The Write Stuff: Why Write?

As part of Martin’s efforts to sivilize me, I’m going to take a writing course. Or rather, read and work a writing book: The Write Stuff by Barry B. Longyear, one of my earliest writing inspirations. His novella Enemy Mine (collected with two sequels as The Enemy Papers) was an immediate and enduring classic. His Circus World books (City of Baraboo, Elephant Song, and Circus World) describe what is still my favorite science fiction culture. “The House of If”, “The Initiation”, “The Portrait of Baron Negay”, “SHAWNA, Ltd.”, “A Time For Terror”, “The Homecoming”, “Catch The Sun”, “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”, “The Jaren”, “Savage Planet”, “USE Force”… These are the stories I read back in the earliest days of Asimov’s and said, “Hey, I want to do that, too!”

Along with Somtow Sucharitkul, Barry B. Longyear defined SF short stories for me in that era. He is the only writer to win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell awards in the same year, so I think he has something to teach us. Or at least to teach me.

The Write Stuff is more than just reading, though. It’s lessons. Exercises. Homework! And I’ve decided to do that homework here on the blog. I’ll summarize each assignment and then show my work. I have to write it down somewhere, after all, so it might as well be here. I hope that maybe it intrigues you enough to get you to pick up the book and try it yourself.

And the first assignment is…

Why write? Describe why you write and what you want to accomplish through writing.

Boy, that’s a tough one. And confession time: I peeked ahead. (I am Evil, after all! ) I know teacher is going to hate at least part of my answer. After all, he even says in the assignment, “If you find yourself putting down, ‘I need to write,’ throw out your list and start over.” But that’s sort of my first answer: not “I need to write”, but more like “I can’t recall ever not wanting to write.” I don’t have a very good memory for my childhood years, for whatever reason; but one of my earliest memories is of a story that I wrote. I was probably six at the time. (I was reading at four. Reading was what everyone else in the family did, so I wanted to do it, too. And my parents and my two older brothers were happy to teach me.) It was a story of a young Indian brave who impressed his father with his feats of strength and speed that he learned by emulating the animals. I still remember his name: Cintuwataki. (And I fear that in 40+ years since, I may never have made up a better name.) I remember almost nothing about the plot or even where the idea came from (Indian stories? Me?), but I still remember being very proud of my work.

So there’s one of the reasons, I guess: pride. When I finish a story, I’m proud of the result. (If I’m not proud, I’ll probably never finish it.) I advise creative people: “Never be your own worst critic or your own biggest fan.” Well, I do pretty good on the first part, but I fail big time on the second. I really enjoy reading my own stories. Often they transport me back to what I was thinking and feeling and experiencing during the writing process. Other times are even better: I don’t remember writing the story, and I find myself thinking, “How did I ever come up with this?” Dean Wesley Smith (a more recent writing mentor – I highly recommend his Think Like a Publisher) will tell you what a bad habit reading your own work is: a complete waste of time, an exercise in self-indulgence. And he’s right. But when I like my stories, I really like my stories.

And that’s another reason I write: not to be full of myself, but sometimes I write stories because no one else is writing the sort of stuff I like, so I will. Now that more than likely reflects my limited knowledge: the SF field alone is huge (never mind the superset, fiction), so I can’t possibly know everything that’s out there. But a major reason I wrote “Scramble” (second place in the 2012 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest) was because everything I saw on the shelves was urban fantasy, medieval fantasy, star-spanning space opera, psychic stuff… everything but the nuts-n-bolts hard science fiction I had a hankering for. Oh, there was still some of that out there – Ben Bova and Allen Steele both were writing in that niche – but I wasn’t finding a lot that was current. I wanted something near space, near future, hard science fiction, no magic, no aliens, no psionics… It’s a niche I’ve dubbed Blue Collar Space: ordinary people living and working and dying and triumphing as they settle nearby space. And since I wasn’t finding a lot of it (Bova wasn’t writing it fast enough, and Steele had gotten pulled away to his Coyote series – good, but farther out in space than I was looking for), I started designing my own: first by mapping a city, and then by writing adventures there.

And that comes to another reason why I write: maps. I love maps. I’ve been drawing them for longer than I’ve been writing. I still vividly remember the day I discovered The Hobbit. I remember the cover (it was a library book my brother had borrowed), I remember the cold (I was waiting in the back seat of his car while he was visiting a friend), I remember the delightful language, and I shall never forget the opening line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” But most of all, I remember what it was that got me to start reading: the maps. The glorious fold-out maps: one of Wilderland, and one of The Mountain and surrounds. It was a map where magic happened. Because that is what’s cool about maps: they describe places where stories happen, and I want to know those stories. I want to tell those stories. I still love drawing maps of places that never were and then finding the stories that happen there.

Full disclosure: I did slow down my writing for a lot of years. I blame two days I recall almost as clearly as the day I discovered The Hobbit:

  • My algebra teacher was having trouble keeping me occupied, since I was pretty good at math and I enjoyed it. So he took me aside and said, “This is a computer. This is a program. This is how it works. Now write your own.” My life was permanently altered that day.
  • I went to a game convention at a local mall. I had played some Avalon Hill board games, so I thought I might find something like that. Instead, I ended up at a table where some guys tried to explain this strange thing called “Dungeons & Dragons”. I wasn’t sure I understood it all, but I liked it enough to immediately go out and buy the big boxed set. And then since I was the one who owned the books, I started as gamemaster for our group. I’ve been gamemastering ever since. Maps and storytelling! It’s like gaming was made for me!

