As a writer and reader of mysteries, it’s always the why that intrigues me. So many things humans do – including murdering each other, in many cases – defies common sense. The urge to write seems equally illogical.
Why do you write? I’ve been asked this repeatedly. My answers change every time. All my reasons feel incomplete.
How I write is fairly straightforward. I spend a lot of time alone in front of a screen. An idea blows in like a seed, takes root, and grows. These seeds come from things that trouble me – news stories, niggling worries, moments that tear at my heart. Watching the story unfold is the fun part. Unfortunately, a lot of weeding and pruning are involved. It’s a long, slow process with uncertain rewards.
I could claim to read and write mystery fiction to better understand the world and myself, and to feel connected to other humans, both dead and alive. This is true. Yet there’s more.
I write to keep my mind busy – and out of other trouble, or as Zadie Smith said: “Writing is my way of expressing – and thereby eliminating – all the various ways we can be wrong-headed.”
I write to examine my hopes and face my fears. I write because it’s fun, at least some of the time…
Some days, the act of writing feels like a magic power. Other days it’s more of a curse. I’m not sure it’s wise to choose writing as a career. Unless you’re one of the rare, lucky few, the per-hour pay’s a joke. It brings rejection, disappointment, and criticism. Surely, there are better ways to fill your time than staring at a screen, alone, making stuff up?
Strangely, it seems I can’t think of any – or at least not for long. Something always pulls me back into a story.
I’d wager a lot of fiction writers had lonely childhoods, or felt they didn’t fit in. My family moved around a lot. I was the “new kid” time and again. As an only child, pre-internet, I had to entertain myself. Luckily, our house was jam-packed with books. I read a lot and daydreamed. Stories grow from daydreams.
Since I can’t fully explain what compels me to write, I’ve turned to other, better writers, to see what inspired them to put words on a page.
George Orwell, who loved lists, gave a bunch of reasons, including: “To be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups in childhood, etc.”
Hmmm. The first two points seem over-ambitious and egotistical. I don’t care how I’m remembered post-death by those who don’t know me.
William Faulkner also wrote with an eye toward Posterity, or as he put it: “To leave a scratch on the wall”. Interestingly, I’ve found no women writers expressing this motivation. Perhaps they don’t wish to sound pompous? Or they’re simply too busy trying to make sense of this world to give much thought to Posterity?
Joan Didion said: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking…” while Isabelle Allende expressed a more altruistic desire to “write what should not be forgotten.”
George Orwell’s revenge as a motive to write seems interesting. Perhaps you’ve seen those t-shirts that say: “Careful or you’ll end up in my novel”? I’m guessing most writers who pen nasty characters have drawn on someone who ticked them off somewhere down the line. I’m not actually motivated by revenge (people I dislike rarely read!) but by a desire to understand why horrible people are horrible. Mean people are damaged, which makes them fascinating. This is why I read and write crime novels.
In Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, Bell Hooks explained the desire to write like this: “We may want our work to be recognized, but that is not the reason we write. We do not write because we must; we always have a choice. We write because language is the way we keep a hold on life. With words we experience our deepest understandings of what it means to be intimate. We communicate to connect, to know community.”
Unlike Bell Hooks, many writers talk about needing to write, like Jennifer Egan, who said: “If I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing. If I go a long time, it becomes worse. I become depressed. There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur. Kurt Vonnegut described writing as “therapy”, stating that writers “discover that they are treating their own neuroses”.
We all know the stereotype of the tortured artist, drawing on trauma to create art. Certainly, fiction writers need empathy, which we tend to learn through hard knocks. Anne Rice, who lost both her mother and daughter young, advised writers to: “Go where the pain is, go where the pleasure is”.
I read and write mysteries because their solutions bring me a sense of relief and renew my faith (however misguided) in an orderly universe.
Many other writers have mentioned this plus, including Gloria E. Anzaldúa, who said: “The world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it”. Anais Nin said: “One writes because one has to create a world in which one can live”.
Let’s leave the last word to the late, great mystery writer Sue Grafton: “I write because in 1962 I put in my application for a job working in the children’s department at Sears, and they never called me back.”
She was onto something. By the time you’ve learned to write half-way decently, you’re probably unqualifed to do much else.
Elka Ray is the Canadian author of The Toby Wong Novels. Born in the UK and raised in Canada, Elka divides her time between Central Vietnam and Canada’s Vancouver Island and sets her fiction in both locales, to include Saigon Dark, Hanoi Jane, a short-story collection, What You Don’t Know: Ten Tales of Obsession, Mystery & Murder in Southeast Asia and a series of children’s picture books published in Vietnam.
Elka is also a freelance editor for Heritage, Vietnam Airlines’ inflight magazine, based in Hanoi, Vietnam; a designer and editor for MaiGuppy, a producer of picture books, greeting cards, and souvenirs in Hanoi; and a freelance writer and copywriter, whose clients include Vietnam Tourism Administration and the Four Seasons Resort.
When she’s not writing, drawing or reading, Elka is in the ocean.
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A wealthy socialite goes missing… a battered body is found in her abandoned cabin…
At the center of it all lies the witty and down-to-earth divorce lawyer, Toby Wong. How did she manage to get wrapped up in all of this…again?
All Toby wanted was to settle into island life and start working on her own love story—torn between the wealthy and charismatic Josh Barton, and the adorable and dependable detective Colin Destin.
But Toby’s romantic prospects take the back burner when her mom’s best friend, Daphne Dane, disappears. Toby soon discovers that Daphne’s latest boyfriend is both an alleged conman and the cheating husband of her newest client. Could he be behind Daphne’s disappearance? What about Daphne’s children, vying for their aging mother’s money?
When a dead body is uncovered that entwines both Colin and Josh with the Dane family drama, Toby begins to realize her own life may be in danger.
Equal parts cozy mystery and romantic suspense, the second novel in Elka Ray’s Vancouver Island mystery series will keep you up late with a twisty tale of rivalry, love, money, and murder.
Category: On Writing