Writing Black Characters Dealing with the Culture of Poverty

Last year at the Colorado Gold Conference I taught a class entitled Writing Authentic African-American Characters. A lot of that discussion had to deal with the culture of poverty within the Black community. Today, I want to talk to you about specific things your African-American characters can struggle with because of the culture of poverty.

What about Black characters who aren’t poor?

Poverty is a part of the lives of many African-Americans. Even if your Black character is not poor, the chances are they are affected by neighbors, friends, or relatives who are. This is a conflict that awesome writers, like yourselves, can exploit for great story telling.

There is a lot of tension within the African-American community about what is the proper role of African-Americans who have made it. Do they owe anybody anything? Are they obligated to support their extended families? And how do we define Support? (Incidentally, Showtime has a funny show based on this premise called “Survivors guilt.” Its executive producer is NBA player LeBron James.)

If your black character is middle class or wealthy—and they do not come from this socio-economic group—having them financially support or guide their poorer relatives and friends would be a great way to bring in a dose of authenticity into your characters. Your character could do everything from taking in a cousin or nephew to host the family picnic to co-sign on a car loan. Or, they could absolutely refuse to participate in any of these activities, gaining the respect or condemnation of their family. Or, maybe they only support others in grand, showy events, like at a birthday party, or a graduation. As if they are flaunting their disposable income.

Writing Black characters who are poor

How do you write about poor Black characters? Here’s the trick I’ve learned as I struggled with the culture of poverty myself.

Rich people want money for its own sake, while many poor people want money to buy things.

I have been fortunate enough to get to know five millionaires. But none of them are what you call the silver spoon type. They do all have two things in common: They horde cash and assets and they are extremely cheap.

My experience with most poor people (and remember, that includes me) is that they principally want money to buy things. It took me years to figure this out. But even as a child, I can remember wanting things desperately and knowing I would probably never get them. That feeling that you’re not going to get something you want permeates you as you grow up. That hunger to be just as good as everyone else, by buying those expensive jeans, or that expensive phone.

I can remember when I got into UC Santa Barbara in 1994. I did all of the paperwork myself. I double checked my financial aid package, what dorm I was going to stay in, everything. When I left, I had everything I needed - except a personal computer to type papers on. (This was pre-internet)

One day my mom comes home to tell me that she got a $2000 signature loan. She was going to buy me a top of the line computer. Now, this confused me because I had resigned myself to using the computer labs on campus, like everyone else. My mother had other ideas. She was not going to let her son be perceived as disenfranchised, or somehow not good enough because I didn’t have a computer.

I hope you see what’s going on here. Having possession of that computer meant I was just as good as those rich, white boys I was going to school with in the fall. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t afford it; it didn’t matter that the interest rate on the loan was ridiculous. It was about being just as good as everyone else.

This is why you see some poor Black people driving expensive cars, carrying Gucci purses, or wearing expensive shoes; they are keeping up with the Joneses.

The culture of poverty effects your ability to plan for emergencies.

I was well into my mid-twenties before I heard the term emergency fund/account. The people I knew and grew up with were all busy trying to pay the rent and keep food on the table. Extra money was seen as an opportunity to get ahead of another bill. The idea that you could just leave it in the bank, just in case, was weird. In fact, when I taught in Denver Public Schools, I would talk to high school kids about personal finances. Just like me, many of my students found the concept bizarre.

How could this affect your African-American characters? What stress could you pile on to your characters because of their upbringing?

Poverty Lends Itself to Immediate Gratification.

Many people living in poverty see no way out. They don’t believe they’ll ever get ahead or beat the system. When in a situation where you believe your situation is hopeless, why deny yourself anything?

I am one of the few homeowners in my family. I am also one of the few family members with a master’s degree. Both achievements took discipline and the ability to delay personal gratification. I was able to get both because I desperately wanted them. I wanted those things more than I wanted to hang out, go on vacation, or buy a big TV.

