing to happen in someone's life." Chris said "My writing makes me happy, and on occasion it makes someone else happy. That's not nothing." Crowley said "...as long as people are reading... and getting a laugh, an emotion, a stray train of thought... that's good enough for me." GhostOfHeraclitus said "If I made one of [my readers] happy... I did not waste my time." kits wrote, “Does my writing make the world a better place? If I assume that making some people feel strong positive emotion for an hour or so counts, then yes.” Georg, amongst his list of reasons for writing, said “I write because it makes me happy to make others happy.” Hoopy McGee said, “Bringing some happiness to people's lives may not seem like a lot when you're talking about the whole world at once, but that's still a positive thing.” Pen Stroke said, "It's almost like sharing a smile with a stranger on the street." PoweredByTea said, "A life that lacks happiness is a life wasted, and a good [story] certainly brings some pleasure."
Are people really writing to make people happy? I don’t. I want to make my readers feel something, yes. But happy? That’s just one emotion. There are lots of others. Even popular entertainment isn’t all about making people happy. Citizen Kane, High Noon, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Jaws, Alien, The Talented Mr. Ripley, About Schmidt... they’re not happy. I’m happy (only that’s not the right word, at all) to make my readers, and myself, feel anything at all. I want to grab the reader by the collar and shake him, and prove he and I are both alive. That’s probably my motivation for writing: To prove to myself that I can feel.
Sometimes, I think I write just to hurt people. Make them feel what I feel. Tell the world that it hasn’t gotten away with it. I’m onto its tricks.
I want to make my readers feel good and bad, to make them laugh and cry. But I never write just to brighten their day, because that’s incompatible with something more important to me: making them think. People only think when something upsetting happens. You only need to think when things aren’t working. Horse Voice said something similar, but it’s a lonely corner he and I are in. Making people think was far less-popular than making them feel good. Only bookplayer, The Descendant, Horse Voice, and Wanderer D even used the word “think” in this way. Although horizon said, cryptically, “[I write] because stories have power.” I wonder what he’s planning.
Moreover, I dislike this disclaimer from responsibility couched as modesty. True, it’s hard to measure the impact of a single novelist’s voice. But how many people do you think it takes to cure cancer? About a hundred thousand people are working on that problem right now. If a hundred thousand novelists pursued a single goal with that dedication, things would happen.
I don’t think authors should feel obligated to change the world, but assuming your writing can’t change the world is like assuming a gun isn’t loaded. Authors have a lot of power to change the world, compared to auto mechanics, doctors, or even teachers. It’s just difficult to predict in what direction. But they can’t abjure their responsibility by claiming it doesn’t exist.
People did often mention one specific way of impacting the world: Inspiring others to write. Aquaman, Dennis the Menace, Hoopy McGee, PoweredByTea, and Wanderer D all mentioned it. This circularity of purpose on one hand has something poetic about it—cue The Circle of Life—but on the other hand, it gives me the same vertigo and dread that all purpose is groundless as reading Nietzsche.
There are also aesthetes, writers in love with beauty itself. Aquillo wrote, “I adore words: the shape and flow and twist of them. I adore metaphor and, recently, crafting long chains of imagery.” darf wrote, “i write because i love words. i love stories and poetry and the value of a well-crafted sentence. i love the way books have made me feel and the tears that poems have brought to my eyes. i write because i want to make something as beautiful as the things that have inspired me, and in trying every day, i hope that i will.” But darf added that, “on reflection, words are only tools for a craft. Love of them is innately love of their ability, like a Stockholm syndrome for a cart of medical supplies. The contents are what are valuable, but we may learn to love the creak of the wheels and the silver shimmer of the bracing bars nonetheless.” That admission fascinates me, because I’ve always seen the people who love form (“them”) and the people who love content (“us”) as being polar opposites. Perhaps we aren’t so far apart as I’d thought.
Whom do we write for?
The question of whether a writer should write for themselves or for others is always controversial, yet strangely orthogonal to everything I’ve mentioned above, which I would describe by way of contrast as “stuff that actually matters”.
