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Why I Write

Publishers Weekly invited me to contribute an essay to their weekly “Why I Write” column. My piece ran on November 18; for those of you who, like me, don’t have a subscription to PW, here’s the essay:

Years ago, when I was in my twenties, I heard an interview with the composer Aaron Copland.  The interviewer asked why it had been over a decade since Copland’s last completed composition.  I thought the question was insensitive but Copland’s answer frightened me: “Songs stopped coming to me,” he said.

I wasn’t a published writer at the time, but I was a lifelong writer of stories and poems.  These were a private exploration of an interior landscape.  My earliest memories include the stories that came to me when I was a small child.  The thought that these might stop (“as if someone turned off a faucet,” Copland also said) seems as terrifying to me today as it did all those years back.

I write because stories come to me.  I love language, I love playing with words and rewriting and reworking, trying to polish, trying to explore new narrative strategies, but I write stories, not words.  Many times the stories I tell in my head aren’t things I ever actually put onto a page.  Instead, I’m rehearsing dramas that help me understand myself, why I act the way I do, whether it’s even possible for me to do things differently. Where some people turn to abstract philosophy or religion to answer such questions, for me it’s narrative, it’s fiction, that helps sort out moral or personal issues.

At night, I often tell myself a bedtime story—not a good activity for a chronic insomniac, by the way: the emotions become too intense for rest.  When I was a child and an adolescent, the bedtime stories were versions of my wishes.  They usually depicted safe and magical places. I was never a hero in my adventures; I was someone escaping into safety.

As a young adult, I imagined myself as a published writer.  For many years, the story I told myself was of becoming a writer. Over a period of eight years, that imagined scenario slowly made me strong enough to try to write for publication. After V I Warshawski came into my life, my private narratives changed again.  I don’t lie in bed thinking about V I; I’m imagining other kinds of drama, but these often form the subtext of the V I narratives.

I’m always running three or four storylines: the private ones, and the ones I’m trying to turn into novels.  I need both kinds going side by side to keep me writing.

Storylines are suggested by many things—people I meet, books I’m reading, news stories I’m following—but the stories themselves come from a place whose location I don’t really know.  I imagine it as an aquifer, some inky underground reservoir that feeds writers and painters and musicians and anyone else doing creative work.  It’s a lake so deep that no one who drinks from it, not even Shakespeare, not Mozart or Archimedes, ever got to the bottom.

There have been times when, in Copland’s phrase, the faucet’s been turned off; my entry to the aquifer has been shut down.  No stories arrive and I panic, wondering if this is it, the last story I’ll ever get, as Copland found himself with the last song.   If that ever happens permanently, I don’t know what I’ll do.

So far, each time, the spigot has miraculously been turned on again; the stories come back, I start writing once more. Each time it happens, though, I return to work with an awareness that I’ve been given a gift that can vanish like a lake in a drought.

 

 

 

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  • the Bag Lady

    I, too, used to have stories running in my head constantly. I spent many nights when I was young giving in to the compulsion to write them down. Sadly, I fought the urge for so many years that the stories no longer come to me.
    I sincerely hope your spigot remains in the on position forever!

  • genny from jersey

     Thank you so much for sharing this with us.    I have to imagine (because I don’t have the skills) that  writing is a very personal process and gift.

    I recall a biography of Dorothy Parker that I read a long time ago.  She seemed to struggle so much in the process of getting the words to paper.

    It’s interesting that you mention Mozart.  When I read your works it sounds like I’m listening to great music.

  • Stine

    How beautifully written! One of the reasons that I love your novels so much, is the language. And even though my main language isn’t english, I always buy and read them in their original language. It’s a pleasure.

  • Shirleyannb

    I wouldn’t say writing comes naturally to you, but it seems to be in your consciousness. With me, it’s not that apparent. I always wondered why I don’t write more. Interesting explanation of the mental process you go through to write. I so enjoy the way you tell stories. No one else does it like you.

  • Shirleyannb

    I reread what I wrote earlier and should have said that while writing isn’t always easy for you, it seems to come naturally.

  • Innerdanz

    I once conducted a class where we asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up.  We got a lot of the usual answers-“I want to be a fireman”  “I want to be a ballerina”  One 4th grade girl wrote “I am a writer”  It was the most awesome answer ever.

  • My Dad loves your books and the rest of our family enjoys them too! Are you considering the option of letting us read your books on kindle in addition to print version. For my household this would result in an increase in purchases of your books and for my Dad who has ever increasing challenges with his vision, it would allow him to adjust the type and make it as big as possible.

  • Wim

    I can envision your progressive role as an insomniac, sitting up late night reading my first Warshawski book “Breakdown”, in a cold Michigan prison town with Bin Laden on my porch. Strangely, I find the urge to write at times that isolation inspires, the clocks stop ticking, and the storyline becomes vivid in my nocturnal dreamscape. There is an endless sea of hope for mystery writers that can tell a story as professionally as Paretsky.

  • Sara Paretskt

    Carolyn, thanks for the comment and query. Right now all my title are available in e-formats, as far as I know. If you’re looking for one and don’t see it, please let me know

  • Sharon in Antigua

    25 years ago as a poor college student and avid reader I bought one of your books from a second hand bookstore in Montclair, NJ. That was Deadlock and my 1st introduction to V.I. and I was hooked.  I’m methodical about reading so of course I just had to get the 1st book, and then the 3rd , 4th – you get the picture.  You’re were added to my library which traveled with me wherever I moved to.  Whenever a V.I. book was released I HAD to get it – it was as if I’d been away from family and I had to know what was happening with them now.  I had every V.I. title in my collection up to Total Recall. 

    Sadly after returning to the Caribbean to take care of my father about 9 years ago, I had to decided what was essential, and my book collections from several authors including my V.I. series did not make it. It was really tough to let them go – so much so that I decided not to do anymore collecting again. 

    I’m looking at Bleeding Kansas and Fire Sale on my bookshelf as I type.  I got them from the local bookstore a few years ago and I could not give them away.   Fire Sale flew off the store shelf into my hand but Bleeding Kansas I was really reluctant to try .  I’d so identified you with the VI series and I didn’t want to be disappointed.  I WAS NOT!  Beautifully written.  I couldn’t put it down. 

    Thank you for writing and for creating a world – V.I.’s world that is second to none. 

    BTW:  Any young’uns reading this.  Don’t do what I did.  For a few years after college I decided to imitate VI’s habit and stick bills under magazines when money was tight.  Not a good idea. 

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