Reasons for writing: be glib or be puzzled


My sister Lesley (left) who accidentally triggered Fixing Mrs Philpott. Photo: Nilu Izadi 

What prompts you to write a particular book, a specific book? For example, why did I write Fixing Mrs Philpott— rather than a memoir, a book about ageing, or a novel from scratch about an entirely different character?

“Why did the author write this book?”

This is a stock question at any writers’ festival, and authors learn to answer in a way that satisfies the audience. But the “reasons” we trot out are usually a minefield of guesses, coincidences, fictions and facts. They are excuses, not reasons. We shape our reply for the audience and our own needs, and it’s as true as we can make it. Behind that carefully constructed answer is a mystery and a puzzle. Which is not a bad thing.

My high school English teachers used to ask us this standard question about every poem and every novel that we studied, and it puzzled me deeply. Especially as they seemed utterly confident they knew the answer, and that there was only one correct answer. Even at the age of 12 I was astonished at their answers and their certainty, because I was equally certain that they were wrong.

Unpicking some reasons for writing Fixing Mrs Philpott

Circumstances played a part. A few years ago, my sister told me that her 80-year-old friend was looking for some mildly erotic short stories to revive her lost sex drive. I was very busy at the time and certainly didn’t have time to write a novel … but it occurred to me that I could handle short stories. They were short, that’s why. And I could write them one at a time.

So I gathered true confessions about real life sex from friends and acquaintances (but why?). I elaborated (but why?), I embellished (but why?) and the result was Scarlet Heels: 26 stories about sex.

Then at the Frankfurt Book Fair, publishers and agents advised me with one voice to reverse-engineer the short stories into a novel. With 26 random characters in eight different countries? Yeah, right! What a ridiculous idea.

Nobody forced me to jump through that hoop, and yet I did. (Why?) After three false starts (modelled on 1001 Nights, an Agatha Christie house party, and The Canterbury Tales) I finally hammered the stories into a single entity by using the Hero’s Journey screenplay model. A single male character was added to the mix. Eventually I had a plot and an earthquake-resistant structure, instead of a string of episodes:

Odd little Mrs Philpott has a couple of problems on the back burner. At 70 she is convinced that her life is over, plus she has a “relationship problem” with her husband Bill — and then the earthquakes begin. So off she goes, a small woman in a large car dragging a yellow caravan. On a shaky road trip around Canterbury, she receives a torrent of all-too-personal advice from an ever-expanding community of friends. Further disasters test her to the limit. In a final violent confrontation, she must either prove that she is well and truly fixed — or lose everything.


But these are not logical reasons

Would you have perceived a lack of time as a reason to write short stories? Would you have written the short stories just because your sister asked you to find some for a friend? Would you have struggled to create a genuine, well plotted novel out of those maverick short stories, without a contract or commitment from agent or publisher?

I like to think I select my own path as a writer, but my feet carry me inexorably along peculiar tracks to odd destinations. And that’s exactly how I like it.

How about you? Are you more logical, more sensible than this? That’s fine, because we need all sorts of writers. Or maybe you know exactly what I mean.

6 thoughts on “Reasons for writing: be glib or be puzzled

  1. Aunt Beulah says:

    I found this post quite fascinating, Rachel. I like learning how people find their way to something, and yours was such a forthright telling. I decided to write my memoir when I thought to myself, I don’t want all the newspaper columns and life sketches I’ve written to die on my computer when I am gone. I’d like there to be some hard evidence that I existed and I wrote. Thus “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns.”

    1. That’s such a clear and honest reason for writing your memoir, which I have just bought on Kindle — thanks for telling me about it! Many would identify with that as a motive. Among my literary friends, not one but three say their reason for writing a memoir was to give their version of events as related in a memoir by son, husband or lover!

      1. Aunt Beulah says:

        That’s a strange and funny motivation, methinks. Thanks for purchasing my memoir. I hope you’ll enjoy it. We were on the same wavelength, because todaymI’m going to stock up on books on my iPad for an upcoming trip, and Mrs. Philpot is on my list. I’ll let you know when I’ve read it.[

      2. I enjoyed your memoir so much. But is it ever finished?

  2. Oh no. I am quite often neither logical nor sensible, but I do always have a kind of loose, webby plan in my head about what I’m after with my writing. Sometimes I even put it down in lists or an action plan, almost always instantly abandoned and forgotten. Ages later, when I find the list or plan in a pile somewhere, or these days, in a file on my computer, I discover I’ve accomplished quite a bit of it!

  3. Very interesting, Kathryn. Same thing happens with me all the time, so that now I do it on purpose, get a jump start on my next project long before I have “decided” what to write. But in your comment I notice how easy it is to swerve from thinking about the reason, the motivation, which is what mystifies me, to the goal, the end point. I wonder why that happens?

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