Those two outlets sufficed for most of my creative energies for a couple of decades; but I still wrote, just not as often. And they also tie back to another thing I love about writing: the joy of creating something intricate, interconnected, and in some way functional. In The Mythical Man Month, Fred Brooks wrote of how programming is creating with pure thought stuff, and how intoxicating it is to see your ideas go from concept to reality. It’s the joy of all artisans, no matter what their medium: the joy of bringing an idea to reality. And programming, gamemastering, and writing all bring me this pleasure. A big part of where the pride and ego come in is seeing somebody else recognize the vision that I had and show it back to me.

OK, I’ve gotten way off track, and teacher is eyeing me funny and slapping his palm with a ruler. I’m reminiscing instead of answering the question. (But really, it’s true: stories and maps and programming and gamemastering all are very much intertwined for me.) So what other reasons do I have for writing?

I mentioned pride. Yeah, there’s definitely some of that. It’s that, but it’s more complex than pride: when someone tells me that they liked my story, I feel good. I feel like: I reached somebody. I connected! A reader of my UML book once asked a question that made me realize he had read the book and actually gotten to know me as a result. A reader of my UML comic strip once wrote that he came for the jokes but found himself actually learning something; and I wanted to shout: I won! And when Joni from Writers of the Future told me that Jerry Pournelle loved my story, I really almost (almost!) didn’t care that my story hadn’t won. Jerry Pournelle is one of my favorite authors; when he teams with Larry Niven, collectively they are my favorite author. To hear secondhand praise from him was more motivating than I can describe. It was pride, pleasure, validation, and connection.

And the close cousin of pride is ego. I’m Evil Martin, Martin’s ego, and I’m large enough to have my own gravitational pull! Martin does his best to sivilize me, but I’m still out here. When people write stuff like this (Hi, Tina!), I break the chains entirely. It takes days to get me back to normal-sized.

Let’s see… I almost feel like I should do a Seven Deadly Sins motif here, but it wouldn’t work out very well. Lust and Gluttony? Who has time when you’re writing? Sloth? Sloth stops me from writing. And I’ve never been much into Wrath or Envy…

But Greed? Sure, it would be nice to make some money writing, but I don’t really have that as a goal. I’m a programmer, and I make a living that way, and I like doing it. If suddenly my stories started generating serious income (as opposed to trickles), it wouldn’t offend me; but as Dean advises, any monetary plans I have for my writing are very long term, not short term.

Awards? Well, that goes back to pride and ego; but honestly, I don’t care about awards. I would be thrilled to win, of course, but that’s outside of my control. There are too many good writers and stories and too few awards. If you let awards be your measure of success, you’re doomed to failure. (Writers of the Future is a special case, an award that would really matter to me; but that’s because of the fantastic workshop that comes as part of the prize, and the great people you get to hang out with.)

Fame? While that’s a close cousin of pride and ego, it’s different. I don’t know that I want fame per se. Fame is a little disconcerting, even discomforting. It means that when you’re out among people who know your reputation, you’re not entirely your own. All those other people claim a little bit of you. Harlan Ellison wrote a short story (I forget the name right now) about the “vampires” who all wanted “just a little bit” of a famous person’s time; and before the story was over, there was nothing left of him. Their “little bits” were all that he had. So fame has a serious dark side.

But attention… Ah, now that’s not so bad. Unlike a lot of authors I know (who are shy folks and a bit intimidated by speaking in public), I love an audience. The most dangerous place to be is between Evil Martin and an audience! I’m a little awkward around people I don’t know, but never in front of an audience. When I do software development talks, I warn people: “Getting me to talk is easy, it’s getting me to shut up that’s hard.” So a little bit of fame and a few small awards wouldn’t be bad if they got me a chance to get out and meet a few audiences.

So to summarize, I write because:

  • I always have.
  • Pride.
  • Enjoyment of my work.
  • To read stories I know I’ll like.
  • To tell the stories of my maps.
  • To create stuff and see it function.
  • Connection.
  • Pleasure.
  • Validation.
  • Ego.
  • Attention.

Maybe not a flattering list in all respects, but it’s an honest list. And that was the assignment!

4 thoughts on “The Write Stuff: Why Write?”

  1. Thank you, Tina! I’m happy to link to anyone singing my praises!

    Actually, rich linking sort of matches my thinking process. I’m always seeing odd connections and side trails. Digressions are a major part of my style (as you know from Ulterior Motive Lounge). Hypertext lets me point people to my inspirations.

  2. I love the idea of writing stories to go with your maps. I think that’s what my son is starting to do. He also creates D&D characters and writes stories about them (we haven’t found a good group of kids to play yet, so we kind of just do it as a family).

    1. That’s why maps are so magical! Why is this city here? What’s inside this forest? Who lives in that building? “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”

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