Why Write?

December 15th, 2009

Why do we write?writing-2

Writing is the best way I know to look inward.  It’s more fun than therapy, more effective, and it has the additional virtue of being free.  In fact, sometimes — in extraordinary circumstances — people pay you to do it.

I started writing because I heard a constant babble of voices in my head, loud enough and varied enough to make me wonder whether I had multiple personality disorder.  After writing for a few years, I discovered that multiple personality disorder is something to be cherished, to be watered regularly and taken for the occasional walk on the lawn.  Multiple personality disorder is the short cut to characters, and characters, in addition to being indispensable to fiction, are all slivers of the self.  They may not be especially pleasant slivers, and it may be disconcerting to know that you’re harboring a small crowd of Mr. Hydes and Dr. Mengeles, but there are angels in there too.  We all of us contain the bruisers, the bruised, and the healers.  We should buy them cupcakes from time to time.  It’s important to know they’re all there.

So writing is one way to circle the mystery of who we are.  We bring our warring cloud of inner children to the tips of our fingers and let them do their stuff.  And then, sometimes, something very interesting and slightly mysterious happens.  They create a story, and that story arrives wrapped in its own world, and that world has its own weather and landscape and rules.  And if you nurse it along for an extended period and let the characters have their say and do what they would in the circumstances you’ve imagined, you have a novel.

A novel, whatever else it may be, is a projection of the person who wrote it.  It’s been said frequently that a writer can’t create a character more intelligent than than the writer is.  I’m not sure about that, but there’s no question that writers can create characters braver, more cowardly, more evil, more saintly, more almost anything than the writer is — because the writer as a functioning personality is a carefully assembled presentation of the good/bad/beautiful/ugly/wise/immature inner voices in his or her skull.  Part of growing up is to learn to manage our conflicting impulses, to organize them, like a good photographer faced with a motley crowd and somehow creating a relatively attractive group shot.  Sooner or later, we begin to believe (at times, anyway) that that carefully assembled jigsaw puzzle is really who we are.  Writing lets us pick that apart and speak to each of those little imps and angels individually and let them stretch their legs.

I’ve been horrified by what some of my characters do, while others have (embarrassing confession ahead) moved me to tears with their goodness.  I have rarely moved myself to tears with my own goodness, but it tells me something when I create a world that contains such a character.  It’s reassuring.  And for some reason (maybe self-protection) it doesn’t negate that reassurance that I also created the Madame Wings and Captain Teeth who move my stories along with their badness.


So far, I’ve said nothing about writing well, nothing about art or even competence.  I write as well as I can because it gives me pleasure, and I’d do it even if I wrote much less well than I do.  I think that writing well is the last thing writers should think about.  The first joy is letting the story take shape, living through the characters and exploring the world they inhabit.  The second thing is bringing it to some sort of completion that’s organic and unforced.  If you do all of that — and if you don’t censor or bully the slivers of you that appear on the page — you’ll produce something interesting.  If you write it simply, trying to keep the prose out of the way so the pages are windows through which the reader sees the action, you’ll have a working first draft.  Then, if you want to, you can worry about  making it better.

Or you can put it aside as a learning experience, a mountain you’ve climbed.  If you’ve decided to climb several mountains, you might not want to go back to the first or the second and try to climb them more elegantly.  Or, if you’re me, you might.  But I make it better for the same reason I wrote it in the first place — I enjoy it.

So the real reason I write is that I can’t think of an answer to the question, Why shouldn’t I write?


13 Responses to “Why Write?”

  1. fairyhedgehog Says:

    This is a wonderful insight into your writing process.

  2. Rachel Brady Says:

    This is a beautiful post, Tim. I’ll be coming back to this one, I know.

    My favorite part is the statement: “The writer as a functioning personality is a carefully assembled presentation of the good/bad/beautiful/ugly/wise/immature inner voices in his or her skull.”

    Glad to see you mention Madame Wing. She was a real piece of work. 🙂

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, FH, and thanks. You’re inspirational enough on your own not to need me.

    Rachel!! — FINAL APPROACH is next on the TBR list, right after I finish Thomas Perry’s RUNNER. Got behind in my reading these past three months because I was on the judging panel for a national thriller award, and it involved almost thirty books.

    And thanks for the shout-out on Madame Wing. She’s been feeling neglected lately.

  4. Rachel Brady Says:


    Wow, there was a lot of exciting news in that comment. What a neat experience to be a judge for a thriller award! I’m sure that was a lot of work. Hopefully fun too.

    I must confess that the idea of you reading Final Approach after a 30-book-judging streak makes me a little nervous. 😉

    Enjoy your downtime and your holidays.


