In this series apprentice, Imari Berry selects essays from Jessica Conoley’s archives. Imari shares why the essay resonates with her as a newer creative, & Jessica’s original essay follows.
I chose this essay because: Why do writers write? This question hit me in my gut and this essay makes me think about the reason I write. Sometimes there’s more than more answer and I’m figuring out mine with each word I write.
Initial publication date: 9/15/2015
The Last Question I Expected to Hear
It never occurred to me anyone would be interested in why I write what I write—until I started working on my website. As I worked with my graphic designer and computer coder, they asked questions about target audience and fonts and navigation and a million other things I never wanted to worry about. Finally, after answering their trillionth question, I stopped and asked them one. “Why would you go to a writer’s website?”
There was a pause, not too terribly long, but just long enough that I knew they really thought about it, and they came back with the same answer. “To see why they write what they write.”
“Oh.” I swallowed, and steered the conversation back to kerning and let the two of them geek out for ten minutes. I had no idea what my answer was. I’d spent years finding my voice, learning my style, evolving my skill, but never once did it occur to me anyone would ask me why I write what I do. I just write what I want.
The question sat at the back of my brain, wheedling away for the answer. About nine months later the beginning of an answer started to come to me. Maybe it started when I was at the super-secret-library interview with George RR Martin. He said, “Writers write the stories they want to read.” And, this is a statement with which I very much agree.
My fiction is rarely based in our reality, because this reality doesn’t interest me. I’ve been firmly grounded in reality since I was a child, and I’m still waiting for it to impress me. I write stories of adventure because the life I choose to live is (comparatively and blissfully) devoid of excitement. I veer toward tales that are very far away from me, because I find my life incredibly uninteresting. I write stories set in other worlds because I am too lazy to do research. Research is hard and time consuming. Imagining is innate to me, and I can do it while I finish the dishes.
I want the people who read my work to escape with me. I want them to be transported for one thousand words to an alternate plane that consumes their every thought. I want to give them a few pages to just stop being who they are and let them live a life they never even dreamed could exist.
There’s no formula for how I choose the vehicle of escape for a certain story or essay. I have no set way of coming to a tale. Sometimes stories come to me in flashes—like Polaroids. I get a flash of one super bright image and that’s the point an idea grows from—the flashes often come out of dreams. (99.99% of my dreams are nightmares. You may understand my subject content a little better now.) My story Seven came to me that way.
Sometimes stories come to me when I’m trapped, literally, in a situation I find unbearable. Almost a decade ago, I was in a meeting at my corporate job. It was in a gray office, with gray chairs, and gray carpet. The meeting had a power-point presentation and talker people and a never-ending agenda. A gray slumber started to pull me under, and I forced my gaze to the floor to try and find something to keep me awake. There, snaking through the center of the room was an obnoxious sunshine yellow extension cord. I thought about all the power that was running through that cord, and thought about how nice it would be if I could slide my foot forward and just touch it and pull a little kick of power to make sure I’d stay awake or maybe pull enough to just do myself in. The idea of stealing power from the only item of color in the terrible gray office eventually warped into The Color Eater.
I also write from the in-between—the area between two worlds, or a significant life shift, or the person struggling with the idea of one identity verses another. In this sense, this is the part of my stories where I “write what I know”. It’s in this limbo, this place of transition where I have always existed. My brother and I grew up living one week at one parent’s house the next at the other, back and forth every Friday night from the time I was five until I left home. Both realities were me, but the person who existed at either place was very different due to the differences in my parents. I was comfortable as either Jessica, but putting the two together was never something I did well. The ability to compartmentalize all the different Jessicas is a skill that has served me well time and time again. It makes sense to me that my characters should end up in this gray land of transition, because I have spent most of my life in that mist—a place where one always has to walk their own path, alone.
When I pick a book to read, I choose the stories as far from my own life as possible. I want to know what someone else’s world is like. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien let me ride through the Vietnam War in a soldier’s pack. A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous let me understand what it is to be in an occupied city at the end of a War. Enders Game by Orson Scott Card let me fight aliens and travel through space. I remember them all well because they transported me far away from who I am and where I live.
I write what I do for the same reason I read. I want to escape.
By Jessica Conoley