Why Write?

What we’ve got hee-uh…is fail-yuh to commun’cate!

That statement appeared in the screenplay of a 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke, spoken by the warden of a prison in Florida to a chain-gang worker who insisted on challenging his authority.  In the context of the movie, it was a great line.

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That warden, played by Strother Martin, knew communication is a two-way process, involving both an expressive and receptive party.  If either of the two is missing, it can be argued that communication does not occur.  In the movie, it was obvious to the exasperated warden that the convict, played by Paul Newman, was not receiving the intended message.

However, when someone expresses an idea that does strike a response from another, be it in agreement or rebuttal, the two have succeeded in communicating.  And with any luck, both will learn from the exchange.

Friends, acquaintances, and other readers of my work often ask me why I write.  Some seem puzzled by the fact that, day after day, week after week, I continue to pound the keyboard, churning out thoughts about things that matter to me.

On the surface, it’s a simple question, so I generally offer a simple answer.  “Well, I enjoy it,” is all I might say.

But occasionally, when I pause to think about the question myself, I discover it can be quite profound.  And the answer is tied directly to the notion of communicating.

Millions and millions of people worldwide consider themselves readers.  No matter what they read, or how often, or for what purpose, they are consumers of the written word.  But without the writers of those words, there would be nothing to read.

I remember an experience several years ago that helped me come to grips with why I feel compelled to write.  Riding a subway car in the city, I was struck by the fact that so many of my fellow-commuters were reading.  People would enter the train at each station, settle themselves comfortably in an open seat, and begin to read—all with hardly a glance at the folks around them.  Books, magazines, newspapers, cellphones, all capturing the attention of their owners.

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One man in particular caught my eye.  Leafing through a newspaper, appearing not to be reading anything too carefully, he paused on each page only long enough to determine whether to give more than passing attention to any of the articles.  Watching from across the aisle, I smugly assumed he might be one of those who checks only headlines and picture captions—but I was wrong.

After a quick once-over of a page containing a number of articles, he began to read one of them in earnest.  From my vantage, I could see the effect on him of what he was reading.  His very posture changed in his seat.  His facial expressions ranged from quizzical to credulous, from a smile of agreement to a frown of disapproval.  At one point, he stopped, cocked his head back to stare at the ceiling of the subway car, apparently thinking about what he had just read.

And that’s when I knew.  That’s why I write!

I had witnessed the communication of ideas and opinions from the writer of that article to the reader, although neither would ever meet the other.  The writer had reached the reader and elicited a response.  Across the cosmic void, communication had taken place.

In the writing I do—novels, collections of tales, poetry, blog-posts—I have no knowledge of the reactions of my readers to anything I write, save for when people post a comment on my blog, or send me an email, or ‘follow’ me online.  Many of those follows come from faraway nations, from people I will never know.

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But that’s not the point.  It’s my hope, my belief, that whether or not people choose to contact me, they will respond to my writing as I saw the man on the subway respond.  That is what provides the primary motivation to write.

It’s the urge to touch someone, to spark a sense of recognition, to provide a moment of enjoyment.  And most of all, it’s to provoke a response—even if I never know of it firsthand—so that what we’ll have here is a forum to communicate.

It matters to me.

A Writer’s View

I’m occasionally asked about the art of writing by those who read my blog-posts and books, but I’m usually caught off-guard, quite unprepared to give a cogent answer.  I was better primed for an industry online interview, however—an edited transcript of which is shared in this post.

Q. What is it you enjoy most about writing?

I enjoy the freedom to do whatever I want in the first-draft stages—creating credible characters, inventing dialogue, describing events, contriving plausible story-lines.

But even more, I enjoy the rewriting, where I can change things, reconstruct situations, alter outcomes.  I love having the opportunity to shape and re-shape the fictional world I’ve created in each story—almost like a wizard, going back in time with the power to change what originally happened.

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Q. What is your writing process?

I write everything down as soon as possible after it occurs to me —essays, short stories, blog-posts, episodes for my novels—sometimes in the wee, small hours of the morning when the thoughts tumbling in my brain won’t let me sleep.  Later, when the frenzy of first-draft has abated, I rewrite them to see where, or if, they fit in the overall picture.

I often spend hours on end in the process, even to the point of missing lunch or dinner.  I’m amazed when I discover that four or five hours might have passed before I paused for breath, so to speak. For me, writing is an alternate universe, one in which I easily lose myself.

Q. Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

I remember the first story I wrote as an adult.  It was titled The Leaving, and was included in two of my published collections of tales.  It told of the conflicting joy and sadness associated with the realization that my two daughters were growing up, leaving their childhood behind.  It was predicated on a credo my wife and I adopted in their upbringing—hug them close, then let them go.  The hugging was easy, of course; the letting-go not so much.

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Q. What prompted you to try writing a novel?

In the beginning, it was an attempt to answer the question as to whether or not I could do it.  And it took a long time to figure out—five years from inception to publication.  I was hoping to accomplish a number of things, the first being just to finish it; while I had been writing stories and poetry for a long time, I had never attempted a novel.

Additionally, I wanted to tell a story that would prove difficult for readers to resist.  I wanted to relate that story mainly through dialogue among the characters—in their respective voices.  I discovered, however, that the telling of some events had to be in my own narrator’s voice.  I also wanted to create convincing characters in whom readers might invest—little knowing at the time that I would become so attached to two of them that a series would follow.  They feel like friends now—to the point where, rather than creating their story in each successive book, I’ve come to feel like I’m simply recording it as it unfolds.

Q. How many books have you published?

To my astonishment, there are five novels now: By Precept and Example, 2007; Until He Killed Her, 2010; Lockdown, 2012; First Do No Harm, 2015; and the most recent, Missing and Murdered, 2017.  Each of the stories is told against a backdrop of contemporary events taking place at the time of publication.

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There are also three books of collected stories: On Top of the Grass: Tales of a Snowbird in Florida, 2008; It Matters to Me: Tales of a Young Father, 2010, and The Passing Parade: Tales of a Bemused Bystander, 2017.

All the books can be found, in print or e-book formats, at a number of locations, including http://www.amazon.ca and http://www.barnesandnoble.ca.  They are also available online at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a sixth novel in the Maggie Keiller/Derek Sloan crime series, and I hope to have a fourth collection of tales, Tall and True: Tales of a Peripatetic Blogger, published in 2018.

Q. When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

I spend a lot of time reading—more, perhaps, than writing.  And I sing bass with an a capella men’s chorus, Harbourtown Sound, which is both enjoyable and time-consuming.  The chorus website is http://www.harbourtownsound.ca/.

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I also try to stay active in golf, tennis, cycling, swimming, and other physical pursuits.

Q. Who are your favorite authors?

There are several, including John D. MacDonald, James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, John Sandford, and Randy Wayne White—all of whom write in my preferred genre. I also enjoy authors from different genres—Bill Bryson, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Winston Churchill, to name a few.