What's The Story? Writers Reveal Why They Write Whether they craft fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, writers use words to transport readers, and from the simplest blog post to the great American novel, it's a process -- and it's hard work. If you're a writer, tell us: What motivates you to put pen to paper, fingers to keys?
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What's The Story? Writers Reveal Why They Write

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What's The Story? Writers Reveal Why They Write

What's The Story? Writers Reveal Why They Write

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TONY COX, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Writers come in all shapes and sizes. They use words to create pictures, evoke emotion, create magic for the reader, to tell a story. Writers often are motivated to write for different reasons, but if you've ever sat down to write, you probably know that it's not very easy.

From the simplest blog post to the great American novel, it's all a process that can be very hard work. Today, we're going to talk about writing and why we write.

Later in the show, what gives us cold feet at weddings and what to do about it. Amy Dickinson joins us.

But first, again, why we write. Publishers Weekly is running a series of essays by authors, Why I Write. We'll talk with one of them and with two other authors, beginning with Ralph Eubanks. And as always, we want to hear from you.

Writers in our audience, tell us why you write. Tell us your story. 800-989-8255, that's the phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

As we said, Ralph Eubanks joins us right now here in Studio 3A in Washington. He is the author of "The House At The End Of The Road." Ralph, welcome back.

Mr. RALPH EUBANKS (Author, "The House At The End Of The Road," "Ever Is A Long Time"): Thank you. Thank you very much for having me here.

COX: Nice to have you. So you're going to get the same question all three of our writers are going to get today to begin with.

Mr. EUBANKS: Okay.

COX: Why do you write?

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, I write because it's something that's really very satisfying for me. It's very gratifying. But another reason is something that the writer Paul Hendrickson(ph) told me. There are two things that he told me when I started working on my first book.

He said first, never forget that someone asked you to tell your story because my first book, "Ever is a Long Time" and, to a certain extent, "The House at the End of the Road" are both in the memoir genre - so feeling very fortunate to be able to tell my story. And not very many people get an opportunity to do that.

And the other thing that he told me is that when you write, you always want to capture the cruel radiance of what is, and that's a quote from Walker Evans(ph). And he said every writer, every artist, wants to capture what is, not what you think it is but what it really is, which means you have to dig very deep into yourself and really pull out some things that are very difficult and sometimes very challenging for you.

And there's something both emotionally satisfying about it and something that is very physically satisfying when you finally see your work when it comes out in a finished book or when you see the pages at the end of the day.

COX: Two of your books are memoirs, as you mentioned. Is that the area that you stay within?

Mr. EUBANKS: I my first two books have been that. I'm thinking very differently about that for my next book because it's there's only so much you can really do with the memoir genre, but I will always want to keep it very personal. Yet, that's something that I've always done is really woven in both the personal with the social history.

And I think that's really where I'm going as a writer, maybe less away from the memoir but still sticking with something that's personal because I think that's the other thing that is important to me so that when I'm writing about something that may be historical, that someone may think of as very dense, if it's very if they see it as something personal, they can grasp that a little bit easier.

When I was, you know, writing about looking at my own DNA analysis in "The House At The End Of The Road," seeing how it's personal but also kind of weaving in, well, what does this actually mean scientifically, so that someone can relate to it?

COX: Well, stay here. We want to talk some more to you about that, but let's bring in another one of our writers today. Siobhan Fallon, an emerging writer who recently published an essay in Publishers Weekly Why I Write series. She has a forthcoming collection of stories titled "You Know When The Men Are Gone." And she joins us now from member station KAZU in Monterrey, California. Siobhan, nice to have you with us.

Ms. SIOBHAN FALLON (Author, "You Know When The Men Are Gone"): Hi, Tony, thank you.

COX: My first question for you is the same as it was for Ralph. Why do you write?

Ms. FALLON: Well, all writers have that writers' adage in the back of their mind always about writing what you know. And when I was writing this collection, I was writing about the world that I was living in, which I think is sort of a unique one, and it's living on a military post and the world of or the military community and how...

COX: So, you know, Ralph was saying excuse me for interrupting you Ralph was saying that when he writes, it comes out of sort of a personal experience, and it sounds like for you, that was also the case.

Ms. FALLON: Yeah, absolutely. I just felt like when people think military, they get this visual of an American soldier, and it's easy to sort of forget the families that all are standing behind that soldier and his mother and father and spouse or children or his you know, if it's a female soldier, her husband. And, I don't know, I thought it was fascinating and wanted to explore that.

