Why do you write? – The power of negative motivation

So, dear writer, what is your answer to this question?

sketch reduced
Sketch by Anna de Polnay

I expect many people will say ‘Because I have to’ or ‘Because I’ve always done it/wanted to write’ or even ‘I feel I have something to say’. Some might actually confess they enjoy writing. (Weird, but possible.) Some non fiction writers are probably motivated by a passionate interest in a subject, a place, or maybe even themselves and their own story.

My answer to the question is a rather negative one: ‘To fill the void’. Or to put it another way, because I had nothing better to do.

I’m not being entirely disingenuous. If you’ve ever felt the need or the urge to express yourself in a creative way then nothing else will give you the proper fix. Writing books is one of the most purely creative ways of expression – it’s just you and the page, or the screen, with no one telling you what to do or, to put it another way, trying to curb your creativity. If this is indulgence so be it, but it’s not an easy option to say the least.

I once earned a living writing scripts for television. I really wanted to be a playwright but having spent many years reading and commenting on other writers’ plays I couldn’t find any ideas that I could make work on a stage. I never saw myself as a writer of books partly because it is an impossible way to make a living and partly because, yes, I confess it, I’m not much of a reader. I’d rather watch a play or a film, no question.

But when I hit my sixties and I gave in my part-time job I didn’t know what to do with myself. Too old to be employed, all I had to keep wolf from door was bits and pieces of teaching and theatre tour organising and a small state pension. So I decided to do two complementary things: let my flat and go off to the far side of the world to write a book about my ancestors, the former paying for the latter.

And it worked. It took me several years, and a lot of hard work and learning. In my first effort at writing a scene set in late 18th century Dorset I had one character crossing his legs four times without ever having uncrossed them, ending up therefore as a corkscrew. As an (ex) actor and would-be playwright I could handle the dialogue, within reason, but had terrible trouble with the bits in between; where in a play you can simply write ‘pause’ or even ‘silence’ or at a pinch ‘beat’, in a book you’ve got to have your character do something, and I still find that tricky (hence the corkscrew legs). Not to mention the ‘she saids’ and ‘he saids’.

George Matcham (Illustrated London News 10 October 1931, p573) bl newspaper archives-page-001
George Matcham, family member, the man who crossed his legs

But along the way I discovered a passion, which simply put is – for finding things out and writing about them in (what I hope is) an entertaining way. The topic in my case was early Australian colonial history, as seen through the eyes of my ancestors, about which and whom I knew nothing and cared less. The first is not a disadvantage because part of the process of writing about what you don’t know is discovering things you find interesting and then finding a way to convey your interest to other people. The caring naturally follows. Or if it doesn’t, then look for another topic.

So what was once a void has now been filled to bursting point with what has become a passion and an addiction. Twelve years later I am halfway through book two of my Australian ancestors, still struggling with the bits between the dialogue and the he saids and she saids, but still engrossed in the business of learning about, in this case, Australian agricultural practices in the 19th century and trying to make it interesting.

It hasn’t earned me a living, needless to say. I’m not even sure that I’ve broken even. Truthfully speaking when asked my profession I should say ‘landlady’. But hard work though it is it gives me a huge amount of pleasure and satisfaction, not least to know that in my seventies I am still learning things; and that, who knows, one or two people out there may also discover something as a result of my efforts.

So there’s my answer to my own question. I’d be interested to hear yours.

4 thoughts on “Why do you write? – The power of negative motivation

  1. I write because it’s the only form of creative expression I have attempted (and I have tried performing, directing, producing, designing, visual arts and more) where no-one can stop me or get in my way; I don’t need to rely on anyone else to do it; I don’t need permission or money or fame to just start doing it; I don’t need equipment or vast amounts of time, and it helps me go to sleep at night as I am scrolling through plots and characters in my mind. I’d love to be writing in the moments leading up to my death!

  2. Hi Patsy,
    I’ve just read your very interesting blogpost and it made me realise it is very difficult to put into words why I write. But here goes. I find I write because I, like you, have just hit the big ’70’ after years of working full-time in interesting, pressure jobs. To fill my time after I took redundancy I taught piano and theory for 7 years or more – a world apart from my full-time employment but nevertheless, studying the intracacies of what makes the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven etc flow from early childhood was (and still is) one of my passions. The other passion I developed over many years was history so I decided to fill my time by studying history by distance through the University of New England in Armidale. I absolutely loved the research, writing, interaction with other history students and the lecturers and completed a Master of History as recently as 4 years ago.
    It was the rigour of writing and researching history that actually inspired me to continue writing and I am now working on a book about place and the representation of heritage items through art, inspired by the subject of my thesis topic. I also write history articles for our local newspaper in conjunction with other writers from local history organisations. The project is coordinated by a local historian and author who has invited writers from a collective of family history groups and historical societies to contribute articles on a regular basis. It’s an innovative way of putting our history on record and we’ve been contributing nearly every week since the Macquarie celebrations in 2010. When time and money permit, the Hawkesbury Historical Society publishes the stories (with photos) in a journal.
    I now deliver presentations at history conferences, such as Oral History Australia, the Australian Historical Association and Professional Historian’s Association, as well as writing articles for my blog and the newsletters of Hawkesbury Historical Society and Colo Shire Family History Group, as well as several history journals. Several of my articles are centred around ancestors in my own family and like you, Patsy, I try and make their stories interesting. It’s important to me to record how my ancestors fitted in with events happening at the time they lived and worked, and as we have the same family connection on the Matcham side, you will understand that the more we delve the more we find out!
    Another reason I write is that I feel I have something to contribute. I was fortunate in that my mother left me with an incredible array of family and other photos from the 1920s on, covering their life and events that occurred in my local area. So I often use these photos as the basis of interesting articles. None of this, of course, makes any money – we do it for the love of it!
    Also, similarly to you Patsy, I run heritage tours of the Hawkesbury area which makes enough money to buy computers, printers, cartridges and paper and not much else! It still often surprises and delights me that the tours, my history research and writing, conference presentations and local knowledge all vividly intersect and inspire me to continue my work.
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘The Worst Country in the World’, Patsy, and wish you all the best with your second book about the Matcham-Pitt side of the family. Regards, Carol.

    1. Very interesting Carol. Did I know you did a Masters at UNE? I was accepted to do the same but opted to do a theatre masters instead in the UK, which I rather regret. I envy you your mother’s photos (though I have a few of mine) and that you live so close to what you are writing about!

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