Why Do You Write?

I love it when I hear the question posed to writers, “Why do you write?” I listen with avid interest to the answers, which are sometimes elusive, like, “It’s just what I do,” or a conclusion arrived at by a process of elimination like, “It was the only thing I was good at,” or, “There’s nothing else I want to do more.” The writer Jhumpa Lahiri once quoted someone to say that the writer is “the reader who can’t control himself,” which must speak to the love of the medium, a love so fierce, that when you dive into a book, as into a swimming pool, that level of participation is not enough, and you have to, upon reaching the bottom, carve out another pool, and so on, so you can keep swimming forever.

Writers also talk about hating writing, and I love that too. Paul Beatty, the genius who gave us The Sellout, has said in interview that he hates writing, because writing is hard, and yet he devotes his whole soul and intellect and the years of his life to it. He’s not alone in this feeling, which of course gives rise to the question of why do it. Personally, I seem to write because I need to. I have a love for it, it’s one of the activities that seems most to be in harmony with my soul, and it’s also a strategy I lean on heavily, to deal with myself and the world, the inner and outer spaces, and the interconnections throughout them.

A big part of that mediation goes out in the desire to connect with others, by reading and by writing, via that special sort of communication that Stephen King calls “telepathy” between reader and writer. It’s a funny kind of communication because at any one point, in real time, there’s only one person present, either the reader or the writer, and yet it works. It works brilliantly well.

            Now that House of Rougeaux is launched, now that we’ve broken the champagne bottle over the hull, and the thing has lurched out of the harbor, it goes off on a sail that has little to do with me anymore. I spent two years (or so) building it, and now off it goes, in wind and water that I didn’t create, and while I’m very invested on its voyage, it’s now an entity separate from me. Actually, during the making it also felt like an entity separate from me, even though I was very intimately involved. The books I am working on now, two new novels, one of which is a Rougeaux sequel, have a stake in Rougeaux’s success, because these are two new entities that also want to be born. They want to be born, and also to have a life (publication, readership, participation in the culture of reading, in the activity of life on earth), and it’s the life part that depends on forces outside my own sphere. And after that, likely there will be others, because I’ll keep writing, because I need to, though that personal need, in itself, is not particularly interesting. More interesting is the question of why humanity does this at all.

One of the few writers to whom I have a deep, personal attachment—someone who feels like an important friend, even though I’ve never met him and never will, unless it’s in the afterlife—is David Foster Wallace. Wallace once said in interview:

Fiction has a very weird and complicated job, because part of its job is to teach the reader, communicate with the reader, establish some sort of relationship with the reader, where the reader is willing, on a neurological level, to expend effort, to look hard enough at the jellyfish to see that it’s pretty. That kind of effort is very hard to talk about, and it’s real scary because you can’t be sure whether you’ve done it or not. It’s what makes you sort of clutch your heart when somebody says, ‘I really like this. It didn’t strike me as gratuitous.’ Cause that’s, of course, your great hope when you’re doing it. The point of art has something to do with loneliness and something to do with setting up conversations between human beings.

This is as good a description of the point of art, and the intention of the attempt to get to that point, as any I’ve ever heard. Or it’s better, I don’t exactly keep track, I just know when I hear something like this that I have to write it down. And I have to reread it and share it, and keep it for myself, because it helps me understand what the hell I am also trying to do.

Thanks for reading.


Jenny Jaeckel’s latest book House of Rougeaux was published in April (2018) and is available in hardcover, ebook and audio wherever books are sold!

Living for Art and Stories

One of the first things I did when I got started on the planet, after getting the hang of eating and excreting and some basic motor skills, was draw pictures. I learned to walk late, talking and drawing were bigger priorities for me. Somewhere my mom has a photo of my first drawing from when I was one and a half: a mass of short lines, scribbles and dots on a chalkboard that I told her was a face. I pointed out the “eye-bows.” What got me so obsessed with drawing I don’t know, but I drew all the time. People told me I was good at it and that probably went to my head. Once when I was five I saw a picture in a museum, of a train drawn by Diego Rivera when he was three. I calculated that I could have drawn a picture that good right then, but I would have had two years on him and I could tell that in the imaginary competition in my mind, little Diego Rivera had won. Forty-one years later, it’s easy to see that against me Diego Rivera, and many lesser known artists, will always win.

The thing that I did not struggle with when I was a kid, was questioning the value of art. I took for granted that I did it just because I wanted to. I find that adulthood sucks in large part because everything you do has to have a reason, a justification, it’s got to make money, or at least help someone. Really what it means is that your activities have to justify your existence, and while choosing activities in an intentional way is a good thing, it can also make for a pretty sad baseline.

I spent a lot of years pursuing things I thought had more value than art. And then when I was back to doing art (which was often) I spent a lot of time trying to push the concepts of “art” and “value” back together in my mind. The two kept repelling, like magnets with the wrong sides toward each other. I’m not sure where that struggle went actually, I never came to any grand conclusions, but it has faded over time.

Here’s what I think won out. Two things, first: I really love stories, even the kind that start with “One time,” and end with the person you’re telling it to going, “And?” Sometimes visual art makes stories come to life in a way they couldn’t otherwise. Queens of comics art Marjane Satrapi, Kate Beaton and Lynda Barry, for example, are superb at this. So there’s love and excitement and beauty and poignancy in works I really connect to, whether that’s in books, radio stories or moments from life.

Secondly, I’ve discovered that for me part of the value of art (including writing) is that it’s a big part of the way that I deal with the difficult parts of being alive. Last year I read in Langston Hughes’ autobiography The Big Sea, that he wrote mostly when he felt bad. I felt relieved reading that. Maybe being a writer isn’t all about inspiration, maybe being a writer also means it’s what you turn to when you have to turn to something. And maybe another part of the time it’s just for the imaginary friends you get out of it. In any case, it turns out I’m still doing now what I started as a toddler. Maybe it was all unavoidable.