For many people of color in poverty, buying a house, having nice things, getting an education seems pointless and out of reach. Also, there is a desperation of circumstance that supersedes everything else. This idea that this moment will not come again, and that I should live to the fullest, now. That this opportunity might never come again, so I have to take advantage of it now.

Being Poor Sucks

Poverty spans the gambit from simply annoying to plain old horrible on any given day. There is a stress associated with poverty. A stress that can be temporarily relieved by spending money—thus perpetuating the cycle.

Writing exercise.

#1.) Is your character poor? Why or why not? Would changing their socio-economic status give you new insights into their motivations, values, and beliefs? If your Black character is in a supporting role, would changing their economic status create more tension in the story? Why or why not?

#2.) How does the poverty of the Black community effect your Black character? Are they guilty for being successful? Do they feel obligated to give back? Are they uncomfortable in the Black community?

#3.) Write a scene where your Black character—who may or may not be the Point of View character—comments on the difference between how his family does something mundane and how his new friends do something. Show/describe the different values associated with each event.

 

 

When Motivation to Write is Gone

We've all been there. Or maybe we're there right now? In this collective, yet solitary brain-trust known as writing. This hive-mind of almost universally shared desire. It's what we do. Why? Because we have stories to tell. So we spit them out of our heads and onto paper (never mind the mess). But what do you do when the words won't flow? You can call it "Writer's Block" if you want. Soooo cliche. To me, he/she/it (to utilize a sympathetic fallacy) is kind of a mythical super-villain. Not actually real, but we convince ourselves that they/he/she/it, is the cause of all our woes. "I can't write because I'm blocked." It becomes an excuse. And so it rules over our writing lives as an unexploded bomb in the middle of the towns of our minds, soaking up the power that we choose to give it. Well I say, NO MORE...at least for right now.

The fact about writer's block:

Or, as I like to think of it, that irrational, motivational miasma that occasionally slaps you around like a pre-pubescent school yard bully. Regardless of how or when it hits you...it's all in your head. That's right, I said it. IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD! This horrible slump, this unfortunate malaise that stalls the swiftness of you fingers, is...All. Your. Own. Doing. So snap out of it already.

But...why?

Well, I can't really answer that. Not definitively, of course. We're all different people. With our own styles, likes, dislikes, and ways of reacting to the world. Maybe we're tired. Mentally exhausted. Maybe we're bored? I don't know. Bottom's your limit.

What to do about it:

Now here's a good question. What DO you do about it? The most obvious piece of advice is: Keep writing. Write anyway. Real writers get words to paper no matter what. They don't wait for inspiration, for the good feels or the muse. They make it happen on their own time and in their own way. There's merit to this, obviously. And this is probably the best advice I can give (even if it can be incredibly hard to follow at times). In fact, I've let myself fall prey to the motivation vampire as I've awaited word on publishing interest in one of my books. But it was, and is, a huge mistake we're all capable of making. Time is not our friend as writers. We need to work. We need to blast words onto paper, and pretend like, above all else, that we know what the hell we are doing.

Visualize:

This one might seem odd. It is a bit esoteric. But visualization is one of the best ways I've found to break myself out of a mental funk. What I mean by this is putting yourself into your character's head and allowing yourself to react to specific situations in the same way your character would. So sit back, think about that character, and really get into how they would react in that instance. Play the scene out in your mind. Don't think about it too hard, just let it unfold as if you are this character. I think you'll be surprised at the new ideas that come up, and the fun and interesting ways it can change or open up the story.

Get excited:

Here's something you probably haven't considered (and I mean really emotionally considered) in quite a long time: You're writing that story for a reason. Something about it, the characters, the situation, the underlying idea, or the motivation behind your drive to write it. Something about that story is so AWESOME!!! (note the triple exclamations) that you just had to get it on paper. This is something we often forget after we've spent long and often torturous hours slaving over the same things, the same ideas, the same characters and situations...over and over, and yes, over again. We forget that there was something so cool and exciting about these characters or ideas that made them worth putting out there for other people to read and invest themselves in. So recapture that! Sit down and ruminate about what makes your story special. What idea, what character, what situation? Really dig into it and remind yourself just how amazing these ideas are, and (here's the key) let yourself get excited about it again! Get back into those ideas and investigate them because they're worth investigating. And this will lead directly into the next point...

