Writing to Save Your Life

by James Scott Bell

We had a good discussion recently about writer obituaries, and what you might want yours to say. Several comments talked about writing for other than professional reasons. I liked what BK Jackson offered:

Above all, writing is my enjoyable escape and I want it to stay that way, regardless of volume. When I’m old, I want to be as excited about writing as I was in first or second grade when I was taught how to write my first sentence and that huge lightbulb went off in my head as I began to think about the power I would have of stringing sentences together to form stories.

Sure, most writers write in the hopes of bringing in some dough. They believe, as I do, that if you love your job you won’t work a day in your life.

Of course, by work I don’t mean the effort and toil that is required for success at anything. I mean in that colloquial sense of hating what you do. (Drew Carey: “Hate your job? There’s a group for that. It’s called everybody, and we meet at the bar.”)

I have a good friend who worked 20 years for a company where every day was a slog, and the culture chaotic. Being classically educated, he had his license plate changed to SISYPHS, a contraction of the mythological figure doomed for eternity to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll to the bottom again.

Not so with writers who work for love and loot.

But that’s not the only reason to write, as BK noted. Indeed, there may be a reason even more important: to save us from a nasty, brutish, and dismal existence.

We all know our culture right now is a roiling sea of hate, anger, vitriol, scorn, and mendacity—and that’s just on Twitter.

So it is a noble task, in my view, for writers to provide a few hours of entertaining escapism. Indeed, the best thrillers and mysteries offer readers a form of “fear management.” They extend the hope that things like justice and love are still possible in a dark world. Time spent in a book like that is infinitely superior to hours ranting on social media, kicking the dog, or opening a new bottle of Beam.

But the act of writing itself, for yourself, is also balm for the spirit. We all know what it’s like to write in “flow,” to get lost in a world we create and the lives of characters who begin to live and breathe on the page. We know the feeling—rare though it may be—of sitting back and thinking, “Wow, that’s a great line” or “This scene really cooks.”

When a writer experiences the joy of creation, it’s good for the spleen.

Ishmael, when he felt a “drizzly November in my soul” and the desire to go around “knocking people’s hats off,” went to sea.

Writers go to the keyboard.

Maybe you don’t have a contract with a publisher, or a huge footprint in the digital space. Write anyway. Write because it’s good for you. Write novels, short stories, flash fiction. Write essays and poetry. Write whatever strikes your fancy. Then show this work to the people you love. Share it with friends. Write for your kids and grandkids (see Hooley, Steve). Write because for a few hours every day you can escape a drizzly November of the soul.

Commenter Barry Knister put it this way recently:

I am grateful for the unignorable impulse to write. Most people never have this impulse. If they write at all, it’s forced on them by the demands of work. When I stop to think of how much writing has meant to me, what life would be like without having long ago tested positive for the writing virus, I am hugely thankful for the disease.

A lawyer named George Bernau, in the hospital after a near-fatal car accident, had a revelation. “I decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life.”

So he wrote a novel, Promises to Keep, an alternative history of the JFK assassination. It got a $750,000 advance from Warner Books, a record at the time for a debut novel.

That’s not going to happen for the overwhelming majority writers, of course, especially in these risk-averse economic times.

But you can still write if that’s what you want out of your life.

Is it?

41 thoughts on “Writing to Save Your Life

  1. I often wonder what people who don’t write do with Life. Where do they work out the inevitable crashes, the disappointments, the failures? More importantly, where do they record their joy?

    There is nothing like reaching a point in a scene where you need to have something happen, and reaching into your mind for a similar emotional journey, so that when you write the character, it comes from reality – and it makes a reader experience real emotion because you show/tell it so well.

    Actors do it implicitly, but unless there’s a voiceover, there is no direct imprint of the process or its results. You can guess – from the action or the dialogue – what was going on in the character’s head. You can watch the actor’s face, and try to make your experience of how you would get the same ‘look’ express what the character is thinking.

    But ask a writer how they were able to express a character’s loss – and be prepared to listen for a while. And you will never read the book quite the same way again. If you can’t ask the author, then read their words carefully: it’s in there, in full glory. And writing it helps the author deal with that grief, because troubles shared are halved, and we share with a lot of people when we write.

    It’s a powerful way to participate in being human. I don’t have to wonder about Charlotte Brontë’s experiences and observations as a governess – she told us. And entertained us with it, to boot.

    • “I often wonder what people who don’t write do with Life.”

      Many watch sports, letting professionals express their aspirations and frustrations for them. I call it second-hand living.

      • Writing is more malleable – I get to decide what happens, not random chance (which is what I call a 100 to 101 point loss in basketball – not skill). Not a sports fan. It might be cathartic to watch a fit professional kick a ball past the goalie – and provide a dose of adrenaline – but it’s someone else’s life.

