The message is not the motive: why we write what we write


It began in high school and continued to puzzle me for a few more years, those non sequitur answers to a stock Eng Lit question: “Why did the author write this book?” These are examples of acceptable answers:

  • “To show a peasant class being destroyed by industrialisation”
  • “To criticise Victorian notions of sexuality”
  • “To show that fate and a character flaw can bring tragic unavoidable consequences.”

In the 1950s this was a standard way to approach a work of literature. In retrospect, we may as well blame Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, whose influence on the teaching of English literature was global and decades-long and prescriptive and perhaps absurd — his approach was the only show in town. Just saying.

Anyway, to a future novelist, the convention was most alarming. It implied that we must have a noble theme shaped and polished before we dare to lift a pen. A high-minded morally superior world view and an evangelical urge to win hearts minds and souls were prerequisites for every novel. Obviously I was lacking. I’m still lacking.

The second Eng Lit question: what themes?

We were also asked another question that was more transparent but equally odd and tunnel-shaped: “What are the themes in this novel?” Theme-spotting is a nice game to play, but I could never believe that themes were cut and dried, correct exam answer or not. In the authoritarian culture of our high school, gut feelings (like “this is too facile, this doesn’t ring true) had to be squashed down. Or so I believed at the time.

Sloppy thinking from above

Eventually I got it: apparently my teachers assumed that the two questions were interchangeable, perhaps because apparently the only conceivable reason for writing a novel was to express a theme. Most of my English teachers loved literature with an infectious passion, which I suppose was ultimately more important than their theory. But this closed-questioning did confuse and worry me — because I accepted neither the premise or the implications, both of which frightened me as a budding writer.

Naughty thoughts keep a creative spirit steady

Secretly I continued to think my secret thoughts, naughty thoughts, heretical thoughts such as, “You have no idea what the author was really thinking!” and “You’re not a writer, so how would you know?” and “You’re just analysing a text after the event, and that’s not how people write!”

By identifying with the author, not the analyst, somewhere deep inside I stayed true to myself.

On the other hand, I could thoroughly enjoy myself and even be myself in exams and essays. I relished the game of literary analysis, because it was fun, and because I knew the rules and I knew it was only a game.

But I always needed that private world where you can quietly brew something brand new, all yours, using your mind and hands alone.

You know, I think everyone needs that private world. Not just writers. It gets called many things, for example, “me-time” or “space” or “a shed”.


11 thoughts on “The message is not the motive: why we write what we write

  1. When it comes to writing, I can get analysis paralysis. Easy to just write, then edit, massively if needed or maybe even start over. Too much thinking squashes my creativity.

    1. So true. I trust the brains in my fingers to carry me a long way. I do like to edit in a pretty systematic way and to separate planning from writing from editing. Experience helps, doesn’t it?

  2. Val says:

    Yes, exactly, Rachel. There aren’t any rules for writing when it’s for yourself. And when all’s said and done, the authors we read were mostly just doing it for themselves and following their own way, taking their own path.

    It’s the same with art and artists, by the way.

  3. Aunt Beulah says:

    As I went from high school to college taking every lit course I could because I loved to read, I played the game seriously until I awakened to the truth in an American Lit course and adopted your viewpoint. We’d been assigned Huckleberry Finn, which I had to reread having read it many years before when my mom suggested I do so. When faced with the standard question you listed above, the class members played the game valiantly, trying to guess what the professor wanted to hear and failing miserably. After ten minutes or so, he informed us we hadn’t read carefully, or we would have seen Twain wrote the novel to show the normalcy of young men experiencing un-admitted homosexual relationships. I immediately turned into Rachel.

    1. That was extreme! No wonder you recall it so clearly! I think you turned into you.

  4. graygeezer says:

    Quote from the book: “The curtains were blue.”
    Teacher: “The curtains represent the character’s depression, his lack of will to go on.”
    Me (quietly to myself): I think he meant the curtains were f*ing blue…

    1. Now I am thinking entire classes were fatally infected with subterranean common sense.

      1. graygeezer says:


  5. Oh indeed. The curtains were effing blue. I of course, see them as sky blue, so delightfully upbeat.

    1. graygeezer says:

      Such conflict! How ever did you survive? 🙂

  6. With giggles.

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