NEEDED, A MOTIVE?
What is my motive for wanting to write? I am often asked this question. Is it an axe I have to grind or the course of history I want to change? It’s none of these. I just like to write and portray the world as I see it, as an artist likes to paint to express life as he sees it. I wouldn’t be writing if I didn’t want to do this. That is my motivation.
But then, what is motive anyway? It’s a very much misused word. Teachers tell kids in school they lack motivation. The motivation teachers talk about refers to psychiatry and educational psychology and that has nothing to do with the motive for wanting to write.
I learned a long time ago not to concern myself with motive. I write because I have a story to tell, something to say. That, for me, is all that is important. Some things you can’t explain. And why should I? I don’t like to get preoccupied with concepts. They say all good writers have a motive. I question that, not the meaning of the word but the substance. I remember reading a critic’s comments about Ernest Hemingway. The critic was a university professor who was labeled as a Hemingway expert. He had spent a lifetime reading and studying Hemingway. He went into great lengths about Hemingway’s motives, his philosophy, his psychic make up. What was Ernest Hemingway’s motive? What did the author want to achieve with his writing? We don’t need a psychologist to answer that question. Hemingway was a man who loved life to its fullest, and he wrote about life as he knew it. That was his motive: to write a good story. Nothing hidden about that, nothing complex. If there was some esoteric meaning, some psychological reasons for writing what he did, it came not by design. I guess you can say we all have psychological reasons for doing what we do. Hemingway told a good story, and that was it. Leave it to the academicians to work it out. He was too busy writing to think about a motive.
I could say the same thing about Shakespeare. Old Will would tum over in his grave were he to learn that there are so many Shakespeare scholars out there analyzing him.
Some people find writing a stepping-stone to other things. They want to be heard. Politicians fall into that category. Some do it for fame, to become better known. Others might do it purely for money. An ex-president of the United States wants to make a few extra million dollars, so he writes a tell-all autobiography.
For others till, writing is a glamorous profession. And they are right. We are invited to talk shows and book signings. We are asked to appear as guests at public performances. We find we are invited to parties not because we have bubbling personalities but because the party hostess finds that writers and artists are added attractions to the parties. It doesn’t really matter what we write about. If we make the writers’ list, we find ourselves before an audience being asked our opinion of the war in the Middle East, gays in the military, abortion rights, and aliens in space. We are writers and we know all these things.
How many people have told me they wanted to be a writer, and when they learned what is involved, they gave up the idea? As I mentioned, one might not realize it, but the time spent learning to write might be equal to getting a law degree or to becoming a medical doctor. The untold truth is that the education of a writer, especially a travel writer, never ends.
It’s continuous. History becomes my bed partner. Facts are my quests. I read history text as one might read a novel. I study facts and events and learn statistics. I have to keep files and newspaper clippings. The greatest asset a travel writer can have is a file filled with news clippings. I have been clipping interesting bits of news from newspapers ever since I can remember. I file them away in categories. One day they may prove to be useful. “Where do you get all that information?” editors always ask me.
Keeping notes is vital. One cannot remember small details. I may have a mental picture, say of a train trip I made, but can I remember what the train sounded like as it rumbled over the tracks, or how fellow passenger were dressed. I had to write it down to help recall it. I can never forget my first impressions of Paris, the over-all picture, but what about small details? Sure, I remember the sounds, but would I have remembered the cracks in the pavement where I walked had I not made notes? Would I have remembered the detailed writing I saw on those colorful posters plastered on the pillars along the Revoli had I not jotted them down when I returned home that evening?
I never let motive enter my thoughts. Motive must come naturally. Ken Atchity, a past professor of literature and creative writing at UCLA for seventeen years, who turned literary agent in 1989, summed it up when he wrote: “Writers write to learn more about what they’re writing about. When they want to understand a subject, they write a book about it.” Is it not so, we learn from writing?
Stephen Crane was a writer who had a motive. He wanted to write about the horrors of the American Civil War. He is remembered for his single most important book, The Red Badge of Courage, published 1895. It’s an impressionistic novel about the meaning of courage, the portrait of a young soldier in the American Civil War. It is one of the most influential war stories ever written, and what makes it so remarkable is that Crane was born after the war and had never seen battle himself. He got his material by talking to veterans of the war. Stephen Crane wrote other books, not so well known: Prose & Poetry; Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and short stories like “The Black Riders & War Is Kind.” And with his track record of the Red Badge, it’s quite likely he would have written more great books but he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight in Badenweiler, Germany on June 5, 1900. He had moved to England two years before and had befriended writers Joseph Conrad and Henry James. He could not have picked better literary company.
The Red Badge of Courage was made into a movie by John Huston in 1951 and starred Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy. Again the book was turned into a made-for-television version starring Richard Thomas. It appeared in 1974.
I don’t confuse motive with theme. In novels and short stories the theme is the idea behind the story, or the message or lesson the author wants to convey in his work. Themes are generally explicit and seldom implied. Critics tell readers, as teachers do students, that all stories inherently embody some kind of outlook on life which can be taken as a theme whether or not the author is even aware of it. Does it matter? My point is, if one has a story to tell, then tell it. I forget about defining motives or determining the theme. I let the critics and teachers do that.
Whatever I do, I try not to be cute with my writing, and I don’t become confused with “constrained writing,” that literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a pattern. Constraints might be important in poetry, which often requires the writer to use a particular verse form, but not in prose. Is constrained writing, or style if you wish, more important than thoughts or ideas? Hardly. Constrained writing is motivated more for its aesthetic concerns than anything else. It is no more than a word game. For example in lipograms, a letter, commonly e or o, is ruled out. In alliterative writing, every word must start with the same letter, and in acrostics the first letter of each word or line forms a word or sentence. Then there’s the limitation in punctuation which may imply that no commas are to be used, or there is e.e. cummings who wrote his name and much of his poetry in lower case and without periods. Imagine the toil the author of Gadsby went through to write this English-language novel consisting of 50,100 words, none of which contains the letter “e.” How would you like to read a novel written without a single verb? In 2004 Michael Thaler did that in his novel The Train from Nowhere.
And finally, you might want to be another Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss. He wrote the well-known children’s book Green Eggs and Ham using only fifty different words. He did it resulting from a fifty dollar bet with Bennett Cerf, publisher and co-founder of Random House.