Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fudoki: Why Do We Write?

Why do we write?

This is a question that has been on mind my since reading the novel Fudoki by Kij Johnson.

Fudoki is about an elderly Japanese princess named Harueme who is dying slowly from a lung disease. In her final days she writes about her life, but also, though she has never done so before, she also writes her own monogatari tale (Japanese fairy tale) about a tortiseshell cat who loses her entire fudoki in her a fire.

The word "fudoki", as used in the book, means:
"... self and soul and home and shrine, all in one to a cat. The fudoki is the chronicle of the female cats who have claimed a place, a river of cats that starts with the first to come to that place, and ends with oneself - when one grows experienced enough to have a tale to tell." (18, Johnson)

The cat loses everything: her family, her home, her place in the her family's legacy. Without them she has nothing. She is nothing. She wanders the world, searching for meaning along Japan's famous Tokaido Road. A god there changes her into a human against her will, so she loses even her physical identity as a cat.

Princess Harueme enjoys writing about the cat because it allows her to explore the world and to control something since, as a princess, she is told what to do and has never seen the outside world. As she writes about the cat and also herself in her many blank notebooks scattered across her rooms, she realizes that she will be the only one to ever read these notebooks. Her work will be burned like trash by her attendents after she has died. 

So why does she keep writing? Why bother to write in the first place? Shouldn't she spend her final days dealing with the last moments of her life instead of writing? These are all questions that are addressed in the book and have made me deeply reflect on why I write as well.

Today most writers consider publication to be the end goal of their writing. Does that validate us somehow as writers to have our work published? What about Princess Harueme then? What about the people like her who write novels that are never published, poems that are never seen by another human's eyes, felt by another heart.

The answer that comes to my mind is from a movie I saw in 1993, Cool Runnings, about the first Jamaican bobsled team to qualify at the Winter Olympics. In one of my favorite scenes, the team's coach, Irv, confronts the team captain, Derice, who is obsessed with winning a gold medal to prove his worth:

"Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you're not enough without one, you'll never be enough with one."

"Hey coach, how will I know if I'm enough?"

"When you cross that finish line tomorrow, you'll know."
When I receive a response from an agent regarding my query, I will know if I'm enough too. I believe that with my whole heart. Our worth as writers doesn't come from being the gold medalists of the writing world: the published authors. It certainly doesn't come from winning any writing awards either, as anyone who's won one of worth will tell you, most times they feel it was undeserving or that it loses meaning as time passes, people forget its meaning and it gathers dust on the mantle. The validation already has to be there in the first place.

So where does our worth come from? Our worth is intrinsic, sprouting from our individuality - our unique voice and what we choose to write about. Our worth comes from our choice to write in the first place, expressing a story that only we can tell, like Princess Harueme's story.

This is not to say we should not seek to publish our work or improve our writing, nor seek out greatness, as striving for these goals will enrich our lives. If we care about something, we will do it to the best of our ability because we love it so deeply. I'm only saying that the stamp of "published" and awards shouldn't validate who we are as writers at our core; nor should they be why we write.

I might be unpopular for saying that, but I think it's time for a dose of truth. Let's be honest about this as fellow writers! One of the best pieces of advice I received from my favorite writer was: "Don't be in this business to make money. If you want to make money be a stock broker or a lawyer. If you want to write, then you will write, regardless of how much you're making."

Much as we all like to think in the corner of our minds that we are rising super stars, we all can't be the most popular author in the world. Last time I checked there aren't more than fifteen slots on the New York Times Bestseller List. I admit to picturing myself like that: my novel covers disappearing rapidly off the shelves, my portrait on the cover of TIME, waving as I strut down the red carpet towards the premiere of the perfect adaptation in flawless glamour, showered by bursting flashes of light and screaming cheers of countless fans.

But I ask you, do we even really want that deep within the core of who we are? The person that most people don't see? Especially since, we know that eventually all these things will be forgotten, just like Harueme's Empire, and crumble to dust and ruins. Humanity will move on eventually just as it always has. Two thousand years from now, will anyone remember the novels popular today? Perhaps a few but what of everyone else?

So why write at all? What are we left with?

In that regard we are like Harueme. Why write if there's no one around to read it? Why write at all if tomorrow our computer will crash and all our beloved stories are wiped from our hard drives, or our manuscripts sit neglected, gathering dust on a shelf buried by rejection letters, or even our books rotting forgotten in a landfill, their covers long lost and the yellowed pages torn and missing, unable to sell for even a penny? Why write if that is the end result of all our laboring and love?

Why do we write at all if we are but a single voice among billions, singing out among all the voices lost in time and among those countless yet to come in the future beyond our short lives?

Harueme says:

    "Why do I tell her story then? For that matter, why do I try to make sense of my own life, when I cannot say which things have happened exactly as I have written them, and which have been revised by wishes or regrets? Tales and memories, however inaccurate, are all we have. The things I have owned, the people I have loved, these are all just ink in notebooks that my mind stores in trunks and takes them out when it is bored or lonely. It is necessary to keep track of things, the third assistant comptroller of grains said. It is the recording of things, in our memories if nowhere else, that makes them real.
      My fudoki is precisely as long as my life has been. Without my fudoki I am nothing, because it and I are the same." (290-291, Johnson)
As for me, the times I have been happiest was when I was a child and first writing stories. The joy of first seeing a real typewriter and touching the keys. Of working so hard to learn my letters and seeing my first illustrated story put on the fridge. These were all mine and I revelled in my worlds. Through them I freed my soul. I write because it has always been in my very nature to do so, because it gives me an outlet for my creative drive, and at times brings me such unbridled joy that I fall into a zone that I can't describe, especially in words.

Writing allows me to explore my characters' lives; lives like Harueme's cat, that I will never live myself. Through their eyes I see places which I will never see. Sometimes I create entire universes shaping the land and peoples and even the laws of nature themselves, while in others I revel in the life of seemingly ordinary things I see every day, taking joy in what they have to teach me. At times I felt as if I have lived several lifetimes, spanning years that I cannot count.

Through becoming my characters, I become more of myself.
So now I ask you: why do you write?



  1. Hi Joanie,

    I think most writers write because they do get some self-satisfaction out of it, and those that write for money soon fall out of writing and seek something easier.

    To say I write because I have to or because I love it is somewhat cliche. I do know that one thing that keeps me coming back to the pen (keyboard) is what I learn by writing, about myself, my relationships, and the world around me. Each story I write provides me with another detail about myself and my life. These little insights are like nuggets of gold to my soul. Paychecks and awards are nice, good to be recognized, but they wouldn't mean anything if I didn't obtain the deeper riches that come from writing.

    Thanks and good luck in your craft!

  2. I write for myself and for my family. Writing allows you to share part of yourself that you might not share face to face. It allow you to release the pent up stories and emotions in your life.
    By the way thank you for following me and I have something over on my blog for you.

  3. Hi, Joanie! I hopped over from Pamela Jo's to say hello and congratulate you on your award. It's always fun to meet new blog friends! :-)


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