Tag Archives: Dan Chaon

Why Do Writers Do Just About Anything?

8 Mar

In a recent essay in the New York Times, Dan Kois tackles a somewhat unanswerable question: Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?

                I would return—Why Do Writers Do Just About Anything?  Lewis Carroll, Thomas Wolfe, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov and Ernest Hemingway reportedly all wrote standing up, while Oberlin’s own Dan Choan evidently “writes a first draft on color-coded note cards he buys at Office Max.” (Thank you, yahoo answers.)  Perhaps a still more pertinent question would be to ask, Why Do Writers Write Novels in the First Place?

                In answering Dan Kois’ original question, I can only add my personal experience.  If you looked in my computer’s documents folder, buried in a series of haphazardly organized sub-folders you would find approximately nine different novels in varying stages of incompletion.  There’s the first book I ever wrote at fourteen-years-old, the beginning of a projected seven-book fantasy series.  Add a few other ill-guided fantasy novels, two attempts at something “literary”, a hybrid historical fiction-sci fi endeavor, one very long and very boring satire, and pages of incomplete shorter fiction and non-fiction work, and I’d say I’ve easily amassed enough bad writing to stuff a lifetime of packages with shredded paper.  Why did I, as Dan Kois phrases it, abandon these novels? 

                Looking back, it’s easy to see.  By the time I finished that first fantasy novel I found that I wasn’t moved by the characters or the plot anymore—so I shifted towards something I was interested in.  In some instances, I wasn’t a good enough writer to engage with the ideas I wanted to tackle.  In other cases, the writing was on point but I wasn’t mentally or emotionally centered around the piece.  Choosing to leave a piece behind was not a mark of failure, but rather one of growth.  I had seen the piece’s shortcomings and realized that, if it still remained something I wanted to address, I would need to adjust my craft and return for another round.

                Considering how susceptible writing is to the moods and means of the writer himself, it’s a wonder anything is ever completed at all.  The writer’s compulsion for the art is perhaps the simplest answer to the second and third questions posed.  If not for the sake of compulsion, I would not have begun the second or third or fifth or ninth of those sad novels after my despair over the first.  If not for compulsion, Office Max would be fully stocked in color-coded note cards, and a whole slew of writers would have spent much more of their time sitting, probably in their time period’s equivalent of the cubicle.

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