        Many are the fans, few are the performers.

    • and it makes a reader experience real emotion

      That’s the magic part, isn’t it? That we can actually do that. Well said. It is indeed “a powerful way to participate in being human.”

  2. I love this.

    The world is not so bad if you hang around the right people. Screenwriting Twitter is full of delightful people sharing what they know and helping each other out.

    Morning pages keep me writing even if I’m not able to work on other stuff and keep me sane as a bonus.

    I’m not limiting myself any more. I don’t care what other people do or what other people think my chances are. I think they’re pretty darned good if I tell a great tale that people want to hear and throw it out there so they can find it.

    Happy writing, y’all!

    • I love morning pages, too, Cynthia. It’s good for the creative muscle. It’s a roller coaster ride to unknown destinations, where you’ll often find story material, but even if not, you loved the ride itself.

  3. There are always new challenges to writing and it keeps things interesting. In the midst of writing my first mystery with a friend, I am amazed anew at the gyrations we go through to write a story. I’ve been all over the map with my writing approach through the years. I’ve plotted a book out then written it. I’ve gone by the seat of my pants to write a book. Neither method seemed like the perfect solution. This time, we wrote the beginning and the end and are now writing the middle. LOL!!!!!!

    Sometimes I wonder if I would have been a more strategic writer if I’d learned to play chess. 😎

    But my friend and I both commented this weekend as we met together how grateful we are for writing to help us escape from the constant bombardment of news, etc.

    Last but not least–re: that rolling the boulder up the hill work thing–I’ve been in the work force for 38 years. Of that 38 years, it took until SIX years ago to get a job that offered enough variety to keep from driving me nuts. That’s only 15% of my work life. If I hadn’t had writing during all that time as an outlet, I’d probably be in the funny farm right now.

    So this Thanksgiving weekend I’m definitely grateful for the outlet of creative writing.

  4. “…Write whatever strikes your fancy. Then show this work to the people you love. Share it with friends. Write for your kids and grandkids…”

    I did just that over the long weekend, inspired (?) by the internal rhyme of a chore I was doing to help the Bride prep for Thanksgiving dinner:

    “Shucking corn in the morning…”

    Those five words stuck with and “worried” me all day and led to a song (yet unscored), about one absent from the family feasting for whatever reason… which I whittled and polished and then sent to the far flung folks with whom I haven’t been able to gather for a number of reasons… with the desired results.

    Similarly, I’ve written two, and am working on two more, Seuss-rhyming kids’ books for my boys, and now theirs…

    Sometimes it seems so “easy” that I wonder if they value my scribbling, but when I find a copy (or the original), tucked in an album or folded into a book I have my answer… but even so, I continue to carry pen and paper with me nearly everywhere I go, and turn phrases over and over in the hopes of finding just the right way to bring a smile or a tear or an “aha” to someone, even if it’s just me…

    (And if I may, and if you’d like, I’d be honored to share those lyrics with you… just send me an e-mail at tunesmiff@gmail.com, with the subject line “PIE” ~ I promise not to share or abuse your kindness…)

    • Seuss-rhyming kids’ books for my boys, and now theirs…

      I write such things, too, from time to time. It’s a heckuva lot of fun!

      And good old pen and paper. Old school still works!

  5. Absolutely, it is.

    When my husband left for work this morning, he said, “Have fun in your newly heated office today.” (we just installed a new heater yesterday)
    My response: “Thanks, but only my physical body will be there. I’ll be far, far away in my fictional world.”

    That sums up the magic of writing for me. No matter what else happens in the world around us, writers have the ultimate escape.

  6. Thanks for the shout out, Jim

    Yes, I want to write for my grandchildren, but I also want to write for the reward of creating something. Creativity has been the common thread of my life’s avocations, from “early marriage” furniture repair (free on the curb), to landscape architecture, to “real” woodworking, to house design, to woodturning, to writing fiction. And writing fiction is the pinnacle, because you can create anything out of nothing but your imagination and words on the page. And when published, it will probably never rot, die, or fall apart – as long as civilization survives. And now, it’s no longer an avocation, but my vocation.

    • And writing fiction is the pinnacle, because you can create anything out of nothing but your imagination and words on the page.

      That’s it. And even without the words…I am often creating a “movie in my head,” letting the characters improvise while I shuffle the scenery around…or bring in a guy with a gun.

    • Steve, you touched on another reason I need writing. I have a lot of creative interests. Like you, I’d love to do wood work, leather work, paint, draw, etc. But of all those creative outlets, writing is the cheapest one to pursue plus you don’t really have to do any ‘set up’ and ‘take down’ time as you would in your wood shop, at your easel, etc.