  5. Stephen Cohn Says:

    Tim – this is a real gem. I have not heard anyone else talk about the “multiple personality” related to creative process. It’s a wonderful insight which, I think, can be useful for music as well in that it’s not about
    what shows up inside but about what one does with it. This blog is a keeper in my book of inspirations.

  6. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    So this is the first chapter of your book on creativity?

    I mean, after you’ve published The Rocks!

    Captcha: spoke Muggier

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Rachel– Actually, they were very decidedly a mixed group, ranging from brilliant (Megan Abbott) to absolutely incompetent (a mystery that’s resolved when the heroine shouts at the villain — who’s holding a gun on her — “LOOK BEHIND YOU!!!” And he DOES.) Yipes. I’m really looking forward to FINAL APPROACH.

    Stephen — Thanks so much; from you, praise about creativity counts double. And you’re absolutely right — it’s not what shows up inside but the work it takes to get it out there on the page or into the pianist’s fingers or whatever. As you well know, conjuring music up out of the ether as you do.

    Cynthia — I think the best thing I could do about the creative process would be to reprint all the guest blogs in the CREATIVE LIVING thread, or maybe even reopen it.

    I have a new guest thread coming in a month or so. Novelists will talk about whether they plot in advance or create by the seat of their pants and why, and how they make the process work for them.

    Already got some great stuff.

    Captcha: Eligible Reversal

  8. Dana King Says:

    Maybe the most common-sense post on “why I write” I’ve read. Too often people get caught up in the spirituality of their characters talking to them, or how they could no more stop writing than they could stop breathing. Drives me crazy.

    Any one who’s willing to admit they write because they enjoy it and they have just enough mental illness to make them interesting company is someone worth reading.

  9. Sylvia Says:

    This is beautiful.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    This is amazing — Dana, Sylvia, thanks so much. This is what happens sometimes when you wake up and think, “I haven’t blogged in too long,” and you sit down and write literally the first words that come to you.

    It must have been cooking on one of those back burners for a while because it took all of ten minutes to write and another twenty to find some images. Now that I read it over, I like it. I’ve been a little disingenuous about quality, and that might be the subject of another blog.

    But thanks again to all for the kind words.

  11. Larissa Says:


    This touches on something that I fight with myself about all the time. Where do you get the…hutzpah, moxie, cahones, whatever to put all that stuff that you think or know or think you know the characters need to do? All I can think of is “that’s too gruesome or too raunchy or too baring of me or my fears or my own self-consciousness” I don’t hold it against authors when they write really deep, dirty, awesome characters but I can’t seem to bring myself to face all that stuff myself. I am terrified, so to speak at least, of my own dark corners or places where that raw, pure energy lies that lets you write or do those things that fantasies are made out of…

    I know there’s probably only one answer: suck it up and do it…but but but..and the stammering starts in my head.

    I dunno-I’ve had this problem for as long as I can remember wanting to write. There is a story, based a lot on truthful events that happened in the sort of recent past that I know needs to be written and I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s too personal and too true and too much to have to deal with all the fine lines blending between reality and character…I keep thinking I’m going to have some epiphany and wake up one day and be ready to face all of it, but so far, it hasn’t happened. It makes me cringe just to think about committing some of the things I think about to a place as concrete as The Page.

    Oy. I read a line in a White Crane Kung Fu book that said “Train to be bold” I think the same is true for writing.

    Thank you for an insightful and poetically written snippet on why we do the things we do. (c:

    captcha: Borges restrained

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Riss —

    I’m going to write you an e-mail about this. The main point of it will be that EVERYTHING IS MATERIAL. The most intimate things that happened to you, the actions of which you’re ashamed, the secret you swore you’d never tell — it’s all material. And the closer to the bone it is, the more care you’ll take with it.

    And there is no fine line between reality and character. If it isn’t real (on some level, within the conventions of the book) no one will keep reading.

    Your Captcha is perfect: Borges restrained. If Borges had been restrained, his name wouldn’t be in a Captcha.

  13. Sean Bunzick Says:

    I’m another one of those people who write because it’s one of the most enjoyable things to do but also because once you get the beginning of a story going in your mind, you have to keep working on it. It’s that simple and at times, somewhat creepy but as the story moves along, it becomes a real joy to behold.
    As I’ve babbled far too many times before, once your brain cells start coming up with an idea and you start writing, the book pretty much writes itself.
    I write everyday but if I DO have a Changover (instead of wisely drinking Mekhong the night before), it CAN take a little time to get back to my desk and put the pen to the paper.
    To all writers, I say: KEEP writing!

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