COX: Siobhan, the process that you go through when you write, is it painful? We've been telling people that writing is hard, gut-wrenching sometimes. Is it painful? And share with us what you go through when you write.

Ms. FALLON: Yes, like, I guess it is and some of my stories, I don't know, were harder to write than others. And it's just letting yourself be that honest and knowing that the readers are going to glimpse a bit of your own life in it, and you want them to be hard, in a way. You want the reader to know what is happening, and I don't know, life is difficult.

And when you're talking about soldiers who are deploying or the families who are awaiting them for an entire year, it's not going to always be the happiest subject.

COX: How do you get started, and that's part one. Part two of this is: How long does it take from when you get the idea to when words actually begin to appear written down somewhere?

Ms. FALLON: I started this particular collection, or this one story, and my husband was gearing up to deploy when I started writing it. And I guess I was just sort of channeling a lot of the things that I knew I was going through and fellow spouses. And it was actually one of the easiest stories I've ever written.

And I'm pretty a slow writer, but this sort of took off, and it sort of spun out into these other stories that are interconnected. So I'd say this is actually easier than most of the other writing I've done.

COX: Well, what about you, Ralph, because you wrote about your own experiences growing up in Mississippi. How long did it take to get from, you know, inside your head to on paper or electronically, I guess?

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, I work in a very odd kind of way, I guess, because I also have a day job, where I'm an editor and publisher. So it's kind of changing my head in different places.

But I keep a notebook with me wherever I go. So I'm jotting down the ideas as I go along. Quiet moments, I'll sit and write for a while, and then maybe that idea might take me somewhere, and maybe a collection of those journal entries will turn into something.

And that's that's what happens to me a lot of times. It's just kind of an idea that comes to me, I write it down. I always have a notebook with me.

COX: Really? Siobhan, let me ask both you and Ralph the same question: Do you find that it's gut-wrenching to get this out, to get this material out every time, or does it depend on what it is you are writing about? Siobhan, maybe I'll come to you first.

Ms. FALLON: Okay. I would say that it depends on the story, but there's also this amazing high that I get from writing, even if it's a difficult subject. And so I feel, like, elated while I'm writing. So you balance it.

Like, making myself sit down and forcing myself to write is difficult, but once I get started, it's just a gorgeous feeling. It's sort of like working out. I know that's a silly analogy, but I feel like they're endorphins. And so, as long as I get to that point, if I write enough, then it definitely becomes easier and I can keep going.

COX: Is that your experience, Ralph? And I ask that because I have heard writers say that, you know, the germ of an idea and then what you go through, it's like beating your head against the wall.

Mr. EUBANKS: There are times when it is like beating your head against the wall, and sometimes it really hurts. But as Siobhan said, there are times when there is this incredible high, when it's going very well and, you know, learning to pace yourself.

There are it really depends on the day. I know when I was writing full-time, working on "The House At The End Of The Road, there would be days where I would, where it would come very easily for me. And there were other days where I up saying, oh, I guess I need to do those dishes, don't I? And so there were all these distractions.

There were other days when all of a sudden, the door was opening, and my kids were home from school and I realized, it's 3:00, and I've been working all day. So it all depends.

COX: Let's see if we can squeeze one call in before we take our break. This one comes from Tom(ph) in Roanoke, Virginia. Tom, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TOM (Caller): Oh, thank you. Yes, now, I think a person needs to be miserable to write.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: I started writing when I was in boarding school and then went through a happy period, stopped writing, then got divorced and started writing again and then went through another happy period and stopped writing and then got divorced again and started writing.

I think the greatest writers have been miserable. I think the greatest country songwriters, like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, are miserable people but they love living in misery.

COX: So is that let's see what our writers think. I see that Ralph is here sort of smiling a little bit. Thank you very much for that call, Tom. Is it misery?

Mr. EUBANKS: I wouldn't say that it's misery, but I think the caller really addresses something that's important. There is going into this very deep place to pull this out. And I think that's what he's talking about, and that deep place for him may be misery.

And sometimes it is misery that you're going to to pull that out. Other times, it's something that's happy. It really all depends. But it is somewhere very deep, something very dark sometimes, something very personal.

COX: It's like a journey, then, isn't it?

Mr. EUBANKS: Yes, very much like that, very much so.

COX: We're going to continue this conversation with Siobhan, as well as with Ralph Eubanks, talking about writing. We still want to hear from you about you and how you write and how it affects you.

Ralph Eubanks is the author of "The House At The End Of The Road." Siobhan Fallon's upcoming book is called "You Know When The Men Are Gone."

