Dani Shapiro
April 14, 2011

On Writing for the Right Reasons

Lately I’ve noticed that many readers believe that we write in order to relieve ourselves of our burdens, to expel our demons–to make ourselves, in some way, feel better by setting down words on the page.  And perhaps some of us do.  On my travels, I have come across many people who “journal” or ask me if I teach “journaling”.  There is great merit in keeping a journal, and perhaps in teaching ways and methods to open up this mode of expression. I kept a journal myself for many years.  I wrote in it every single morning before I settled into the work at hand.  I thought of it (sorry, journal, but this is true) as my garbage can.  Everything went into it that didn’t belong in my work.  Random thoughts, musings, slights, concerns–in other words, the detritus of the day.

But.  (You knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?)  Keeping that journal had nothing to do with the attempt to write fiction or memoir.  Keeping that journal was an entirely private act.  A necessary act.  It was meant to be read by no one.  It was not even meant to be re-read by me at some later date.  It was a spewing, a releasing, of the chatter in my head.  Sometimes I think of the boxes and boxes of those journals piled in a closet in my house, and remind myself: burn them.

I came across this, from Ann Beattie‘s interview in The Paris Review:  the interviewer quotes a Beattie story, in which she writes of a character, a writer, “He had tried to write for the wrong reason: to exorcise demons instead of trying to court them.”  And Beattie’s response to this is that there is “a kind of courtship of your demons in the writing process.  I like to think I’m grappling with characters and situations in which I’ve more than met my match.”

I love this, the precise rightness of this, the idea of courting one’s demons.  So counter-intuitive, and so true.  If we write in order to release our demons–as so many people think we do–the material invariably becomes self-indulgent.  But if we court our demons, if we invite them onto the page so that we’re grappling with some of the most fundamental questions that haunt us, then we also invite the possibility of creating real tension, real drama, real originality.  It requires risk.  It requires faith, and courage, and an obdurate nature.  But what else there, really?  I am reminded again and again that the dance between the self and the page is ever-shifting, that we need to find our courage to write for the right reasons every single day.