The difference between a reader and a writer is significant.
As a reader, I never question why the author penned the novel I’m enjoying. I never wondered why J.K. Rowling told the tale of Harry James Potter. I just enjoyed it.
But as a writer, I’m plagued with the matter of Why.
Why spend so many hours sequestered from my family, hovering over a computer?
Why pursue this arty passion that rewards so few?
Why slave over the same pages, month after month, to get them “right?”
I think the answer lies in the nature of why we do anything at all.
The Story in Our Souls
Writing is like any other hobby. Most hobbies follow some kind of story in which the participant is the protagonist.
Golfers embark on a quest through and against nature, much like romantic heroes.
Video games put the gamer in the middle of the action as a marine, wizard, or NFL superstar.
And artists create their own adventures, whether they’re adventures of paint on canvas, clay in the hands, or words in the mouth of a story-teller.
But stories are the dominant, uniting theme in everything we do.
Stories are in our souls.
So why write?
It’s a fundamental expression of who I am. It is the answer to a deep and painful question that I wrestle to answer everyday.
I write because I am.
But Why Stories?
This still raises a question, though. Telling stories isn’t telling enough – it serves a greater purpose that is central to being human.
After all, wolves don’t gather at night and howl epic poems to one another. Squirrels don’t recite war stories over the nuts they’ve won and lost.
Stories are the ghostly doppelganger of humanity. We created them (or were given them by our Creator), and we are their custodians. We share an ancient birthday that is older than cave paintings and holy texts. We are twins, one born of flesh, the other of spirit.
And while we continually create them, stories in return define us and shape us in a cyclical fashion, just as the rain falls and evaporates, and the seasons return to bloom every summer. Stories define the change that is central to human existence.
And the definitive element of a story, no matter if it’s comic or tragic, is Suffering.
Take the earliest story known to man: The Garden of Eden.
Within a matter of minutes, the beautiful serenity of Eden is penetrated by the Serpent, Evil, and tremendous suffering ensues. It is a story that attempts to explain why things are what they are. Humanity and its pain are the question; Genesis is the attempted answer.
Even silly comedies, wrought in warping and bending animation, tell the tale of human suffering and triumph. Note how children’s cartoons are filled with exaggerated pain and trauma. How many concussions can one wild coyote suffer at the hands of a single roadrunner!
So stories seek to answer the question: Why do we suffer?
And this is why we will never run out of stories.
There will never be a single, definitive answer to that question. Suffering, and its many expressions, is nearly limitless.
And so much be our attempts at explaining it.
The Power of Pain
So why do I write?
Again, the desire to read is an easily explained phenomenon. I want escape; I want thrills; I want answers from others; I want peace.
And in ways, the desire to read is akin to the need to write. The proliferation of nonfiction “self-help” literature reveals the swelling demand for such answers.
But that literature must first be written, and it is written by men and women with an insatiable hunger to find an answer to the suffering in their lives, or the lives of loved ones.
There is no greater impetus to write than pain.
So why do I write?
I think of the spark that lit my fire to bear down and crank out a novel.
In the summer of 2013, I lost my job. For the first time in my life I had “failed” at something huge, something that could jeopardize the well-being of my wife and daughter, something that could possibly taint my reputation for years to come. I had never felt worse.
And somehow, I wrote 100,000 words in the next 6 months.
But the drive to create cannot come merely from personal, private pain. This alone will not seek a deep enough answer to the question of humanity, the question of suffering.
When I wrote my short story “Give Him the Gospel,” I had just finished Devil in the Grove and was beginning The Warmth of Other Suns, two books about racial injustice in the American South. For over a month, I immersed myself in the mistreatment of these books’ characters. They were cheated, beaten, hunted, exiled, and some even murdered. And I firmly believe that our current national climate is a direct result of these injustices.
To find answers to our deepest question, we must openly explore and experience the pain of others, not just ourselves.
As a writer, personal pain is incredibly relevant – it is, however, incredibly limited. It is best utilized to empathize with the pain of others that we can never intimately know. It is the reservoir we tap into, so that our stories achieve some level of truth.
So again, why write?
In a word: Injustice
I’ve certainly been the recipient of some injustice. We all have.
But there are so many others with so many stories to be told, who’ve experienced unfathomable pain, yet exhibited inexplicable courage. These humans and their stories give us hope. They provide answers to the Question of Suffering.
So again, why write?
Because I need answers, you need answers, we all need answers to the pain and injustice all around us.
Because we ache for change.
Because stories are human, and we want to be the best humans we can.
And, perhaps most simply, I write because I need hope.
This world makes it hard to hope. But we have to. It gets us through the pain. It moves us toward the injustice.
Hope makes us human.
I write so that you will have hope. I write so that you might find answers to the question of suffering and in your life and the lives of those you love most.
I write so we can be human again, if only for a few chapters.
Image Credit: Alexander Affleck, Creative Commons