Why We Do What We Do

by Barb on a gray day in Portland, Maine

It’s been a tough week that followed a tough month that falls in a tough year. Let’s face it, it’s been tough.

Which makes me wonder why I sit at my desk and write stories-stories that by all definitions are light entertainment, intended to take people away from both their daily concerns and their existential angst.

I was having one of those moments of doubt when I happened to read a New York Times Magazine article about The Good Place, a TV show I like very much because it is both smart and intelligent, which happens to be its dichotomy, the tightrope it walks.

The article revealed, among other things, that the showrunner, Michael Schur, has this quote from David Foster Wallace in his office.

“Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”

I try not to let Wallace’s suicide color my feelings about the words, nor the fact that I am not writing, and will never write, a 1000+ page postmodern encyclopedic novel that will be hailed as one of the great works of the last hundred years. Despite all these caveats, Wallace’s quote captures what I’m trying to do with my little books, the message that is at the heart of them.

(The quote is longer, and the article is obviously longer, and I recommend it. “The Ultimate Sitcom,” New York Times Magazine, by Sam Anderson, October 2, 2018.)

I’ve also been thinking about the words of Richard Curtis, the writer Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, About Time, Notting Hill, and so many other romantic comedies. I am an unabashed fan of these movies. The first three might be on my top ten list. Curtis has made this statement other times in slightly different ways, but I found this particular quote on YouTube from a Screenwriters Lecture he gave for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in 2014.

“I’m sometimes puzzled by the fact that when I write films about people falling in love they are critically taken to be sentimental and unrealistic. Yet, four million people in London are in love tonight and today, all around the world, hundreds of thousands of people will fall in love. But when someone writes a film about a soldier going AWOL and breaking into a flat and murdering a young pregnant woman, something that has happened twice in history, that film will be described as ‘searingly realistic.’ I don’t see how that’s true.”

This bit begins in the video at 27:06. The quote is longer and the whole video is worth a listen. Writers may particularly enjoy the writing tips he gives at the end.

And finally, below is a conversation that appeared on my Facebook wall last December, just a few days before Christmas. I have blanked out the names because it was obviously a very personal conversation.

This, then, is why we do what we do. And why we need to keep doing it, even when we are disheartened and discouraged and distracted and feeling like we should do something more important. Sometimes the human thing is not to focus laser-like on what’s wrong, but to look to the good. To focus on our common humanity.

My life experience has told me that the vast amount of people I have ever met or dealt with are good. Not everyone, by any stretch, but most. They are not without travails, burdens, fears, car-sized blindspots and canyon-sized flaws. But they try, in the best ways they know how, to be good.

That goodness is what I choose to reflect in my little pieces of art.

63 Thoughts

  1. Thank you for what you do. I have a lifelong love of and appreciation for cozies. Cozies, like yours, make me happy. I know there will be resolution, the mystery solved, and good guys will always win. Thank you for sharing your gift, especially in this political climate when there is so much discord in the world. Thank you, thank you! Keep writing! (PS: The Good Place is so great!)

  2. Yes. Yes. And yes. This is why we write to entertain, to lift the spirit, to restore justice by page 310 or 285 or wherever the book ends. Very well put, Barb. Thanks for the quotes, too.

  3. You are so very right. I don’t understand why people choose to read dark, depressing books, unless it is to reassure themselves that their own lives are better than someone’s. To write cozies or traditional mysteries is to control a small part of the universe, fictional or otherwise, and to let readers believe that a positive ending (justice) is possible.

  4. Thank you for what you do! Your comments are why I love cozies. I think we all see enough real life everyday. I read cozies to escape that. I know the murder solved, the killer punished, and everything will turn out right.

  5. Those are the reasons I read them! The world can be such a hard place. Reading cosies are a way to realize there are good people, a good place still out there.
    Thank you, and all of you Wickeds, for all you do.

  6. Barb, have you ever see the quote from Stan Lee? He talks about how other people he knew where going on to be doctors, and lawyers, and engineers, and he was “just a comic book writer.” But then he realized that people need stories just as much as they need those other things.

    While I don’t write cozy, at least at the end of my books I can make the bad guy get his comeuppence and “all is right with the world.” Who doesn’t need that?