Generate new ideas for your story:

Similar to the visualize option above, when you get excited about a story again after you've carefully gone through and thought about some of its elements in a different way from their original conception, you'll surprise yourself by starting to come up with new ideas. These can be simple additions to the direction you're already taking the story, or they can be wholly new and interesting navigational changes, seeing things from the eyes of different characters or entire groups of people. Use these ideas! Write them down. Stay excited about them, and let them pull you back into that story so you can do what you need to do: WRITE!

You know what to do.

Listening to the Universe

About a year ago, my agent and I tried to sell a 65k fairytale-pun-ie mystery.

We didn’t even get a request for a full.

Ouch, right?

*Admittedly (or so I don't start crying at the lack of requests), it wasn’t a project either of us was pushing. It went out to a handful of editors at best.

Following the less than world on fire responses, I decided to indie pub it. It wasn't a decision I made lightly. Not every book I write needs to be in the world. Which is the greatest lesson I have ever learned (Self-publishing a bad book can haunt your career). This novel, though, does need to see the electronic reader light.

At least I believe so.

*please leave me my delusions.

Since I was slammed with other projects until the last month, this project sat on my hard drive gathering dust-kilobytes. I brushed it off last month, did a run through revision, and then a copy edit (for an indie book I do a much deeper copy edit as it’s as close to final as I can get it). I hired on a cover designer.

And BOOM

Last week, my agent emails with a full request.

This week, an offer.

Suddenly I find myself with two options for publication. This is where the universe came in -- I was all ready to indie pub it, and now I had this other option with a small press. The offer made me realize that I don’t have as much time to invest as the indie pubbing needs (due to another project’s sudden appearance). It would suffer because of it.

Things fell into place for a reason. I needed to take the hard look at what I could accomplish, and the universe knew it, taking some of the pressure off releasing the fairytale book in order for me to focus on a bigger project.

Thanks universe.

Do you find your projects fall into place like this? What is the universe telling you about your writing at this moment?

Mortality and the Writer

I just finished a book and went through my usual ritual of cleaning my office while mourning a little for the characters who have been such a large part of my life the last year. Now it’s time to start the next book. In the past, my first consideration would be the market: What book could I write now that I would have the best chance of getting published? What book is most likely to attract readers and earn me the most sales?

But I just hit a milestone birthday, and I realize I no longer think like that. All at once, I am keenly aware I have only a finite number of years left to write books. With time ticking away, I’m starting to think of my career as a legacy rather than a business concern. What do I want to be known for as a writer?

I am proud of my epic historical fantasy, but I’m not ready to return to the world of early Roman Britain. And then there is the fantasy series I dabbled with for three years. I would like to finish it, but my instincts tell me I still don’t have a vision of the story arc that I need to do justice to that tale. My Regency romances have sold the best, but I think as a writer my hallmark has been my dark age and medieval stories. The book I just finished is set in medieval times, and I really love the medieval world. And I have a proposal that’s been whispering to me ever since my trip to Wales last year.

So, I decided to heed that whisper and start writing it. I feel especially good about writing a book that connects to the last one. If there is one mistake I made throughout my career, it was bouncing around in different eras and worlds. This time I’m going to keep going in the same one. I want to finish a solid “series”.

That decision may seem pretty obvious. But in the past, I would probably have switched to a romance sub-genre that is popular now, like the Regency or Victorian eras. Or I would have tried to come up with a mystery since they seem to be selling well, even though I have no solid ideas in my head. In other words, I would have “written to the market”, instead of following my heart.

But I’ve decided it’s too late in my life not to follow my heart. When I first got published in my early 30’s, I was surrounded by authors who saw writing as a career and believed that part of being a professional was to write books that advanced your career. For several years I fought the urge to write what would sell and was indulged by my editor, who allowed me to make a lot of questionable career decisions. Then my career fell apart and I spent the next ten years chasing the elusive dream of recapturing what had been a promising career.