More of your calls in a moment. Again, writers, call us. Tell us why you write. Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. The email address, talk@npr.org. I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox, in Washington.

Publishers Weekly is running a series of essays from a variety of authors and poets asking: Why do you Write? Poet Tina Chang says she does it in order to revisit a past that no longer exists. For Frances Mays, it's to capture happiness on the page. In the news business, we often write to meet a deadline.

We're talking with several writers today about the process of writing and why they do it. Ralph Eubanks is the author of "The House at the End of the Road" and "Ever is a Long Time." Siobhan Fallon's forthcoming book is titled "You Know When the Men are Gone."

We want to hear from you, as we said, the writers in our audience. Call and tell us why you write. 800-989-8255 is the number. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation. We'd love to hear from you at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So let's bring in yet another perspective on the conversation about why we write, why we write - that's a tongue-twister. ZZ Packer's short fiction has appeared in the New Yorker. She wrote the collection "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," and she joins us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. ZZ, nice to have you on, as well.

Ms. ZZ PACKER (Author, "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere"): Glad to be here, Tony.

COX: I have asked every one of our writers today, so I will ask you the same thing: Why do you write?

Ms. PACKER: Yeah, it's a hard question, but I think I would say that because when we engage in language, we're engaging in something that is specifically and primally human. And to be able to do that on a daily basis, and not to just only be able to read other writers and to read language, but to be able to create it and re-create emotional states in a reader that you haven't seen is just, as Siobhan was saying, it's an incredible high.

But as the caller mentioned, there are also incredible lows to it. There's - I think there is - can be a misery component. And I kind of think part of that has to do with, you know, why we read.

There's a professor at the University of Kentucky, Lisa Zunshine, who writes about why we read fiction. And she talks about it in terms of that we are constantly, as humans, trying to interpret mental states in other people. And so we're really constantly trying to mind-read.

And as a writer, what you're essentially trying to do is you're trying to be the person who's recreating a particular mental state in a character who is - in fiction, at least - imaginary, and that is, as Siobhan was mentioning, there is a kind of workout component to it.

It sort of works out our cognitive powers of mindreading. We're always interpreting what people do. We're always trying to figure out what their intentions are, what's behind what they actually say. And so when you're writing fiction, at least, what you're doing is you're doing that all the time, nonstop.

And I think that contributes to the pleasure of it, but it also contributes to the misery because, as Ralph was saying, you're constantly having to toil in your own field of your emotional, you know, it's a kind of an emotional minefield, and you're always digging up aspects from the past and, you know, old wounds and that kind of thing. And that can be difficult.

COX: Painful. Let me ask you this question, because I think it's always interesting to hear how different writers write. And we're getting a little bit of a sense of that from the three of you.

So ZZ, what is your process? Do you write a number - a certain number of pages a day, or is this the kind of secret that writers want to keep to themselves and not share with others? How does that work?

Ms. PACKER: Well, I think the only consistent aspect of writing is my inconsistency. And I think that what I try to do is I always try to just sort of shake it up. At one point, you know, it might be working to just only be concerned with page count. And then, you know, I will see a month later that I'm just completely composing drivel, and then I'll, you know, go back to something such as exercises or note-taking.

Or sometimes I'll write at night, but then sometimes I'll write in the morning time. And I feel, though, at least for me, if I'm not constantly changing, then I get into kind of rut. And that means that even if I'm producing, that I'm not necessarily producing well.

So I'm always just trying to look at different ways of seeing the world, going places. Sometimes I'm writing, sometimes just writing at home alone. But it always ends up changing.

COX: Well, let me share some writing that we have gotten via email, and then we'll take a call. This comes from Stephanie in Barrington, New Jersey: Do you ever feel like a story is complete? I find myself returning to everything I write again and again, changing a word here or a phrase there. How do you say it's finished?

Siobhan, why don't you take that? How do you say, you know, okay, this is it? This is what I want. I'm done.

Mr. FALLON: I think someone else has to make you say that, because personally, I could keep writing my stories and rewriting them over and over and over again and never put them out there. But fortunately, my agent sort of said, all right. It is what it is.

COX: Time's up, huh?

Ms. FALLON: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Time's up. Well, Ralph is an editor. You're an editor, Ralph. So you must have a clock in your head when it's time to stop?

Mr. EUBANKS: I do. But I also, when I'm writing, I have to turn off the editor side of me. And I have to say that's one of the things my own editor has said to me is that, you know, as I would send her pages, she'd say turn off the editor. Just write. And that's what I have to do.

