04 June 2019

With Malice Aforethought

By Michael Bracken

Audience arriving for "Make It Snappy:
Our Agatha Short Story Nominees"
While attending Malice Domestic last month, I had dinner with several writers and found myself sitting with Susanna Calkins, who I met earlier that day when I moderated “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Short Story Nominees.” Susanna—along with Leslie Budewitz, Barb Goffman, Tara Laskowski, and Art Taylor—provided the audience with an entertaining and informative fifty-minute conversation about their Agatha-nominated short stories, themselves, and writing. One question not asked during our panel discussion, but which often comes up in one form or another, sparked a significant portion of our dinner conversation:

What motivates you to write?

Susanna noted that many of us have pat answers—chocolate every five hundred words, perhaps—that are easy to toss off during a panel discussion, but which do not actually answer the question. As an academic, Susanna is interested in one day researching the answer to that question and in exploring both what motives writers to write but also what prevents would-be writers from writing. What she discovers through this research might then be applicable to other creative fields.

This intrigued me because my son Ian teaches (and practices) Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), a therapeutic model that trains caregivers to provide effective support and treatment for at-risk children, but which can be applied to all relationships. We have had several discussions about motivation and about how the desire for a dopamine rush can be a motivating factor in our decisions. Many of us drink, smoke, take drugs, and engage in risky behavior to trigger that dopamine rush. Some of us write short stories.

Friday evening Malice Domestic dinner companions.
Every time I have a story accepted, every time I receive a payment, every time I have a story published, every time I see a story mentioned in a review, every time I see the expression on someone’s face when they learn how many stories I’ve written, I feel that rush. It feeds me. It motivates me.

What motivates me may also serve as a barrier to growth. I have identified myself as a short story writer, and I have used that self-identification to expand into closely related activities that feed the same dopamine rush: editing anthologies (and, now, a magazine), moderating and serving on panels about writing short stories, writing essays and blog posts about writing short stories, and so on. When asked about writing novels, I have a pat answer that emphasizes the success I’ve had with short fiction: Why shoot the horse I rode in on?

But the real reason I no longer write novels may be fear. Not fear of failure—every novel I’ve written has been published—but fear that long-term projects such as novels don’t provide steady hits of dopamine. Without that repeated rush, there’s no motivation to continue the work.

I recently had an opportunity to pitch a partial and an outline. I presented two, was given encouragement to press forward with one, and promptly stepped on my own willie: I loaded myself up with short-story and short-story-related projects.

And I felt good.

My son and I will continue our discussions about TBRI, dopamine, and related topics, and through our discussions I may learn more about what motivates me and how and why it motivates me. And because I would like to know what motivates other writers—I know it really isn’t just chocolate—I hope that someday Susanna actually does her research.


  1. Michael, you're definitely right about the dopamine rush of short stories. There's definitely more of an instant gratification effect there since one can turn them out more quickly than a novel and have them (hopefully) see the light of day and get that rush.

    As to why we write, I'm sure there's a lot of psychological reasons that go back to our childhoods and that would give Freud plenty to chew on. But I can tell why we don't write: we don't write to get rich cause very few of us can grab that brass ring.

  2. Whatever it takes. How did Faulkner put it? “Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency … to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ODE ON A GRECIAN URN is worth any number of old ladies.”

    What intrigues me is J. D. Salinger quit publishing after his novella "Hapworth 16, 1924" was released in THE NEW YORKER. He reportedly continued writing until he died in 2010.

  3. Great post, Michael — as always. And I think you're right on the short story front too. Tara really had to fight that urge to write short stories (especially flash stories) while she was writing her novel--just too easy to go for something that can be written quicker, sent out sooner, potentially get accepted and published sooner. The payoff was good; she's very happy with the novel. But getting there....
    I'm trying to do these same myself--several stories set to come out over the next year or so, so hunkering down with the book. But it's a struggle and it's awfully tempting when I look toward those short stories ideas just waiting for me to follow through with them....