Most writers described their motivation as a mix of altruistic and self-centered reasons, but some claimed to be completely self-centered. Being “self-centered” is unfairly maligned; isn’t it good to be centered? What other center should one have? But we have two completely opposite varieties of self-centered: those who write for themselves, and those who write for others in order to help themselves. “I honestly don't care [if my writing changes the world],” Art Inspired wrote. “I write for myself, and I do it my way.” Contrast that with darf: “i write because i want to feel like i'm worth something. every second i live is crippled by an ache to feel validated by other people. in a vacuum devoid of human interaction and judgement, i'd feel at odds, because i'm not going to believe i'm worth anything unless someone tells me i am. i write for other people, which is in turn writing for me.” Dennis the Menace says, "I want recognition. I want fame. I want money... I don't care about making the world a better place. If it does, great." These all sound self-centered in different ways.
I think claims about who you should write for have less to do with art than with a stance on ethics—writing for others is virtuous, writing for yourself in a way that doesn’t obviously benefit yourself is virtuous, but being consciously aware of your valid selfish reasons to write is a sign that you’re a bad person, less likely to be held in check by feelings. Whereas people who admit that they write because they want admiration or validation can ally themselves with Adam Smith’s invisible hand and Gordon Gecko's dictum, "Greed is good."
I doubt that much different is going on in the heads of the people who say they write for selfish reasons, vs. people who say they just want to make others happy, except that the former might be a little dangerously self-aware. People make a big deal out of this kind of motivational issue. But it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I could easily guess which authors cared about words, which wanted to provoke people into thinking, and which wanted to make people happy from their stories. But “who you write for” has no impact on the stories produced as far as I can tell.
ONE MAN'S PONY SCRAMBLINGS
Match the reason for writing to the author! (Many are small quotes from longer, more-complete answers.)
Clue #1: The authors quoted are Aquaman, Aquillo, Art Inspired, AugieDog, bookplayer, Chessie, Chris, Crowley, darf, Dennis the Menace, The Descendant, DuncanR, Fiddlebottoms, Georg, GhostOfHeraclitus, Hoopy McGee, horizon, Horse Voice, kits, Pen Stroke, PoweredByTea, presentperfect, shortskirtsandexplosions, Skywriter, and Wanderer D.
Clue #2: Every author but one is assigned a letter present in her or his username.
A. I guess you could say that I write because I'm nearly fifty years old and I still haven't figured out how to live life in the real world. In order to interact with reality at all, I need to create elaborate mental structures for support. And sometimes those structures prove to be interesting enough to other people that they give me money to read them.
B. I loved getting lost in a good book as a child, but sooner or later I started to think about how fun it would be to be telling the story and deciding what happens next. I have similar urges with video games. ... I guess passive consuming is never enough.
C. Writing is about being a tiny god in your own universe. ... I use writing as a purgative for my own psyche.
D. i write because i want to feel like i'm worth something.
E. I'm a storyteller at heart and I need to share stories with others.
F. Because I do. If I were trying to be psychological, it would be something about taking experiences or ideas from life and putting them into a context where I can control and understand them.
G. I write because some things that I would like to happen... are too good not to share. I write because I like to take otherwise normal events and twist them or flip them, playing what happened then or wouldn’t it be cute if and this should happen. I write because otherwise the wife is going to hand me a hoe and make me work in the garden... I write to embarrass my children... I write because it’s fun. And I want to share.
H. Primarily because I enjoy making up stories. ... the thought of someone else enjoying something that was previously only in my head gives me a little thrill and some satisfaction.
I. I don't like talking about writing at all. I just like to do it.
J. I have no choice. There are a few other creative endeavors I participate in, but I write because I have to.
K. I guess because I have a story-concept in my head. By making it concrete enough to share with others, I distill it from a vague notion down into an actuality. It exists and has a definite form. Sometimes that form surprises me, especially in the murkier parts. That's the best thing
L. I write because I read, and I can't find anyone else willing to write the ideas I have for stories I'd like to read.
M. I write stories because I have stories to tell. Ideas in my head that make up the dreams I have at night. I write so I can put them down on paper for others to read, because I think I have some damn good ideas.