I have to turn that side of me off and just write. And also, I also read a lot. I tend to read - since I'm doing nonfiction, a lot of times I read poetry. And kind of getting a sense of how I'm trying to say something, the language, gives me - the language of poetry gives me a sense of how to express something on the page, in a way, because, you know, as ZZ said, sometimes it's pure drivel. You're thinking this is not the way this is going to work. Where is the language going to come from? And that's where I get my inspiration from.

COX: Let's go to a call, then. We have Ken on the line with us from Southport, North Carolina. Hello, Ken. How are you?

KEN (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?

COX: Fine, thank you. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KEN: Thank you.

COX: Your question or point?

KEN: Well, the question had been why do you write or why do you like to write. And as I said a little while ago, while I'm driving, listening to music or anywhere else listening to music, a lot of times scenes will come into my mind, and I want to get them down. I want to expand on them and make a story out of them.

COX: Okay, thank you, Ken, for that call. You know, we have a tweet, actually, that's come in from - it just says from Knitgirl, K-N-I-T-girl: I write because I have to, or the words get all backed up, and I explode. And that isn't good for anyone, really. And then in parentheses, she writes: 13 books and counting, with an exclamation point. What about that, ZZ?

Ms. PACKER: Yeah, I can definitely see that aspect of, you know, this feeling of something getting backed up inside of you. I mean, we are meant to express ourselves as humans, and when you don't find that outlet in some way - writers obviously find it in writing. But if you don't find it in some way, you will feel, you know, you will get this sort of mental constipation.

And I think that for writing, I feel that way myself, I mean, similar to the caller who, you know, is driving and he sees a scene, and then he wants to expand on it. We're always trying to reorder things and trying to reinterpret things and the events and how it, you know, how something has happened.

And so I think that's one of the essential reasons why we write, is we write to make sense of the world and to try to, in some ways, better it.

COX: Well, you know, you may get a kick out of this email, then, based on what you just said, ZZ. It comes from Barbara on the subject of why I write. She says: I write stories because I love to make up places and people and conversations. Writing is acceptable lying. I used to lie a lot when I was a little kid. I don't know why. I was punished. So I began writing and found this kind of lying to be okay with everyone.

I suppose we would call that fiction now, wouldn't we, Ralph?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FALLON: Yeah.

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, you know, it's lie, but tell the truth. I think that's a component of it. So, you know, if you're writing fiction, you know, it is lying, but you're also - there also has be some truth in it, I think, for the reader to really glom onto it.

COX: Siobhan, I thought I heard you say something there. I thought I heard you. Did I?

Ms. FALLON: No, but...

COX: That wasn't you? I thought you had a reaction to it. Well, give us your reaction to what she just said.

Ms. FALLON: Yeah, I agree. I mean, I joke about that all the time, about the line between lying and - or not, you know - fiction and truth. And one of the things that ZZ was saying earlier that really resounded with me was I feel like when I write, it teaches me a certain empathy that I might not have as a human being on my own, until I am forced to sit down and really think about a character who has a life different than my own.

COX: Well, you know, we're talking about writing, but we haven't talked about yet - and I'd like to read this email, which brings this up, the quality of writing. And here, this comes from Andrew. Andrew says - and ZZ, I'm going to ask you to respond first: I write, but my God, it takes a Herculean effort just to reach mediocre.

Ms. PACKER: Yeah. I find that that's often the case. I mean, when we were talking about revising and how, you know, well, when do you know when it's finished, well, if it comes - it's incredibly difficult, but you do have to get to a point at which you think that you're somehow creating something that you've taken the world as far as it can go, and in terms of the aesthetic component, that you've written it the best way you possibly can. But it's a good impulse, actually, to really recognize that this is a mediocre sentence, or this sentence is not going to induce in the reader the particular emotion that I want it to, or it's going to - or it's confusing or it's unclear.

And so the honesty that one was to have with oneself, which goes beyond pleasure - you know, the pleasure of actually just doing the first draft - is that you have to be completely above board and say, you know, this isn't quite right yet. I'm going to try to make this the absolute best that I can, so that you're doing the best possible service to the reader.

COX: Let me turn to our editor once again. Ralph, hey, I know you're a writer. You're here as a writer. I know that. But, you know, you're...

Mr. EUBANKS: Yes, I have my writing hat on now.

COX: But we'll put the editor's hat on for a second, because this email comes from Ralph - I'm sorry - comes from Anne in Green Valley, Arizona. And she writes: I feel that my vocabulary is so limited compared to what I've read. Do editors edit your work to make it sound more intelligent, literary? And do writing classes really help?

