It has to be congenital. I can’t think of any other explanation that doesn’t invoke some distant relative of incubi and tinfoil hats.
As a child, I was writing stories at least by fourth grade; my memory isn’t clear on the matter before that. In those early years, I don’t remember ever suffering writer’s block, but I clearly remember writer’s cramp. You know, that moment when your hand goes into spasms and the muscles twist up painfully because you’ve been holding a pencil for three hours straight. I developed calluses on my thumb and middle finger from those pencils, and though I graduated to a keyboard years ago, vestiges of them remain.
I remember Christmas when I was thirteen because my parents finally saw the light and bought me a typewriter. It was a piece of junk typewriter, but it was a typewriter nonetheless and might as well have been made of gold. I wore it out. There were other typewriters, then computers, and other computers. But the writing never stopped. I don’t even have an estimate of when I passed those mythical million words, but I’m sure it was a long, long time ago.
Why did I do it?
Why do I still do it?
As I said, it must be congenital. I’ll admit that through some of my teenage years it became a way to vicariously live out some exploratory fantasies. I’ve mostly outgrown that, but the compulsion remains. It’s in your blood like a werewolf who has no choice beneath a full moon.
When you’re born to write, you can’t not write.
There was an episode of the original The Outer Limits series called “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork.” Stories are like that. They not only crawl from the woodwork, but from under the front doormat, from the bathroom sink drain, and from the downspouts. See that little girl with the tattered dress sitting on the swing over there all by herself? That’s a story. See that young couple by the side of the road struggling to change a tire in the rain? That’s a story. See the bully hounding the smaller kids out of their lunch money? That’s a story. See the Jazz singer who is flamboyant on stage but puts on sunglasses and hides in the shadows when the show is over? That’s a story.
Granted, writing mostly fantasy and science fiction, my inspiration has always lilted more toward the bizarre. See that photomicrograph of a polychaete worm? That could be part of some alien anatomy. But the general idea remains the same regardless of genre. Those visions are out there, and they won’t stop coming. They’re everywhere, struggling to get out, to feel the warmth of the sun upon them, to be immortalized on paper, and perchance to be enjoyed. To the writer, it’s like being in a chick hatchery where all around you are the sounds of shells cracking as the baby birds within struggle to experience life. You can’t miss them, and to try to prevent their birth is an unpardonable act of cruelty.
Picture the 12-year-old who finds an orphaned baby bunny at the edge of the woods. She takes it home, clears out a space for it in her bottom dresser drawer, finds an eyedropper and raids milk from the refrigerator. She moves her lamp onto the floor to keep it warm, and can’t sleep that night over worrying about the poor thing. I have just described a writer. You’re not sleeping at night because a scene keeps running through your head, and when you do, you wake up suddenly and grab your notebook to jot down the dream before it fades away. You’re in the shower, not singing, but reciting dialog until you get the words just right. You tell your boss you were not daydreaming, that you were planning, but fail to mention that you were planning out what your protagonist does when he reaches the castle. You see something pass by on the street and it suddenly drops into place in chapter three, scene two.
But sooner or later, the matter of dollar signs might come up. “Oh. Do this for money? I never thought about that.”
And you hadn’t.
You weren’t writing for any profit motive, but because that story in your head was crying for expression, because it wouldn’t let you rest. For me, I had finished five novels and a couple of dozen started before I was coerced into a commercial direction by the uncomfortable reality of trying to support kids on a graduate student stipend. I’ve since finished a sixth. And even then, it’s not necessarily the prospect of money that is drawing me. If you go the self-publishing route, you quickly discover the joy of putting your worlds into visual form as covers and maybe trailers.
You don’t try to explain it.
You live in the assured confidence that people who are not born to be writers will never understand, and those who are so blessed already do. My oldest daughter remains baffled that I can crank out a quarter-million-word epic and she has trouble pulling together a 500-word essay. She’s not born to be a writer; I understand that. You can lament for them, bemoan their unfortunate fate, but can do nothing to make them see the light.
Then comes that fateful day when you realize that the stories are coming faster than you can write them. Your list is growing longer, not shorter, and you must come to grips with the fact that some of them must necessarily die on the vine because no matter how long you live, that list will always out-pace your ability to commit your ideas to paper. But that’s OK, in a way. Whole worlds came into existence because you created them. Characters lived their lives, shared their joys, sorrows, and loves because your mind gave them birth. You nursed them, nurtured them, and watched them grow. You have cheered for them, cried with them, and stayed by their sides when they were sick. You have shared their every triumph and tragedy, and consequently they have become some of your closest friends.
I suppose that is when you cozy up in your overstuffed chair by the fire, pull your comforter a little tighter about you and smile because you, out of thousands, were chosen to share the adventure.
You are a writer.
Duane Vore spends far too many hours writing science-fiction and fantasy, and a few other things that are nevertheless weird. He lives in Pennsylvania with his step-daughter and grandson, and during the day tries to be a physical and computational chemist at the University of Pittsburgh.