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Why Do I Write?

I normally try to talk about myself on this blog only when it might help to illuminate something for others, but I was asked to write a piece about why I write for the forum of the Royal Literary Fund Fellows. It occurred to me that it might amuse or, better still, get you thinking about your own reasons for writing.

I write, I used to say, because it's the only respectable reason I've found for not doing the washing up. Then my first novel was published, and writing became another kind of washing up: not an escape from the business of life, but part of it. Writing, as we all know, is a frustrating, unpredictable and generally badly paid thing to build your life round, but that's what I seem to have done.

I've always had a fierce drive to create things, but that doesn't answer the real question of why I write, rather than making photographs or singing or cooking or acting, all of which I've taken seriously at times.  But the drive is combined with the boredom- and frustration-threshold of a toddler, and so the energy to work hard and get better at most crafts or arts always leaked away fairly early in the 10,000 hours it takes to achieve mastery. I kept going while it was easy and interesting: while the intrinsic rewards were enough to keep me working at it. I stopped as soon as they weren't.

So the real answer to the question of why I write is that telling stories and expressing experience and working things out in words, either explicitly or implicitly is, for me, the only kind of creative work and the only kind of job where that has never happened: where boredom and frustration have never made me want to give up, only to change direction. Wanting to give up because of extrinsic barriers is a different thing, but that's not what I'm talking about here.

A piece of writing - a story I need to tell, a topic I want to explore -  seems to contain its own logic and reason for existing, but it needs me to find the best form and words in which to exist, and I'll work until I've found them. And then that piece sits on my real or virtual desktop, as satisfyingly new and whole and shareable as a cake or a photograph. It's not that it's perfect - nothing's ever perfect - it's that I have imagined something which didn't exist, and I have then made it real.

That's a self-centred reason, but then doing your own washing up is self-centred. Where writing has led me is not self-centred: the satisfactions of teaching are almost as great. In teaching, I'm helping others to shape what they want to say, or tell the story they want to tell. And when they have, it sits on their desktop and ... But you know that bit.

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