      So writing is the cheapest and easiest way to fulfill the inner creative. (yes, I know, editing, marketing etc cost us but I’m thinking from the writing for enjoyment standpoint).

  7. I was on a bad situation when these people came to live in my head. I think it was God’s way of saving my sanity. I could escape into this world I created and find justice for my characters. I’m still doing it even as my circumstance have greatly improved.

  8. I posted on Facebook the other day that “you know you’re a mystery writer if you wake thinking about murder.” Well, I wake up each morning thinking about my writing. That gets on the path to my daily words.

    As you wrote, “[Y]ou can still write if that’s what you want out of life.” That’s very much what I want out of life. I have a lot of interests and several hobbies, but writing comes first. Being able to “pretend” on the page is where it began. But now, for me, it’s about that “noble experience” of “saving us from a nasty, brutish experience” as you wrote.

    I believe in the essential goodness of people. I saw it first hand all those years working with the public. All it takes is “few bad apples” as one of my junior high vice principals used to tell us, to ruin it for the rest of us. So it’s my role as a writer to show goodness winning out, to show justice, to show order restored in the little fictional world I’ve created. And to have as much fun in the process as possible, even as I toil in the word mines of what is also now my vocation.

    Grateful to be able to do this? You bet! I’m incredibly grateful and blessed to have this opportunity. Money from writing is nice, but the opportunity and freedom to be able to make this my chosen path–that’s truly priceless.

    • And to have as much fun in the process as possible, even as I toil in the word mines of what is also now my vocation.

      That’s it, Dale. It’s toil, it’s work…but oh, so much fun.

  9. Writing already saved my life many years ago. Now I write to make other people’s lives a little better for a few minutes or hours. There’s no satisfaction like a comment, review, or email from a reader that says, “You completely captured how I felt.”

    • I agree, Debbie. When a reader takes the time to connect with you because you first connected with them, it’s a little miracle of sorts, that we can have such a transaction via words on a page.

  10. An interesting piece, JSB.

    I’m still in the early stages of learning the craft at 74, but I’ve got the bug bad and I can’t shake it, nor do I want to. Writing is my escape from what Wild Bill so elegantly called ‘the winter of our discontent’.

    It takes a while to make anything of worth self sustaining on a personal or professional level. I think it is about a five year process.

    You don’t get a black belt your first day at the dojo, you gotta learn your moves and get thumped in the process. It is only down the road that you become competent if you have applied yourself to learning your trade.

    Serving your apprenticeship, in other words.

    I recollect someone saying that the greatest number of people who sign up for things like Planet Fitness and Gold’s Gym is right after new years’ when they’re feeling guilty anout all that fun they just had, and by February most of them have packed it in. I reckon writing is like that-many are called but relatively few stick with it in the long term.

    KDP is clogged with stuff that never should have seen the light of day. Crank out the drivel, slap a colorful cover on it and blammo! You get to call yourself a published author over on reddit. I believe many nowadays have been conditioned to look for the easy out, the short cut, the workaround without the sweat, thinking there is some gigantic paycheck waiting. They are, in the main, self delusional frauds.

    It’s not all boredom and slog in the writing trade though.

    You can read some really good stuff while you’re working at it, and you get to chat with a lot of interesting people along the way.

    It’s one journey I’m glad I’m taking.

  11. But the act of writing itself, for yourself, is also balm for the spirit. Ah, yes. It reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe who wrote “Is there, is there balm in Gilead?” There sure is. It’s right there in them there computer keys. 🙂

    And I like what Steve said about writing fiction: And when published, it will probably never rot, die, or fall apart – as long as civilization survives. Maybe our writing can help civilization survive.

  12. Writing has saved my life more times than I can count. Your post reminds me of my favorite quote. — “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
    ― Howard Thurman

  13. Made my Sunday morning again, Jim!

    As one who started writing fiction as a child, I can attest to what a miserable person I would be if I stopped. Even if I’m in the middle of a slog it’s still, after 30 years, the thing I want to do more than anything else. Everything else (well, except the dog) can wait.

  14. Hello James. Thanks for your wise, dead-on observations about what writers do, and how it creates meaning in their lives, whether they turn a buck or not. That they are dead-on observations is confirmed by the comments that your readers make.
    This morning, a column in my Sunday Detroit Free Press struck me as so wrong that I had to send the columnist an email. Yes, that makes me another grumpy old retiree who uses some of the free time he has and others don’t to write letters to journalists. But I choose to do it, and I can do it.
    The key word is freedom, the special freedom that belongs only to those who can’t leave words alone. Thanks again for your post.

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