Inspiration Or Compulsion?

My father was a jazz musician. When he wasn’t actively occupied by something else–eating dinner, mowing the lawn, reading out loud to me as a little girl–he wandered into his studio and started tinkering away on the piano or the saxophone. It was like a computer going to screen-saver if unused–music was his default mode.

I mention this because I’m always at a loss when asked why I am a writer. It’s not really a choice on my part, or even a conscious action. Writing is my default mode. When not actively occupied by something else–cooking dinner, reading a book, working out–I am tinkering with a new book idea or musing on some plotting difficulty. It’s just what I do.

Writing appears deceptively simple. Unlike most hobbies, it requires almost no accessories. You do not have to invest in expensive tools (painting). You do not need a certain body type (dancing). You do not have to trek to a specific place to practice it (golf). It does not require feeding (horses), cleanup (pottery), or an expensive instrument (music). All you need to write is either pen and paper or access to a computer, and in this era anybody can manage that. Moreover, writing isn’t specialized–relatively few people learn ballet or oil painting, but we all learn how to put sentences together at some point during our dreary trek through the school system. Therefore, at least theoretically, anybody can write.

But not everybody really wants to. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, I’d write a book if only I had the time” and I always want to smile. If you really have a compulsion to write a book, you find the time. I have a friend, holder of two day jobs and mother of several young children, who rises every morning at five a.m. to get in an undisturbed hour in on her book. I have another friend who writes around the duties of running a farm and a family of five. Most people do have the time to write books, but they would rather kick back and watch “Lost”–and why shouldn’t they? Watching “Lost” is much easier than writing a book.

Writing is a compulsion. People who have caught the sickness usually don’t get to watch “Lost,” or get quite as much sleep as they would like. They are too busy hunched over their laptops, demanding in frenzied tones why the damn book has stayed three chapters from the end for five chapters running. (Spouses of writers know better than to try to answer questions like this.) Writing isn’t a matter of inspiration or choice. It’s a disease. Sometimes quite a pleasurable disease–there are few feelings of accomplishment like the feeling of writing “The End” at the bottom of a novel’s last page. But that feeling comes with a lot of baggage. You don’t even know if this compulsion to put words on paper is accompanied by any talent. Plenty of people write their whole lives and will never publish anything, but they keep filling up drawers in their desks and gigabytes of memory on their laptops anyway, because they have to.

So if you happen to live with a writer or be good friends with a writer, be kind when they respond to “How was your day?” with “Do you think readers will notice if I move the Field of the Cloth of Gold up a year?” Just remember, they didn’t choose this gig. It chose them.

And if you’re a writer, unpublished or not–well, join the club; we have cookies. And ask a friend to fill you in on “Lost,” because you’re going to be too busy to watch it yourself.

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