Why We Write

by James Scott Bell

Those of us who teach as well as write are always glad to hear that something we suggested helped a fellow scribe. I got an email the other day that I have to share. With the kind permission of the sender, here it is:

Dear Mr. Bell

I want to thank you. You helped me find something that I had no idea I had in me.

A few minutes ago, while reading your book “Plot & Structure”, I completed Exercise 1. As per your instruction, I wrote from the gut. [JSB: This is a free-form, just let-er-rip exercise, no judging or stopping, asking yourself what kind of writer you wan to be.]

The result surprised me deeply. I never knew that I could write something like that 15 minutes ago, and I never realized the kind of author I want to be.

As a thank you, I am including in this email the text I wrote. It is exactly the way I first wrote it, and I haven’t even read it myself yet:

“When readers read my novels, I want them to feel that they have just been on a journey to a new world, a different universe. I want them to feel amazed, I want them to feel like they have never read anything like that before in their lives, I want them to feel that if they want to experience this kind of suspense again, they have to read my stories. I want them to think about what they read the next day, the next year, I want the story they read to mean so much to them that they will be planning to show it to their unborn children one day. And most important of all, I want them to keep wanting more at the end.

That’s because, to me, novels are a way for me to share my soul. Novels are the sum of all that is important in life, the sum of all of the things that make us smile, laugh, cry, scream, terrified, look over our shoulders on a dark alley, everything that we hope one day happens to us. They are our hopes, our fears, our dreams and nightmares, what elevates us to heaven one day and crushes us back to the earth with the might of a thousand heavens the next. A good story is a communion, it is something that a billion people who have never met each other share, it is a way for everyone to look up to the sky, or deep inside themselves, and recognize the same truth as any person might one day realize, no matter how far apart in space or time those people might live. It is a timeless truth, it is the very fabric of our souls, it is how we recognize each other and how we recognize ourselves in others. It is what makes us, us.”

It might be terrible in the end, but it meant a lot to me.


JSB: That is anything but terrible. It can’t be, for there is no wrong answer so long as it has come from your deepest self. Indeed, this young man got precisely the best result because it surprised him. Self-discovery is a crucial step toward writing unforgettable fiction.

This writer has taken that step.

And so I ask you, TKZers: Why do you write?

27 thoughts on “Why We Write

  1. I first saw the movie _Tender Mercies_ thirty-some years ago and have never forgotten it.

    I just checked it out from the library and watched it twice, trying to analyse how it works. McKee (_Story_) praises it, so I wanted to see how it does the things he calls for in a story. It must be more subtle than I can grasp–a lot of scenes don’t have his “gap” as far as I can see, for example.

    Anyway, maybe the reason I write is that I hope to do something as wonderful as _Tender Mercies_.

    (Strange–for all the movies I’ve seen bits and pieces of over years of TV surfing, I don’t think I ever saw _Tender Mercies_ on TV.)

    With respect to our topic at Killzoneblog, McKee refers a lot to _Chinatown_. I don’t think I would every write, or maybe even want to watch, a movie like that.

  2. Jim, what a gift for you as a teacher to receive an articulate, insightful email like that from a student. Someday soon we’ll be reading stories by that young man.

    In an angry, disjointed, disconnected world, I write to forge a personal connection with readers, or, as your student eloquently phrased it, “a communion.”

    • Right on, Debbie. One of the big reasons people read is to escape the “angry, disjointed, disconnected world” for a few hours. When we give them that escape, it’s a noble deed.

  3. I’ve always enjoyed your writing craft books. I have a collection of them and have encouraged others to check them out. I published my first book last year and feel
    your books gave me my foundation to do so.
    “Why we write,” is the theme for our upcoming local conference.

  4. The Rodney King beating paradigm-shifted my brain and etched forever on my heart his question: Why can’t we all get along? I started writing to figure this out.

    By that time, 1992, I had lived in several equatorial cities. I was on a mission to help people get along, representing my country and the best qualities of our democracy, helping countries see that if you empower your women, you can raise everyone out of poverty. Yet, during home leave in the U.S., I too often found these American ideals—like the goal to empower everyone—absent. Was my whole career a hypocrisy?