The last few years I’ve finally given up the dream. Not in a bitter, resentful way, but a calm resignation. And I’m in good company. I know few authors who are where they would have hoped to be when they started out, at least if it was ten or more years ago. But we keep writing because it feeds our souls. Because it is who we are.

The gift of age is knowledge and insight. The downside is the lack of time to use that knowledge. For all of you young writers out there, do what you must, but remember that writing time, like every aspect of our lives, is precious. Use it wisely.

Let It Percolate!

Let it Percolate!

Stephanie Reisner

It's happened to all of us. We're someplace horribly inconvenient and a great idea pops into our heads. We do our best to record that inspirational thought for later when we have time to sit down and write. Then, when we show up at the computer to type it all up, the moment is lost, the excitement is gone, and we end up staring at a blank screen. Or, even worse, that beautiful idea only generated two hundred words, and that was that. Certainly not enough for an entire novel let alone a single chapter.

This has happened to me more times than I can count, and I imagine it has happened to many of you. I have something for you to try next time that great idea shows up on your doorstep. First - go ahead and welcome the idea by jotting down a few fevered notes, but don't rush to the computer to try to flesh it out. Not yet. I know - it sounds completely counter-intuitive, doesn't it?  We've been told most of our careers that inspiration is fleeting and that you need to take it and run with it when it shows up. Especially since we’ve all had the experience of sitting in front of the computer staring at a blank page and that taunting, blinking cursor.

Here's what I propose: Instead of rushing to try to throw down ten thousand words on your fantastic flash of insight, stop. Let the idea percolate. Sit on it for a few days, weeks, or months – however long it takes - and let the idea grow. Right now, it’s just a seed. Not every flash of inspiration is a solid, healthy seed though. Sometimes these inspirational seeds are too small, and may only grow into a sub-plot or just a story point in a current or future project.  But if it's a really good idea and big, a solid, healthy seed -- it's going to grow. Those are the seeds some of us want because they are the fuel for those intense ideas that often grow into multiple books.

Five Tips to Help Your Ideas Grow:

  1. Talk the idea over with a friend or family member.
  2. Mull it over and flesh it out in your mind before putting pen to paper. I often put the idea through various scenarios just to see how versatile it is. I often discover that the more versatile the idea, the better.
  3. Start some pre-writing. This can include character descriptions, outlines, notes, and even locale descriptions. For fantasy or sci-fi authors, this could take the form of world-building.
  4. Start a storyboard or mind map. Large whiteboards are perfect for this. For those of you who like to visualize your story – the storyboard or mind map can be just the inspirational mana you need for a strong start.
  5. Read. It helps fuel the imagination.

When you let ideas percolate, you may just discover that the big ideas will stick around and grow until you have no choice but to write them down. By the time they demand to be written, chances are you'll have built more backstory, more plot, more characters, and so on, which is going to make the pre-writing or initial writing smoother. Finally, follow-through. By telling you to let ideas percolate, I’m not saying you should put them on the backburner forever. At some point, you will need to commit pen to paper and get it out of your head and onto the written page. Stories can’t just stay in our heads or they can clog the mental plumbing. So be disciplined, be vigilant, and write. Good luck and happy writing!

***

Stephanie Reisner began writing at the age of ten and never stopped. Under S. J. Reisner she writes fantasy, romance, and YA. She also writes erotic and paranormal romances as Anne O'Connell, occult/paranormal thrillers and horror stories as Audrey Brice, and non-fiction books and articles under yet a different pen name. Her most recent releases are Saving Sarah May (S. J. Reisner, Romance), Ascending Darkness (Audrey Brice, Supernatural Mystery), and Taming Trish (Anne O'Connell, Erotic Romance). When she's not writing she's hiking, gardening, or just hanging out with her husband and cats. To learn more visit: www.sjreisner.com

 

Distractions: Writing, Wait, Cleaning. No! Writing! New Computer! No! Writing. Promotion…

I should be preparing for a trip I'm leaving for later this morning, but I'm running late on the blog, and, let's face it, will I want to finish it up in California? No.

