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.

Mary Gillgannon
Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the Dark Ages, medieval, and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands, and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at a public library. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing, she enjoys gardening, traveling, and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

16 thoughts on “Why Bother

  1. Hi Mary. You are spot on with why we keep writing. I think many writer’s frustration may stem from the fact that we are not completely honest with our writing goals/outcomes, our abilities at the present moment, and the requirements needed to reach those end results. Though some may only want to write for their own growth, they feel pressured to “publish, to be real writer” (Hogwash I say!!,) or if they want to publish via agent/contract/big name publisher, they are not ready to be in for the long haul. It’s a big scary world (if you are unsure of the terrain,) but some knowledge and a good map (research, study, working hard at craft, critique groups, etc.) can make the journey an enjoyable one.

    I’ve chosen a path and so far am quite satisfied (yes at times I’m screaming at how unfair “it” all is, LOL) with my outcomes. Looking ahead I see challenges, joy, satisfaction, struggles, friends, support and in the end, the pride to call myself a writer.

    • I think you are right about people having unrealistic expectations and that leading to frustration. I know I wrote my first book mainly to “prove I could”. But then people started suggesting I try to get it published and I started to believe I could have a career writing books. I was fortunate to get published as well as I was and make the money I did. When it all fell apart it took me years to scale back my expectations so that I didn’t feel like a failure. As I get older I have finally realized the gifts writing gives me that go far beyond “fame and fortune”. Best wishes to you for writing happiness!

  2. Great post, Mary! Yes, I think we all wonder “why bother” at times, but you’re right—it’s the magic of the writing itself that pulls us back. It also helps to hear that other writers share the same struggles—we’re not alone in those, which can give us the strength to continue. :O)

    • Yes, being able to share the journey with other writers is another thing that makes it all worthwhile. Very good point. Thanks.

  3. Hi Mary. Thanks for the reminder. Sometimes it is easier to get into the “business of writing” – social media posts, debating ins and outs of book publishing aspects, and diving into what’s going wrong in the story–than to just sit and write for the joy of writing. You make me look forward to that next empty page to fill. Thanks.

  4. Well said, Mary! I, too, have felt that “high” while writing. I can honestly say it’s happened with every book I’ve written, especially when I’m reaching that climactic ending I’d been eager to reach as my characters head toward it.

    Thanks for writing this article and reminding me of the pleasures of writing. A few months ago, I’d decided to stop chasing those sales ranks. I was killing myself and, in the process, I was beginning to hate writing. I wanted to get back to when I totally LOVED writing and forget about trying to make bestseller sales ranks.

    Now, I still write, but I’ll finish the book when I darn well please. Of course, that isn’t for everyone. But it works for me.

  5. You’re right, Mary. We write because we don’t have a choice. It’s in our soul, fighting to be put on the page.

  6. Very true, Mary. Even when I try not to write 🙂 a compulsion keeps sending me back to the story! Great post.

  7. Great post Mary! I’m glad I’m not the only one who writes because it’s escapism, and because the characters come to life, and because through them I am able to live me fantasies. Also there is something uniquely satisfying in writing that last page – whether or not it ever gets published, to have completed a finished novel is no mean achievement!

  8. Yes, it is addictive, and I get antsy if I’ve not been able to write for some time. But I can’t say that I would just keep writing one book after another if there wasn’t a market for it. This is why I publish myself. I no longer have the patience to wait for any external validation—other than that from readers. I’m grateful for the online publishing revolution, even if I’m late to the game. And with each book, I’m learning how to write so that the editing process isn’t so painful. I’ve tried quitting several times, but I’m hooked. And I’m glad this is something that I can do as long as I like…which I’m thinking will be for the rest of my life! Great post! Thank you!!

  9. Very good post! And I’m usually “plodding” when my focus is not on my writing but on some other (maybe tangible?) goal that may result instead of for the cheer joy of creating. Thanks for reminding me of that.

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