On that note I’d like to leave you with a story, because that’s what I live for.

One time many years ago I spent ten December days in London, on an impromptu, medicinal visit. I’d been in Spain and was a sort of casualty of love. I stayed with my friend Dina, and while she was working I went out on the tube to different places she recommended. On one of these excursions I went to the National Gallery and stumbled upon a school tour of the Van Goghs, given by a man I remember as resembling the French actor Dominique Pinon of Amélie, Delicatessen, etc. Thirty or so young students were seated on the floor in front of one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, while clusters of older museum visitors, myself included, stood around behind them.

Monsieur Pinon knelt beneath the painting on one knee, expounding passionately on Van Gogh, and the brilliant way he sculpted the paint into texture, and his important relationship with the painter Paul Gauguin. He spoke of the role of the painting in Van Gogh’s time with Gauguin, and the feud that erupted between them when they were living and working together in Arles, in the south of France. This feud, the lecturer said, caused Gauguin to leave town.

At that moment another visitor at the museum, a man with long hair and a goatee and a puffed-up chest he’d had his arms folded across, called out, “And then he went to Tahiti and shagged all the young women!” He strutted out, as he said this, disappearing into another gallery.

Dead silence. The students stared.

The lecturer, who had frozen mid-sentence, tipped his head to the side and said, “‘Tis true…”

The students laughed. The rest of us visitors laughed. And Monsieur Pinon went on with his talk.


Recently, Jenny Jaeckel wrote an essay for Writer’s Digest called “Bodies, Blind Spots and Quirks” where she talks about writing her novel House of Rougeaux. To find out more about her newest book visit Raincloud Press. Also available to order here, or from your favorite bookstore.

Princess and the Pea ~ A Writer’s Take on Being an HSP

If there’s one thing I can’t live without, it’s earplugs.

            Everyone knows the story of The Princess and the Pea, right? A prince searches the land for a princess to marry, and to make sure the candidates are the real deal he makes them sleep on top of a stack of 30 mattresses underneath which he has placed a single pea. If she sleeps fine, she’s not a real princess, but if she tosses and turns all night because the pea disturbs her, hurrah! She’s real! And he will marry her right away.

            If you think about it, why would the prince want to marry someone that easily disturbed? If she can’t sleep on a pea, how’s she ever going to be able to sleep with him? But those are the rules. Marry at your socioeconomic level or the power structures will collapse, and we can’t have that.

            There’s another meaning in this story though. Of all the fairy tales, this is the one with a secret message for a certain small subset of people, the neurologically “highly sensitive person” (HSP). According to some who study this subsetinevitably individuals who belong to it, desperate to understand themselvesabout 10 percent of the population is highly sensitive, while the other approximate 90 percent are not. There’s not much in between the two groups, they say, neurological sensitivity is not evenly distributed on a spectrum, so what’s left is a gulf of misunderstanding. Regular people totally don’t get the HSP, and vice versa. What happens though is that the regular people, because of their sheer majority, always win. The culture is designed for the majority, and if that makes you suffer, you’re told you are weak, defective, and a loser.

            Sigh…

            If you are a highly sensitive person, you know what I’m talking about. The world is full of peas of every sensory, energetic and emotional kind. For a regular person, imagine someone stuck a pea in your eye. You’d suddenly be in a very compromised situation. So just imagine your whole body was covered with eyes, and the whole world was full of flying peas. Gross, I know, but it illustrates a point.

            Just like the princess, a pea can ruin your night. Ruin enough nights and there goes your life. That’s why, among some other things, I prize earplugs so highly. HSPs are bothered by things the rest of the population doesn’t even notice, so if part of the message to the HSP ends up being that you’re a loser, the other part is that you’re crazy. Put enough peas in your eyes and you will certainly feel crazy. But wait, before going off the deep end, realize that this fairy tale is for you. The secret message is that you are not crazy and/or a loser: what you are is special.

            As with all neurological subsets, an HSP comes with particular gifts. We tend to be extra perceptive, good at empathy, attuned to the inner world, and very creativemaybe because we have to find stuff to do while we’re busy hiding away from the rest of world. There’s a lot of overlap between HSPs and introverts, but don’t get the two confused, introverts are a much larger group. Possibly all HSPs are introverts, but not all introverts are HSPs.

       So look, we’re special. We might be hard to live with, but isn’t everyone? The important thing is that we take care of our needs in appropriate ways. Years ago I heard an interview on This American Life with the beloved Fred Rogers, a.k.a. Mr. Rogers. In a discussion about noise and neighbors, Mr. Rogers recounted how once, in a hotel with loud traffic outside, he slept in the closet. That’s an HSP brother right there, and that was a smart, innovative solution to the problem. It’s also a compassionate thing to be out about in a public forum, because it supports other people when they have to do that kind of thing. And it’s also funny. Let’s all have a good laugh at the ridiculous things we have to do to get by.

            HSP or not, I’m guessing we all have some weird needs. For all our commonalities and differences, neurologically speaking every person is a subset of one. That’s how diverse we are. It’s mind-boggling and mysterious. Maybe we can just celebrate that.


Jenny Jaeckel (bio) is the author of four books, including the forthcoming House of Rougeaux, a highly anticipated historical and literary novel for 2018.

Foreword Reviews says, “Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is that in spite of the inescapable presence of slavery and prejudice, it isn’t really about either of these things. Jenny Jaeckel’s House of Rougeaux is about people–varied and fully realized individuals who make the flawed world their own.

Available for preorder now.

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