Wait . . . the airport. I could do it on the plane or at the airport (I intend to arrive two hours early, as usual). I could do it then. Face it, ramblings about the writing life, which I usually do here on the blog, are not research intensive, and are, in fact internals, which is the easiest writing for me. Well, in addition to having an intelligent Familiar Companion animal saunter, stroll, or zoom onto the page. Those scenes tend to write themselves, too.

As you must have figured out from the above, distractions are, for me, a terrible thing. Even cleaning can be a distraction, even (whispering), washing silverware (which I always leave for last).

The moment I got my first computer, I took the games off it, the solitaire, whatever. (We won't go into online gaming right now). This was to keep myself focused on writing.

Naturally, I had a day job, so I wrote in the evenings. I lost years of popular television shows, because, like most traditionally published people, it took between 8-9 years for my first manuscript to sell. Those bad old days.

I had to focus, or I wouldn't work on my writing after my regular eight hours of work, and that was the most disciplined time in my life (except the 3 jobs in grad school).

But now that I'm a professional writer. . . my focus is usually fragmented at best, even when I'm at retreats where all I'm supposed to do is write. "I can make my wordcount in two hours today, I'll do it later." I tell myself almost every day. This is a blatant lie. I can make a minimum wordcount in two hours with the great blessing of steady inspiration from the muse. I believe my lie anyway.

Laundry is important. Cleaning is important. Definitely loading up a new computer for my travels with all the right software is important.

Exercise, for me right now, is hugely important.

Most important is promotion of my novella, especially that which is self-published. I can really get side-railed by that, because it, too, can bring money in.

But writing should be the number one priority. It is the way I support myself and my two cats (they do not lift a PAW).

Still, distractions abide. So, I turn to the tried and true to help me through:

1) War room. I belong to a chat room where writers meet and do writing sprints. Sometimes it's too chatty, sometimes I'm the only one there. At those times, I have to shore up my own focus.

2) Timer. This is good. Butt in chair for 30 minutes, set the timer, write. Do NOT go back and re-read that previous scene for the 20th time. JUST. WRITE. This can get me (you?) through the "thinking" time.

3) Setting Goals With Other Writers. I belong to such a group, we post goals and results every week.

But, most of all, is just RECOGNIZING MY PROBLEM WITH DISTRACTIONS, AND PUTTING MY BUT IN THE CHAIR AND WRITING.

Easy to understand, easy to say, but hard to execute. But I WILL do that. Because that's what professionals do.

Wait, doesn't the fireplace need brushing out? (Just joking, I don't have a working fireplace).

May the muse be with you and your writing and your worlds push all distractions from your minds.

Robin

On the first day of NaNoWriMo, my pen gave to me…

Not a dang word.

Stupid writing.

Disclaimed: I didn’t do NaNoWriMo. In fact, I haven’t done it in years. While in the past I’ve lied to myself, saying I would write every day in November, hitting 50k with the greatest of ease, I didn't even bother this year.

Hi, I’m Julie, a failed NaNoWriMo participant.

I have never, since my first try in 2007, hit the 50k mark. The most I ever did was 30k. Odd, since my latest project, a writer for hire deal for a film studio, came in around 50k and I completed it in a few weeks. So why can’t I win in November?

I’ve blamed it on the time of year. Like I only write in certain months, November just isn’t one of them…A crap excuse. What else? I have too much going on to write that much in a month…Considering I had 5 days off last week from my day job, that excuse doesn’t hold any turkey. Writing is hard, I whine. Again, not so much when I’m not kicking and screaming like a big baby. I sprained my index finger and since I type like two-year-old…

You see my point? I have a million excuses as to why I don't write. We all do. If I could only add this energy to writing, I’d have a book out every week.

And yet, I’ll continue to have reasons why I can’t succeed. It’s easier to never try than to fail. But all my time doing NaNoWriMo, that’s my greatest takeaway, it’s okay to fail. This is what I do because I love to do it. If it becomes a forced chore, like hitting 50k in November, I might reconsider.

