“Write with blood, and you will experience that blood is spirit.” –Nietzsche.
This is my entry for a blog hop (sounds like a drunk frog) called “Why I Write.” It was Drew Chial who tagged me in his excellent entry, so you can blame him.
I do two kinds of writing: academic (philosophical essays, though this extends into my work in popular culture and philosophy, so it’s also popular) and fiction-writing, specifically suspense novels.
As so many of us, I started writing some very bad poetry and some prose pieces when I was a teen. Once I fell in love with philosophy and started into grad school, I began my career in academic writing. I have a great attention to detail, and I’m very analytical and can focus intently. Further, I make copious notes, and I outline thoroughly, and I never start an essay until I’m sure of exactly what I’m going to say and argue; so my academic writing is quite rigorous, and my skills at the craft of prose writing have developed over the years.
During my grad days I started doing a kind of journaling and writing stream-of conscious prose pieces, but I did so when I was drunk and depressed, so that stuff’s kind of interesting to read, but it didn’t amount to much.
I started writing crime/suspense by accident. I started working on a screenplay in grad school with a friend of mine over many, many beers. When we began, we didn’t have any particular genre in mind; we just wanted to come up with a story, and it turned out to be a suspense/mystery. We came up with the outline of the plot and some character sketches, and he left it to me to put it into screenplay format, which I didn’t know how to do. I left it sit in my desk drawer for a couple of years, then decided one summer to turn it into a novel. I wrote, rewrote, edited, read in the genre (I’d never read any suspense or crime literature until I started writing it), and finally came up with a complete draft. I enjoyed the process so much, that I started right away on a second one, and I never stopped.
In suspense, the influences I always name are: Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, James Ellroy, and Jim Thompson. So at first I wrote a Jim Thompson novel, and then an Elmore Leonard novel, and then a James Ellroy novel. I started looking for a literary agent—though as I would later discover, it was too early to do so. When that went nowhere, I started sending out queries to small, independent presses, and it was thus that I found a publisher for my fourth novel written, Dark as Night.
I recall that it was when I was working on novel #6 or #7 (and after as many years or more) that I found my voice. That’s what I mean when I say I went looking for an agent too soon. I’ve become a big believer in the rule of thumb that you should put in about ten years or so of writing before you even think about trying to get published (if ever). Most of us don’t know how bad we are at it at first, so I understand the temptation to want to get your stuff out there; but, trust me, you don’t want to rush it. I always compare the craft of writing to singing: those who sing off key don’t know they’re doing it. You have to learn to hear your writing, to hear your mistakes, and that takes a great deal of time and experience.
I eventually did find a respectable agent, and he shopped my manuscripts around for a few years, until in 2013 Adam Chromy offered me the opportunity of publishing two of my books as e-novels via The Rogue Reader. One was a reprint of Dark as Night, and the other was a complete rewrite of the first novel I wrote, now entitled Killer’s Coda. I only discovered then that my agent has died (which well explains why I hadn’t heard from him in a while).
Why I write
None of the above exactly explains the topic at hand, why I write, but it provides the background for giving an answer.
I write philosophy essays because philosophy is the love and passion of my intellectual life. What I didn’t mention above was that it was as a depressed teen that I discovered philosophy (after having dropped out of one college and changed majors), and it spoke to me in a very deep and personal way. I’d always been looking for some kind of depth, some kind of intellectual guidance. I somehow intuitively knew there were big questions, big ideas out there that someone, somewhere was talking about, and I finally found the conversation and joined it immediately. So writing philosophy essays is indeed part of my job; it’s part of what I get paid to do for a living (which is remarkable in itself), but it’s also my way of making a small contribution to that ongoing conversation of great ideas. I can’t imagine doing anything else, can’t imagine a better job (well, okay, if they paid me a whole lot more, that’d be pretty cool).
With regard to fiction writing, the answer is perhaps less clear. I take a great deal of satisfaction from writing novels—it’s fun and rewarding. But I think in general there’s something deeply human and very important about story-telling, about constructing narratives. We all have a deep desire to make sense of our lives, to think that there’s some point, some overarching meaning to them, and in a way living is constructing the narrative of your own life. We tell stories to help ourselves make sense of the world and our lives. I think we capture a lot by referring to a human being as “the story-telling animal.” It pegs us as language-users, for whom our lives and events in our lives matter, and who have a deep need for communication—that is, a deep need for community, being with others. Further, it implies in at least an oblique way what I mentioned above: The question of our existence, and the meaning of our existence, is of profound importance to us: we need to make sense of it all.
Consequently, I write stories about guys trying to shoot each other…
For a very long time the two sorts of writing I did were completely separate; I had philosophy on the one hand, and fiction on the other. At one point or another, I attempted to integrate some philosophical content or ideas into my stories, but the attempt always failed. The ideas always felt tacked on (which they were, really). It’s only very recently that I’ve learned to bring these two passions of mine together in, for me, a very exciting way. In large part, I accomplished this by expanding upon the genre I was writing in. I had to move beyond straightforward suspense tales in order to do it (by incorporating some of what might be identified as sci fi or dystopic elements). But the whole thing has come together also because of some of my recent revelations about storytelling itself. That all began when I started reading books on screenwriting (I’m particularly indebted to Robert McKee’s invaluable book, Story). But I’ve had some further revelations that I’ll talk about in a future post.
For the purposes of this blog hop, then, I’m passing the baton to:
Mark T. Conard is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. He’s the co-editor of The Simpsons and Philosophy, and Woody Allen and Philosophy, both published by Open Court Press, and is editor of The Philosophy of Film Noir, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese, The Philosophy of The Coen Brothers, and The Philosophy of Spike Lee, all published by The University Press of Kentucky. He is also the editor of Nietzsche and the Philosophers (Routledge, 2017).
View all posts by Mark T. Conard