WHY I WRITE

By Michael Raleigh

I started telling stories when I was about five. I would draw enormous, complicated pictures of battles involving improbable armies and characters, and narrate the picture as I created it. The drawing was fun but the story was the point.

I don’t know what the adults in my house thought. My mother tended to think her boy was touched by genius. I think my father thought I was disturbed, or at least backward.

But I know I lived in a house of story tellers. My family lived next door to my grandparents, Leitrim-born, and all of them talkers, and sometimes they’d sit around my grandmother’s table with a quart of beer and a couple of high balls in front of them and talk about the people they knew and the goings on in the neighborhood.  None of them were very well educated but they all talked and told their stores and I was infected.

And so I told my stories: to myself, narrating my Arthurian battles and Comanche uprisings, and later to my friends and classmates, and I saw that they were interested in my stories, whether they were merely my rehashing of the wide and weird range of things I read, or tales of my own invention, often humorous. In point of fact, you couldn’t shut me up.

At about the age of 16 I was struck by the urge to write. The occasion was an assignment in my third year English class, to write a story, any story. So I wrote a story about a young, promising boxer and his rapid rise through the ranks of his sport. I don’t think my fingers ever moved so fast on a keyboard. My instructor, a jaded fellow who sold loud men’s clothing on the side, was unimpressed, pointing out that by killing off my protagonist on page 6 of a 10 page story, I had transgressed against the Aristotelian unities, whatever they were.

But I was hooked, and from that point on, I wanted to write fiction.

I will spare the reader the gory details of my attempts to get published. Suffice it to say that I wrote hundreds of pages of stories, hundreds, and there always seemed to be more coming out, like sneezes in an allergy fit. For a short time I grew disenchanted with the glacial pace of it all and concentrated on poetry. But all the while, the stories were still in there.

I once heard the great jazzman Miles Davis interviewed, and at one point, when asked about his writing process, Davis said, “there’s always music going through my head. I can hear it right now while I’m talking to you.”

And I nearly jumped out of my seat, yelling out to Miles on the TV screen, “Yeah, Miles, me, too, except it’s stories. There’s always a story moving around in my head.”

Eventually I went back to fiction, got a few published, and began the long, bloody process of trying to sell a novel.

I’ve now published nine books, and at any given time, I have two or three projects going – not to say that all these will be published. But that’s not the point, it hasn’t ever really been the point. After all, I wrote for five or six years before I published anything.

But publish or no, it is what I do. I tell stories about the people I’ve known and the things I think I’ve learned about the world, the way it is or the way I’d like it to be in some alternate life. When I hear that a writer has retired from writing, I am always puzzled. My first reaction is “Did she die?”

In my view, a writer writes forever. There is no time-limit, no mandatory retirement age, no 9th inning. I can’t imagine the time when I would no longer want to be the fellow who says, “Hey, let me tell you a story.”

 

Michael Raleigh is the author of eight novels, including the forthcoming The Conjuror’s Boy.