Why I Write Stories

Recently a friend asked: “What draws you to writing books instead of say screenplays? Why literature? Why that over any other type of writing?”

Aside from his generosity in referring to my scribbles as “literature”, I was struck by this simple question, which — so far as I can recall — I’ve never gotten from a student in 20 years of classroom teaching. It sent me thinking, and I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer to give. But that’s never stopped me before, and (like Sarah Kay) I find that sometimes the writing itself can lead to answers.

I think the easiest answer is the most obvious: I was surrounded by books from birth, and I fell in love with the worlds they led me to. The Belgariad by David Eddings and the Amber novels by Roger Zelazny whisked me to realms of fantasy and wonder. I wanted to create universes of my own.

I’ve written elsewhere about the iconography of writing, and to this day that remains a potent influence. Above my desk — as I write these words — is a photo of the writing table of Florida novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. So when I fell in love with books and images of writers, the next step was to produce writing of my own.

I didn’t know any other kind of writing as a child. There were essays for school (ick) and stories. Make a story long enough and you got a novel. I watched movies and played role-playing games, but I didn’t make the connection between those media and the writing that created them until later. Meanwhile, I wrote lots of silly stories, and began work on my first novel at the age of 13.

Those things did provide inspiration for story ideas, though. And by “inspiration” I mean “I copied them”. One of my earliest writing memories is of seeing the VHS box art for Robocop (my mom wouldn’t let us kids watch such violent films, nor did I want to at the time) and writing a story that was identical to what I imagined that movie was like.

As I grew older and my writing became more sophisticated, I did branch out into other forms. I wrote longer nonfiction pieces to inform the world about global economics (so I could share my very limited understanding) and tried my hand at hip-hop lyrics starting in 1999. I continued writing stories (longer, more serious fare, like the works in This Ain’t What You Rung For), and finished my fourth novel in 2010. (All four are, as yet, unpublished.)

But I never considered screenplays or radio dramas. Those formats hold allure for me, but they require other ways of telling the story. They need to be formatted differently, too, which leads me to suspect that I keep writing short stories and novels simply because I’m too lazy to explore other approaches.

Then there’s the even-more-formidable obstacles to distribution. When I write a story, I can submit it to a magazine. (I’m currently working on a story I plan to submit to Asimov’s Science Fiction.) Or I can print up copies to give to friends. Someday maybe I’ll get a novel published by a traditional publishing company. On the other hand, that’s probably not a sensible dream. The point is that I have lots of control over what happens to my words. When I self-publish, I get to take all the action as quickly as I like — I’m pretty impatient sometimes — and I get to choose how the cover looks, which fonts to use in the layout, etc.

As for “literature”, that’s more about subject matter, and the truth is that I’ve always written lots of different types of stories. I started out with fantasy and science fiction, because that’s what I loved reading. After college I stepped toward realist fiction, because I wanted to explore some themes in everyday modern human life. But my fourth novel is magical realism, my current project is post-apocalyptic zombie SF, and I even wrote a romance story in This Ain’t.

Sarah Kay said, in her awesome TED Talk (linked above): “I’m always trying to find the best way to tell each story.” I suppose I do this too, but usually the format precedes the topic for me. Sometimes I get an idea for a song and I’m all “Okay time to rap in the voice of Martin Shkreli.” Sometimes I’ll have a tiny idea for a story, and pound out a one-page dealie like “The Envelope”. And of course I write plenty of nonfiction too. I’ve got a book about teaching I’m trying to finish up, and my book about politics will hopefully be out in the summer of this year.

I hope that answers your question, my friend. I’m always humbled and flattered when anyone takes time to read my words, and even more so when people inquire about the thought process that underlies it all. So thank you (and anyone reading these words) for your interest.

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