Mr. EUBANKS: Ooh. Well, usually, I'm editing to very often try to tighten the work and for - to keep the writer's voice, because I don't want to take their voice away from them.

Now, do writing classes help? As someone who's taught writing, I think it has to already be there, but it's - the feedback from peers and workshops is very helpful, I have found, at least for my students. And also, just writing constantly - so it's an exercise. The exercise is good. But I think Siobhan was talking about that earlier, that that's a good component. So do writing classes help? They can, and they can't. It all depends on the writer themselves.

COX: So, Siobhan, does it require a leap of faith on your part that you have reached the point where your work is, you know, okay to go?

Ms. FALLON: Yes, definitely. And sometimes I'll read something that's been published and feel like I should've continued working on it, and I just have to trust that I'm too close to the subject to be able to be objective. But, yeah. It's definitely crossing your fingers and hoping that you're agent or editor know better than you do.

COX: All right. Let's take another call. Kristen(ph) from Oakland, California joins us. Kristen, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Why do you write?

KRISTEN (Caller): Hi. Am I on?

COX: Yes, you are. Tell us why you write.

KRISTEN: Well, I basically feel this fury (unintelligible) down. Whatever it is that I'm trying to nail down, an abstruse feeling or a description of a place, somehow I feel like it doesn't belong to me until I've nailed it down with words.

COX: Okay. Let's - we'll follow up on that.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

What about that? Do you need to see the word on your computer screen to know that, you know, it actually made it from your brain to the sentence, that it makes some kind of sense? See, Ralph is thinking this over, ZZ, so let me ask you to respond to that.

Ms. PACKER: Well, I think that there is that - there's a great deal of truth to that, because as I was saying before, so much of what we end up doing as a writer is interpreting and reinterpreting. So there's a - you know, there's a way in which what, oftentimes, is - we think of as a thought is actually a sort of morass, a sort of un - you know - moored, sort of feelings and emotions and images.

And we feel as though when we wrestle it down on the page, that we're actually getting at a way of knowing ourselves a little bit better and our experience a little bit better. So that makes a lot of sense. And it goes hand in hand with the previous caller, who talked about not having a strong enough vocabulary, but I would really implore her that that's not really the issue. The issue is being a very good observer and a very good - a person who can relate emotions and feelings and thoughts.

And I think, oftentimes, a lot of beginning writers get a little afraid to inhabit their own voice and inhabit that emotional terrain and to inhabit, you know, a way of observing the world that's uniquely theirs because they're afraid, oh, the vocabulary isn't right or, oh, I'm not smart enough or, oh, I don't know about this subject enough. And what it - I think, at least in my opinion - what it really requires is really just going out there and being - and - a good observer and trying to write it down as closely as you can to your own reality and truth.

COX: And be courageous, right, Ralph?

Mr. EUBANKS: Absolutely. I think it's being courageous and not being afraid to put something down on the page to actually express something that's really deep within you. And it is something that is very - almost primal sometimes, that you have to get it out, that you - or you want someone to actually - I think as the previous caller was saying, understanding the place that they have been to and at least get them to be able to see what it looks like, to even smell the air, to feel the place under their feet. That's what you want your reader to do. That's what you're trying to get down on the page.

COX: Our guests have been Ralph Eubanks, author of "The House at the End of the Road: A Story of Race, Identity, and Memory" and "Ever is a Long Time: A Journey into Mississippi's Dark Past." He joined me here in Studio 3A.

Siobhan Fallon, author of the forthcoming book, "You Know When the Men Are Gone," and she's also a short-fiction author, and she joined us from the studios of KAZU in Monterey, California.

And, also, ZZ Packer, author of "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," again, a short-fiction author who joined us from the studios of KUT in Austin, Texas. Our time is out. It's been a wonderful conversation. But I'm sure that all of you would agree that it's worth it. Yes, Ralph?

Mr. EUBANKS: Absolutely.


Ms. PACKER: Yes,

Ms. FALLON: It was fantastic. Thanks.

COX: Siobhan. Absolutely worth it. We appreciate your coming on.

Ms. PACKER: Thank you.

COX: And...

Mr. EUBANKS: Thank you.

COX: ...we look forward for the next things the three of you will be putting out, and from our audience, as well.

Up next, there's cold feet, and then there's, oh, my God. No, I can't marry you. Amy Dickinson joins us in the heat of the wedding season to talk about calling the whole thing off or not. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: I'm Tony Cox. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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