Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nevets on Writerly Compulsion

C.N. Nevets, author of "Death, Be not Me" and "The Best Medicine" in Genre Wars, considers blogger February Grace's announcement that she's retiring from what she calls the "compulsion" of writing. Excerpts:
I cannot even begin to count the number of authors I have met in person or in the blogosphere who describe writing as some sort of compulsion. They write because they have to. They write because the stories demand it. They write at the mercy of their characters. If this is you, please don't take offense, but I'm always a little concerned when I hear or read something like this from a writer.

It sounds an awful lot like an unhealthy relationship that for some reason we have just come to accept in our "writerly culture."

As an author, put those words into a character's mouth and see what you think.

"I love him because I have to."

"I love her because her beauty demands it."

"I am a mother at the mercy of her children."

I don't say this to belittle anyone, just to encourage you to think about why you do what you do. Do you write because you love it? Do you write because it's your job?
Read the whole thing. At times I have felt envious of authors who say that they merely take dictation from their characters, serving as obedient scribes to fully formed, fictional beings floating somewhere in the imagination's ether. That's never happened to me. I've always had to build characters and plots and settings piecemeal, painstakingly assembling each molecule of dust and trying to breathe life into it. Often, the entire process is a wash, and I find myself wishing I had a voice issuing commands to my mind's ear. But Nevets perceptively notes that in almost any other situation we would recognize an activity done under mental duress as an illness. And while some writers (such as perhaps James Ellroy) are truly under the sway of such impulses, most us aren't -- nor should we be. We needn't chain ourselves to the craft in which we delight, nor think such a state is desirable. In the end, it isn't our master.

(Picture: CC 2006 by


C. N. Nevets said...

I'm glad this post engaged you, Loren.

At the risk of sounding cold, in addition to the mental and emotional health aspects, I do think it's an important part of a writer's professional development to come to grips with the fact that he or she is in charge, not the fiction. I blogged about that aspect once before. I'm not sure I said it well, but at least I said it bluntly. lol

Jim Murdoch said...

I define a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. That’s not natural. The natural response to life is to live it. Writing is like scratching a spot. It makes you feel better but it doesn’t cure anything. Long ago I accepted that I was a bit broken but I’m a bit broken in a good way like the robot whose faulty wiring or programming enables him to create great art and whose owner won’t have him fixed. Much of modern life is unnatural so I don’t worry about it.

Deka Black said...

me.... i simply enjoy writing. that's all.

Scattercat said...

There is a compulsion to it. There'd have to be; part of the very fabric of our conscious identity is the story of ourselves living our lives that we tell to ourselves.

All I know is that if I go long enough without getting some proper writing done, I get really cranky and irritable and depressed.

Loren Eaton said...


Yup, I'm with you there. We may not create as well as, say, the Almighty, but our characters aren't the ones putting in hours over the notepad. We are.

Loren Eaton said...


I define a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. That’s not natural.

You're right, it's not natural. But it's still something you're doing out of desire. If you (or me) developed an unconsciously agitated mental state when not writing, that could be cause for concern.

Loren Eaton said...


I'm with you there.

Loren Eaton said...


There is a compulsion to it. There'd have to be; part of the very fabric of our conscious identity is the story of ourselves living our lives that we tell to ourselves.

Agreed; life does have something of a narrative shape to it. And I get irritated when I haven't written for a while, too. But I know that it's because I have something I want to accomplish, not because I have a twitchy compulsion that otherwise won't let me rest.

C. N. Nevets said...

Same for me, Loren. I can get restless when I'm not writing, but it's because I'm not pursuing my dream or following my vocation and *that* gets on my nerves.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I still think the most poignant statement of the art-versus-reality debate is Tolkien's short story, "Leaf by Niggle." I literally can't think of a better portrait of the author's obsession, the guilt over "wasting" time and resources on something impractical, the hope for significance, and the awe when one can produce something that feels genuinely beautiful.

But if I don't have anything sublime to say, there is the practical consideration. A love for a story is different from a love for a person. One has to love people for what they are, not for what you can make them. "I love my wife because only I can make her beautiful" is a line from a horror story. "I love this story because it is beautiful and only I can tell it" is a statement of confidence that the author can produce something worth publishing.

Loren Eaton said...


My lack of writerly productivity over the past year has been a source of great frustration. But I've forced myself at times to take a break and have found it to be a largely positive and refreshing experience.

Loren Eaton said...


I really need to read "Leaf." Isn't it interesting that Tolkein's only allegorical work was the one he wrote about writing itself?

Tony said...

I feel some of the same feelings mentioned above, but I'd say that my only real compulsion is that I can't stop thinking about what I'm doing until I'm done with it. The story may become more or less complex as I filter it though my mind, but ultimately until it's written down it's amorphous or ethereal (and in that way, insubstantial).

Loren Eaton said...

That sounds to me like a pretty healthy compulsion, Tony. Nothing wrong with mulling over something that interests you. Forgetting to bathe or eat while writing, well, that's something else entirely.