How about you? Did you NaNo? Did you hit your word count? Have you failed at a project before? And finally, what’s your best/lamest excuse for not writing? Give 'em to me so I can use them next time I fumble with my own BS.

Happy Holidays! I'll see you again next year (unless I get hit by a bus or sprain my finger...or if I....).

My Seriously Overdrawn Bank Account

Courtesy of "The Atlantic"
Courtesy of "The Atlantic"

I am seriously overdrawn. And I have to think that many of you out there as well. No, I’m not talking about your real money bank account. I’m talking about your emotional bank account. The place where when things are going great, you’re making massive deposits, building up that rich volume of happy, fun, chipper, and all sorts of “good collateral.”

Also the place from which you make withdrawls in the form of fear, worry, anger and other “bad debt.” The election has been a serious draw on my emotional bank account. I’ve seen friends and family, people whom I love, respect, and want to be around, change into happiness-sucking, vitriolic, swearing, overbearing, bankrobbing….Whew, you get my drift, right?

I am so glad it’s over. I have absolutely no comment either way on how it went because my opinion is my own and no one else is going to change it. I also know that I’m not going to change anyone else’s. Which is how it should be.  According to Merriam-Webster, an opinion is: a belief, judgment, or way of thinking about something; what someone thinks about a particular thing. Period.

As writers we have a vast quantity of words we can use. We have big, honkin’ thesaurus’ sitting next to us. So let’s focus on kind words. Interesting words. Compelling words. Thrilling words. And maybe, for just a little while, put away the swear words. Whether you are happy or sad about how things went/will go, remember that this same thing happens every four years. And every four years approximately half the people out there are in your shoes, good or bad.

I hate being overdrawn. Especially when it’s because someone else wiped out my account. I keep that account for things like a call in the middle of the night about a family member. Funerals. A fight with my husband. The loss of a treasured pet. I NEED to have that cushion in my account so that I can keep my sanity when something bad happens, and can’t afford to waste it on what might happen, what someone thinks is going to happen, what the media tells me is going to happen. I am more than willing to expend some of that collateral on behalf of others outside my family and close friends, but I have to weigh how much I’m willing to give to someone else, especially someone who may not value that sacrifice and just want more.

Photo from Jocuri
Photo from Jocuri

So please, let’s all be friends. Try to make the best of everything, and work toward ensuring no one suffers from anything we can help alleviate. Give yourself time to recoup your losses in that account so that you aren’t too emotionally depleted to write, to enjoy, to be happy to wake up in the morning.  And remember all the millions of things for which you get to be thankful, since Thanksgiving is right around the corner.

And then, Write On!

Time to Wield the Mighty Pen

"This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal." ~Toni Morrison

I've been tossing around ideas about what to write for this post for a few days now. It was tempting to bypass the state of the nation and stick to a safer topic, something like motivation or puppies. But Toni Morrison's words summarize what is on my mind, and what I think should be on the mind of every writer.

Yes, I'm about to be opinionated, and I'm not going to apologize for that.

We have been given the gift of words, and with that I believe there comes responsibility.

Yes, a lot of us, maybe even most of us, are in the writing business to entertain, but that entertainment shapes thoughts and emotions. We're not preachers or politicians, but we have beliefs and principles and values.

We have power we don't realize that we have.

I was thinking the other day about all of the books I read as a child and a teenager. The product of a strict religious upbringing, born and raised in a small town, I was very sheltered with little experience of the larger world. The books I read - fortunately - taught me compassion and understanding for people different than me. They taught me that evil can be confronted and overcome. They taught me that hope, beauty, and good can survive in even the darkest of situations. They comforted me. They gave me heroines and mentors I could relate to and look up to.

They also taught me that it's important to step out of the safe zone and take action when lives and liberties are threatened.

This, my friends, is that time. I'm not saying we all need to start writing essays or blogs or opinion pieces, although that wouldn't be a bad thing. But I believe that in the world as it now is, it's more important than ever that we think about how we are using our creative gifts.