  4. I feel like when I start working on a novel, I need to take a very very deep breath and then submerge, and it does feel like I'm swimming underwater for a year or so, not really in touch with what's going on above the surface. That can feel very lonely. But if you talk about a rush, for me, the true rush is having a book, so I just have to remind myself that if that's what I want, it takes way more time and discipline to do it. But I always miss my shorties when I'm working on something long. It's always a relief to get back to them.

  5. A provocative piece, Michael. I wish I had an answer, but beyond the dopamine rush you mentioned, I got nuthin'. Maybe I'm making this up — and Google's not helping me, so maybe I am making it up — but I have a vague memory of a Richard Brautigan line, something to the effect of "it steam-engines when it comes steam-engine time." Whether or not the quote is authentic, that's the way I've always felt about writing short stories: I write them when it comes short-story-writing time. Although I've been publishing crime fiction for more than fifty years, a look at my bibliography reveals some giant gaps: nothing published between 1974 and 1984, again nothing between 1993 and 2004. I guess it just wasn't short-story-writing time, at least not for me....

  6. So true. Michael, I began writing novels because well-paying short story markets started to dry up. Even now, though I support myself writing novels, it's the short stories I get published that give me the biggest pleasure (and the most awards, by far.) I figure in future years, when I get tired, I'll return exclusively to short stories.

  7. I feel similarly, too. It's the same feeling of accomplishment I get when completing a task--doesn't have to be writing. Cross something off the to-do list. Yes! Pass another 10 percent mark in the book I'm reading. Yes! It makes me feel productive, and of course that's good. I get a bigger rush with short stories. Writing. Finishing. Selling. Publication. Feedback. I love feedback. That's the big rush for me. While I believe a writer has to enjoy the journey because publication is never guaranteed, I don't think I would enjoy writing as much if there were little chance of publication. It's why I don't keep a journal. Why write it if no one else will read it? But sharing on Facebook? I'm all over that.

  8. Thanks for all y'all's comments. It seems we have similar reasons for continuing to write short stories.

    As I thought about—and continue to think about—my conversation with Susanna, I remain unable to determine what motivated me to begin writing. I have my pat answer, and I think it's a pretty good one, but is it the truth? I didn't get that dopamine rush when I began writing, so something else must have motivated me. Why did I choose (consciously or unconsciously) a creative outlet and, of all the possible creative outlets—composing music, photography, oil painting, etc.—why writing?

  9. Michael, if I can take a stab at guessing why you might have chosen writing:

    Kids do all kinds of things to pass the time. They fingerpaint and color and make hook rugs and on and on and on. Each kid is probably naturally better at some things than others. When you're good at something, you kind of know, even when you're young. Plus you get external validation. So you were probably primed pretty young toward writing based on things you did in elementary school that you don't even remember doing.

  10. That's admirably self-honest, Michael, and probably not easy. It's great to have friends here.

    For me, I need to create. Good, bad, or ugly, some expression will burst out if I try to keep it locked within.

    I enjoy watching antique machinery. Look at a flywheel from the 1800s and chances are it won't have straight spokes, but spokes curved in an S pattern. Locamotives of the era might feature delicate filagree that few would notice. Some early airplanes and early automobiles featured a beauty engineers call elegance, when aesthetics combine with perfect function.

    I once took apart an early Apple laptop with a disc drive. To save weight, most manufacturers punched holes in the support carriers, but not the designer of this device. There locked in the machine where no one would ever see it sat this carrier, an artwork of delicate lace. Creativity had torn from the enginner's breast to create a little hidden beauty.

    I like that, I understand it. Our stories– the really good stories– require architecture and design and rampant creativity.

    Also, I have control issues. Creativity and control issues were present when I designed software. I loved making the most powerful machines of my generation dance to my music.

    Likewise in writing, I can control the destinies of my characters. I can make an imperfect world perfect. That I love.

  11. Love writing short stories because I can complete a rough draft in a few days and read the thing several times in one sitting to make sure it flows right. I can't do that with a novel. I'd say my motivation is to create, but also to comment about things that bother me or that I'm thinking about in a twisted, obtuse way. A way to express myself might be the answer. Not sure.


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