  7. I am a ping pong reader. I enjoy sad and tragic stories that examine the darker or unlucky side of the human experience, but I also crave mysteries and cozies that present a problem, solve the problem, and restore order to the world. Chaos and order, it’s what life is about. What’s most striking about this post is that YOU recognize the value of your work and art. Would that all writers felt this way, no matter the genre.

  8. During days of turmoil and overwrought emotions or times of overwork and fatigue, a cozy relaxes the mind and soul in a way War and Peace could never do. You nailed it in this blog – the dichotomy between inner voices and feelings authors sometimes have versus what their books truly accomplish. You’ve also nailed it in your books!

  9. Barbara….this articles hits on exactly why I read cozy mysteries and why I appreciate the author’s who write them. As your article states – it’s been a tough year and for me it was tough personally. I lost my dad unexpectedly in February and it has been the cozy mystery community of readers and authors who offered me words of encouragement to get through the heart break. It was also reading cozy mysteries that helped me cope and escape even for a little while. So, don’t let anyone tell you that what you write isn’t important because it is to all your readers.

  10. And please all of you, keep doing what you do. And to those who raise an eyebrow when we say we are going to escape into something light or funny or romantic or hopeful, it doesn’t mean we are ignorant of reality and don’t want to take part in life; it means we choose not to be overcome and immersed and made negative by it.

    Great post, thank you.

  11. Thanks, Barb. I really struggled to write last week, for the very reasons you mentioned, and while I can give myself a bit of a pep talk, it works better coming from someone else.

  12. As you know, I read to escape reality. Same with my movies and TV show. It’s why I like the lighter side of just about everything.

    And I love The Good Place! Started it on demand last summer, and I was hooked. Got several other people hooked on it as well.

      1. I absolutely agree. You need to watch The Good Place from the beginning or you will miss half of what is happening.

  13. I read my share of “serious” books, but I always look forward to cozies to escape the horrors of the world. It’s really a wonderful world, but sometimes it’s hard to find. I overheard an overworked waitress say, “If you are looking at what is wrong with the world, you are looking the wrong way.” Cozies help me keep things in perspective, and, besides, they are a lot of fun! Thank you, Barb, all the Wickeds, and other cozy writers for the gift of pleasure.

  14. Thank you for your post! I like cozies for the very reasons you and the quotes of others remind us. Thank you for the encouragement to aspiring writers like me!

  15. Your cozies and similar works are life savers for many of us. They allow us to escape to a better place with good people. Thank you, Barbara, and please keep sharing your heart with us all.

  16. Nice post, Barb! Reading cozies was for years, and remains, a happy respite for me. It was after I started writing them I discovered that mystery writers, yourself included, are genuinely some of the nicest people in the world! This also brings me comfort on some of those tough days. 🙂

  17. It is strange that love, friendship, and laughter are somehow not real but all the dark things in life are. There is nothing wrong with writing fiction with a happier spin. We have the news for the darker side. By the way, Stan Lee kept his real name, Stanley Lieber, for his great American novel that he never wrote. I’m sure he reached more people with the comics, TV shows, and movies than most more serious novelists. I think “with great power comes great responsibility” is a great line.

  18. Dear Barbara,

    Thank you for this post. I came across it quite accidentally (on Amazon, funnily enough, as I was going through my “List of Authors” to see what new releases were in the pipeline). For me, too, this has been a pretty terrible week/month/year – and probably for the same reasons – and just reading this helped. Your books (as well as the books of Leslie, Sherry, and Edith from this message) have brought me escape and laughter and the warmth of your characters friendships at some very low times. And it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest that when my time comes, that I wouldn’t find that the best use of it was working my way through a basket of “cozies”. I often rail against the term “cozy” since it’s so often used dismissively, but in a week like this cozy seems like a very good thing, indeed.

    Yes, please keep sitting down at that keyboard (or yellow notepad) and going to the effort of putting out those words and paragraphs and chapters. I can guarantee that they mean more than you’ll ever know to people you’ll never know or perhaps even know about.

    With much appreciation to you, specifically, and all the writers in this genre I love so much,

    Lee Sauer

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