    Writing was my search to understand. Thus far, my villains turn out to be selfishness, entitlement, an incapacity for empathy, an inferiority complex, narcissism, and/or a vindictiveness caused by any of these. They show up in dictators, family members, or ex-lovers. And they show up on every continent. I’ve compiled several villains, and thus far the why always goes back to up-bringing, to nurture and nature.

    “The universe is full of mystery,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    And so I write.

    • Nancy, many a writer has had a change of heart/course after a shattering experience, e.g., WWII for Mailer, James Jones, Herman Wouk.

      Writing in order to understand is a good motive.

  5. Wow, I think that young man may also be on the way to finding his author voice, as well.

    I write as a creative release, a recharging of the battery. After my day job drains me with nose-to-the-grindstone attention and squirrel-on-a squirrel-cage hustle, there is nothing as refreshing as a creative endeavor. And writing is the ultimate creative pursuit – making everything out of nothing but ideas and words.

    I also write to leave a legacy. I hope that someday my grandchildren and descendants will read my stories and learn a little bit about me and a whole lot about some of life’s lessons.

    I would echo Sherri’s praise for your writing craft books. I have them all, dog-eared and highlighted, one even autographed. I have read and reread them. And I am particularly encouraged by your first chapter of “Plot and Structure,”
    Putting the Big Lie to Sleep, the premise that we CAN learn to write. That’s why I keep studying the craft books. That’s why I visit here each Sunday.

    Thanks for your teaching!

  6. I began my path to write from the moment I became an avid reader, eager to he carried away with stories. I am still in awe of how much the written word can transform & trigger different realities/reactions in people, enough for readers to suspend disbelief. Storytelling is nothing short of magic.

    I strive to become better with every story. I try new craft things & love to push the envelope of my comfort zone.

    When I was in Chicago in the mid 90s, I attended a Matisse exhibit at a museum. A self-paced audio tour. I gazed up at countless masterpieces of the artist as he strived for perfection he probably believed that he never achieved. Dozens of haystacks at different times of day as he studied the play of light. Or the many water lillies floating on still water at dusk or dawn. It made me cry to think of him never being satisfied until I realized the truth years later as a writer. The journey IS the joy.

  7. What a wonderful letter! I love the passion there for writing and storytelling, and the insight.

    Definitely gets me thinking about why I write. I write to create a “damn good story” that will grab the reader by the collar and not let go until it’s finished with a big emotional pay off. Just the sort of thing I seek when I read fiction. Still working on hitting that mark, so this will continue to be my goal of a lifetime.

  8. I have quit writing a hundred times and failed each time. I’m an old guy now. I’ve lost the confidence to believe that I can change the world, but maybe one person will read one of my stories, close the book, and smile. I will never know that person, but he will know something of me. Maybe that’s why I write.

  9. I write because I can’t not write. I’ve struggled with this for years, and can’t for the life of me come up with an altruistic answer like everyone else’s. I write because if I don’t, my brain becomes crowded and confused. I write to escape this world, to escape my reality, because driving my pain into characcters makes it easier to bear. I write because I want to feel I belong, and there’s hardly a place in this world where I do.

    Wow, I surprised myself there. It’s still not altruistic, but it’s the damn truth.

  10. A bit late to the party, but I am finally on vacation!!!!!!! Wahoo!

    My normal life is a full time day job and performing on stage in several shows per year. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing except for times like now (and between 2 and 4 am when I’m working and not using that time to run lines).

    Why do I do it?

    I was given a talent and I should use it. I believe one day my Creator will ask “What did you do with what I gave you?” I hope my answer will be “All I could.” I’m not there yet, but it’s not in me to give up.

  11. I too have poured through your books and done virtually every exercise you have suggested and it has been a great help.

    I find myself writing horror/humor without even trying. I will get an idea for a story and the jokes are always there. I can’t help it and al my story ideas are usually something to do with monsters or the supernatural.

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