Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why I Write (A Guest-Blog-Post)

Nate is a programmer (computer scientist?) working for Microsoft in Seattle and a long-time friend of mine. I've never known him to write very much, though he is a very clever, smart and creative person, so I was delightfully surprised to find out he was participating in Nanowrimo with me this year. We're both continuing to work on fantasy novels and continuing to write as much as we can be motivated to do so. I suggested a guest blogpost to spice things up a bit, and this is what he sent me. It is really quite good. Enjoy. 

Hello, readers! It's time for a guest post. I'm Nate, the one who beat (trounced, even!) Ben in the February word writing race.

That story goes like this: We were neck and neck for the majority of the race. Due to unforeseen circumstances I couldn't participate in the last two days. On the final weekend I resolved to stock up on food, lock my doors, turn off my phone, disconnect the internet, and build up as much of a lead as possible before going dark. I managed to write 10,000 words. Ben was unable to catch up. The rest, as they say, is "Ben owes me a steak dinner."

But enough gloating. Today we will discuss the question of "why do you write?"

The flippant answer is "I write all the time. Most of it is computer code." I'm a computer scientist, you see, and I've been programming since roughly forever. You might think that I write as a creative outlet in response to my soul-crushingly corporate job where I sit in a chair and mash keyboards all day.

I'd like to dispel that notion on two grounds.

Firstly, "real" writing entails sitting in a chair and mashing a keyboard. Secondly, programming is my creative outlet. Or, at least, it has been for ages.

People who aren't familiar with programing (or mathematics, or other analytical fields) often think they aren't creative. Pop culture says that "math nerds" are "left brain", "analytical" people, while "creative", "right-brain" folks are the artsy type. That's the second notion I'd like to dispel. (It's wrong, by the way.)

Programming computers is like painting. At work, I paint houses. I apply white paint on the cold walls of an enormous corporate concrete jungle. At home, I paint landscapes, including intricate sunsets that follow my whim and fancy. Code, like paint, is a medium, and code, like paint, can span the entire spectrum from droll to artistic. Programming is no more (or less) creative than painting.

That said, my code is motivated by utility. I write code first and foremost for the sake of tools. After making something functional I spend a lot of time making it general, making it easy to use, documenting it, making it efficient, making it pretty, et cetera. All together, I spend far more time making cool tools than I save by using them. That's what I mean when I say that programming is my creative outlet: I'm driven by the need for tools, but I keep coding long after the tools are done. In that sense, I code for the sake of code. Because it's fun. Because I love finding elegant solutions to hard problems.

Perfecting and generalizing tools is my preferred form of escapism. Some people play video games. I write code.

My second favorite form of escapism is reading books.

Which brings us back to writing.

Why do I write? I already have a creative outlet, a (useful, lucrative) form of escapism. So why write?

I'm not really sure. I think that there are a lot of motivating factors.

I can remember the day that I first decided to (or, rather, realized that I could) write a fantasy story. I was fourteen years old. I found a story online, a webcomic told through pictures of legos with captions. It told a story about dragons. The lego dragons in it were really cool. I eventually learned that it was created by a fellow fourteen year old.

It was at that moment that I realized that I didn't just have to read stories, I could also tell my own. I always had ideas kicking around, but it wasn't until then that I thought maybe I should share them.

I wondered. "If I were to tell a story, what story would I tell?"

Eight years later, I'm finally beginning to find out.

But _why_ do I write? Just because I can? Just because I'm curious? There's more to it than that.

To me, deep down, stories are essential. Stories are intrinsic. Making  stories with friends, hearing the stories of others, telling stories to family: I cant express quite what it is, but it's something like this. Life is all about the experience. In fact, life is the experience. It is no more, it is no less. Stories are a means of conveying experience.

They're something fundamental.

But it's more than that, too.

Writing is a direct window to the soul. Everything that I put into a character I must first find in myself. As a reader, you may simply think that I'm writing a good villain. You may be able to empathize with my character's unease. You may feel my character's fears. When you're reading my story, to you, none of that reflects on me. I'm just writing characters.

But to me, it's all intensely personal. I can't write a villain without finding the villain within. I can't write fears without exposing my own. Writing is, in essence, a confession: if not to my readers, then to myself.

And there is still more to it.

Writing is a clarifying process. In writing my ideas, they cease to be ideas and become a story. There's an vast ocean of difference between the two. The ideas in my head are vast and broad. They contain a multitude. They are a nebulous cloud of powerful moments and compelling characters. When I write the ideas, they become a story. One single story. One path through that nebulous cloud. The story becomes at once less, in that I can never express all the emotions in my head, and more, in that the story becomes real.

The ideas in my head aren't fleshed out. The details aren't there. Sometimes when I'm writing I find that my ideas are insufficient, contradictory, or unbelievable. The ideas are forced to change.

Yet they also grow considerably in the telling. Characters constantly outgrow the ideas that spawned them. Whole new worlds become available where details and ideas intersect.

We're getting closer to the reason that I write.

To you, the reader, writing is about the finished product. It's about the story you read, about the characters and the interactions and the emotions that the story makes you feel.

To me, it's about something else entirely. It's a means of expression. It's a process of discovery. Intense discovery, given that it's a confession through and through. It's about the difference between the story and the idea. It's about all the things that it could have been but wasn't. It's about all the things that fall to the wayside as I'm writing, and it's about all the things that spring up and surprise me along the way. It's about what my ideas became.

It's about the journey. It's about the experience.

Why do I write? Because I can. Because I've always wondered what story would come out. Because I grow whenever I look into myself. Because there's no feeling like seeing my ideas come to fruition, like seeing my story come together, like writing a moment that is just as powerful and emotional as I always imagined it.

I can't say exactly why I started writing. I can't pinpoint one specific reason. But I can tell you this: I like it, and I'm not going to stop.


  1. If you ask me, people are comparable to the physics of instrumental sound, i.e. each instrument makes its own unique sound due to the mix of various harmonics over one another. You can't just code because that would be like a saxophone ONLY playing the 5th harmonic, rather than the 5th simply being the base of its timbre.

    In other words, we are all artists, writers, painters, and even coders to a certain extent of capacity, and its amalgamated form gives us each that unique perspective.

    1. An interesting way of putting it, but I agree.