Do we have influence on social media that can be used to give bandwidth to important messages? Are there elements we can include in our stories that will help threatened groups feel stronger? Can we write stories that might shine a light on privilege and unconscious bigotry? Can we help to build bridges and create understanding and cooperation?

I believe that privilege and even a lot of bigotry and hate hide out in our subconscious, installed there when we were children incapable of sorting truth from lies. We can do work to find these beliefs in ourselves. We can write things that make people stop and think.

Fiction often shines a light where argument and rhetoric can never reach.

If I'm honest, I'm not sure what that means for me, as a writer. I don't know how this belief is going to change the next book I write. But if I write consciously, from the heart, with the desire to make things better, I dare to hope that my stories, in some small way, can help to make the world a better place.

My challenge to all of you is to make an effort to do the same.

Why Bother

At a recent get-together with several writer friends, we got to discussing some of the gloomier aspects of the business: the sheer number of books available, the pain of rejection letters, the struggle to find ways to promote that actually work. The one individual in the group who is still trying to get published traditionally finally threw up her hands and said, “Why do we do it? Why should we even bother writing when everything seems be against us?”

It’s a good question, and one that I—and most writers I know—have struggled with at various times. We joke that we could make more money per hour working in a fast food restaurant. Shake our heads in disbelief at the writers who somehow crank out a half dozen books a year, while we agonize to produce one. Stifle our envy of those who are lucky enough to write the right book at the right time and end up with a bestseller. We long for the good old days, before all the major publishers became corporate entities with little interest in books in themselves, who today only see publishing as a way to make money.

Everywhere you look there are reasons to become discouraged and give up writing. Some of us do. I’ve had several friends who’ve quit writing because of their disgust with the industry. Having had their hearts broken by the system, they are still licking their wounds rather than writing. I understand their pain and their desire to be free of it. I wonder sometimes if I was starting out now, if I would have the resolve to persevere and keep fighting for years for that first contract offer.

And yet, I know I would keep writing. Because I was hooked from that first moment, somewhere in chapter three of my first book, when my characters came to life and shared their story with me while I frantically tried to write it down. There is a writer’s high, just as there is that thrilling state for athletes when they enter the zone, and everything is magic.

There’s a perfectly logical explanation for that mystical state of bliss. Scientists have studied the brains of people as they exercise and clearly tracked the release of endorphins in the brain, those incredibly addictive chemicals that give us a feeling of well-being and even euphoria. I don’t know that they’ve ever studied writers for the same phenomenon, but as far as I’m concerned, they don’t have to. I have no doubt that writing fiction does something to my brain, flooding it with feel-good chemicals. It doesn’t always happen. I’ve had weeks and even months go by when writing was more of a slow plod rather than an enticing high. But having experienced writing nirvana, I always know it’s out there. And the tantalizing memory of that lovely altered state keeps me going.

There is another reason why I bother writing. Because writing is an excellent form of escape. Writing soothes me when I’m frustrated and irritated. I may not be able to control the people in my life, but I can (mostly) control my fictional characters. Writing also takes me away from things that stress me. The intense focus of the process distracts me from my problems and helps me put them in perspective. And finally, writing is antidote to the boring and bland. I get to experience the extreme highs of life all over again. Along with my characters, I fall in love for the first time, reach thrilling goals, conquer my fears and experience the satisfaction of great accomplishment. I get to travel to exotic locations and time travel to other eras. I actually get to be other people, and forget about my own reality.

I first discovered this enchanted aspect of fiction when I learned to read. I’m still in thrall to delights of a good book. Books have gotten me through a lot of tough times in my life. I firmly believe that as long as I am able escape into fictional worlds, I can survive almost anything.

Writing is a trickier means of escape than reading, and not always dependable. But when it works it is even more satisfying, resulting in the double pleasure of not only escaping stress, conflict and depression, but creating your own wonderful alternative reality at the same time.

Deep down, that is why a lot of us bother to write. Because we’re getting something in the process that is far more meaningful than publishing success. We’re finding happiness and fulfillment.