O. Because I want to enjoy 'going to write' and 'having written.' Actual writing, the process, is a bit bothersome. ... Going-to-write is best. Getting an idea, fiddling with it, making changes, thinking up plots and characters, doing research, talking to writerly friends about That Thing You Are Totally Going To Write One of These Days -- that's enormous fun.
P. I have my day job like so many in the world, and it is a job I enjoy. It is, however, a job that works the left side my brain far more than my right. It involves some problem solving, some creativity, but said creativity is often heavily bound by the rules and nature of what I'm working on. A bird in a cage seems like a good metaphor. It can still fly a little, can still sing and do bird things, but it is confined within its bars. Writing is my chance to let the bird out of the cage.
Q. Because I'm not calm enough to play by all the rules and not demented enough to go around beating people up in bar basements and making homemade explosives. Because life is short, painful, and quite often boring, and the parts that make it not boring ... don't contain nearly enough car chases or explosions.
R. Most ordinary folks have a great idea for a novel that they never get around to writing. Most ordinary folks don't realize that you can simply wake up one day and choose to be a different person.
S. I enjoy the creative aspects of it; I look forward to the satisfaction of knowing I've crafted something to the best of my abilities, so much as time, talent, etc. allow; I enjoy sharing my finished work; and I savor the knowledge (when it comes) that I've made someone's day a little better by doing all that I did.
T. Rather than sitting there and simply stating "I believe this" or "I see it this way", the writer has the freedom to show the world the vision that they see.
U. I dream up stories because reading them isn’t enough, because established stories are too constrained and, often, predictable. Creating a story has verisimilitude beyond belief when done correctly. ... I write because I fall in love with my own words, as utterly vain as that sounds.
V. It was once said that a good newspaper should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". Lots of pony stories do the former, but fewer take the risk of doing the latter. And since I try to write the stories that don't exist, but in my opinion should... well, you've seen the results.
W. I realised I had a nice gathering of watchers who wanted more, and eventually I just thought “you know what? I have something here. Keep writing”.
X. Because it’s slightly more poignant than dying and fills more time slots (although fewer shower drains) than masturbation.
Y. ...because my college wouldn't let me take the acting classes I wanted. ...because I can string words together in a way that pleases other people. ...because I can string words together in a way that pleases me. ...because people pay me to do it. ...because it earns me accolades. ...because creation is the only thing that drives back entropy, albeit only a metaphorical level. ...because life is short. ...because the pain of doing it is only exceeded by the pain of not doing it. ...because it gets the voices in my head to stop for a while. ...because I am a writer.
Z. In my more cynical moments, I think it's because evolution has biologically wired us with the urge to shape our environments for safety and stability, and then pass on our genes — writing being a sublimation of that procreative/civilizing urge.
[answers below... don't cheat, you ninny!]
Answers: A=AugieDog, B=PoweredByTea, C=Chessie, D=Darf, E=WandErEr D, F=Fiddlebottoms, G=Georg, H=Hoopy McGee, I=Art Inspired, J=presentperfect, K=Kits, L=bookpLayer, M=Dennis the Menace, O=GhostOfHeraclitus, P=Pen Stroke, Q=AQuaman, R=DuncanR, S=ChriS, U=AqUillo, T=The DescendanT, V=Horse Voice, W=CroWley, X=shortskirtsandeXplosions, Y=SkYwriter, Z=horiZon
And that's it for the guest posts! Thanks again to Bad Horse, and to everyone who contributed something--you all helped make my vacation that much more relaxing, by giving me one less thing to worry about. Reviews resume Monday; until then!
And if you didn't check it out before, you can read all the authors' full responses to Bad Horse's little questionnaire here. Lots of interesting thoughts to keep you busy over the weekend, as you prepare for my glorious return.
And if you didn't check it out before, you can read all the authors' full responses to Bad Horse's little questionnaire here. Lots of interesting thoughts to keep you busy over the weekend, as you prepare for my glorious return.