For What or Whom Do We Write?

800px-At_White_Sulphur_SpringsYes I know; the phrase we writers so often ponder isn’t quite the one of this blog post’s title. The preposition we expect is ‘for’, not ‘of’, but that’s the whole point of this post. Yet again on second thought, ‘for whom do we write?’ is also appropriate to the question at hand.

The answer, ‘we write for ourselves’ is one authors have proudly proclaimed for a long time, released when they finally understand there should be no other goal than their own satisfaction behind the compulsion to spend so many long hours alone, working harder than they’ve ever worked in their lives at something nobody in the world may ever see. And yet that’s not truly what the title of this post addresses, because it was only very recently, when my busy schedule squeezed my writing time to reduce my work to a pathetic trickle,  that I finally realized the characters of my unfinished novel had been waiting quietly, patiently, respectfully, for me to come back to them when I could. They hadn’t drifted away, miffed by my inattention as many old friends would be, or shut themselves down completely so I couldn’t see into their souls anymore. I wouldn’t blame them if they had, but each time I steal a few hours to reach out for them, I find them willing and able to come close again. I haven’t lost them at all, thanks to the unusual structure of the creative process.

So there I am at last, sitting ‘alone’ at my desk with the grown-up versions of the characters who populated my first historical novel as children, and their narratives pick up right where they left off sometimes months earlier, forcing me to acknowledge a very surprising truth: It isn’t the narratives themselves that propel these characters but the other way around. The characters come alive in my head first and are always more important than their stories. That’s why I can’t lose the thread that holds them to me and to each other. I’m writing because I owe it to these fictitious people to bring them to life, not because a story needs to be told, so the characters are invented in order to write it. Does this seem like semantics? Not so; or if so, then only in that the logic of the patient existence of those specters waiting for me to bring them forward informs all the writing I do. I owe those people in my head a voice and heart to go with their images. Then they’ll tell their stories in their own words and I’ll learn them in the same way the reader does; by getting to know the characters better.

So, as I return ever-so-slowly to the sequel developed from my first historical novel, I finally understand why I had to write The Gilded Cage right after Certain Liberties: The stories in the latter were finished, but the characters weren’t. The truth I’ve discovered, that it’s of them that I write, has been enormously freeing for me. NO more guilt about leaving them alone for so long when I’m busy, and NO more fear about losing the momentum of their story when I have to put them aside for a while. I took Stephen King’s panic about that way too personally when I read his book on writing. Let him agonize over the loss of momentum. It’s not my problem.

I’m in no way putting down the efforts of writers who live to tell stories first and foremost. We’re all independent artists who can and do create our own realities on the page, thank heaven for our readers. But I feel particularly blessed to have my characters waiting for me no matter where I go, and to understand that they come to me first to ask for their voices while their stories follow behind. I write for them—Emily and Cory, Klaas, William, Robert and Connie, to say nothing of the southern belle Marcella Bond and her aunt, Mrs. Stovall; but more of them when I get back to The Gilded Cage and the intriguing people who wait for me there. They’re waiting for you, too.



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