Why do you write? In this post, we look at why writers write and include excellent examples for each point.
This post is a look at the different motivations that cause us to put pen to paper.
Why Writers Write – According To Orwell
‘All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery,’ wrote George Orwell in ‘Why I Write’.
‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
For all one knows, that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.’
A Fascinating Contradiction
Orwell’s classic essay touches on a fascinating contradiction at the heart of the writing impulse.
We write to hear ourselves think, to attract an audience, to work out our demons.
Orwell identified four motivations that he believed lie in different combinations in every writer’s heart:
- Sheer Egoism: ‘Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood etc.’
- Aesthetic Enthusiasm: ‘Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.’
- Historical Impulse: ‘Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.’
- Political Purpose: ‘Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.’
Why Writers Write
I thought it would be interesting to update this list by quoting a few famous authors, and asking a range of contemporary writers (see details at end) about why they write. The key impulses which emerged might be summarised as follows:
- For Creative Joy
- To Protest
- To Make A Connection
- For Catharsis
- Because Of A Compulsive Need To Write
1. For Creative Joy
Creative joy emerged as the key motivation, and could often be traced back to childhood.
- ‘To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.’ ~Truman Capote
- ‘Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.’ ~Terry Pratchett
- ‘I had my very own writing shed when I was about 10. I remember writing a play in there and my friends performing it in the garden during the school holidays,’ says Amanda Saint. She writes now, she says, because ‘I love doing it. It brings me real pleasure and transports me to other places and other lives.’
- Amy Barnes has similarly come full circle and returned to the creative joys she first knew in childhood. ‘I actually found my first piece of writing recently from 1st grade, packed away in a box,’ she recalls. ‘It rhymed and is about kittens wearing mittens because it’s cold outside… I write now for my kindergarten self. For my 20-something self that hit a creative wall in the critique/workshop format. For the 30-something mom with a baby and a toddler. I remember writing that story and drawing a row of kittens with colourful mittens, and sharing in front of the class. I’m finding that joy again. I’m heading to AWP in the spring. I will be holding up a book instead of a crayon drawing and poem. But I feel that same excitement.’
- For Alex Woolf, the storytelling impulse also goes back to childhood. ‘Writing for me is like a sanctuary without walls. It’s a place where I can be alone and free to go in any direction I please. I write because I love the process of giving life to new characters and stories.’
2. To Protest
Writers can use fiction as a way to make statement about injustices or perceived wrongs in the world.
- ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.’ ~Joan Didion
- ‘Writing for me is thinking, and it’s also a way to position myself in the world, particularly when I don’t like what’s going on.’ ~Toni Morrison
- Protest – what Orwell called ‘political impulse’ – is another motive for Amanda Saint. ‘My last novel, Remember Tomorrow, was written as a protest against capitalism and consumer culture,’ she says. ‘After working as an environmental sustainability journalist for many years, it was driven by my grief and anger at what we’re doing to the planet and the lip service corporations pay to being “green”.’
3. To Make A Connection
Writers use writing as a way to feel connected in a fragmented world.
- ‘You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you’ve got something to say.’ ~F. Scott Fitzgerald
- ‘I feel inspired by the idea that a novel could wake someone up and resonate in a way where they would put the novel down and be like, “Well, shit. How do I go back to lying to myself about X? Because I’ve just seen myself really differently.”’ ~Ottessa Moshfegh
- Cheryl Pappas writes, she says, ‘to have a conversation with the world’. ‘When I first started writing, when I was about 19, I wrote to get a sense of the world; putting words on paper helped me absorb and process everything that was happening around me and inside me… I’m more balanced when I write a lot. I feel more alive, like I’m doing this life justice.’
- Michael Grant Smith writes to connect with others and perhaps also with himself. ‘Occasionally I hear my published work affected a reader in some way. My story troubled them, perhaps they discussed it with someone they knew. If they mention it to a stranger, I collect bonus points. I track this with a spreadsheet. Furthermore, I’m older so I want my name (after I’m dust) to be memorialized by something other than a list of unpaid debts. Publication is validation. It informs me I’ve connected somehow…’
- Says Amanda Saint: ‘I wanted to write things that would touch the people that read them in similar ways. I am still thrilled when people read my work and tell me that it has moved them in some way.’
4. For Catharsis
Writers write to feel a release – a way of working through their issues on paper.
- ‘If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.’ ~Lord Byron
- ‘Writers write about what obsesses them. You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.’ ~Anne Rice
- ‘Why does one begin to write? Because she feels misunderstood, I guess. Because it never comes out clearly enough when she tries to speak. Because she wants to rephrase the world, to take it in and give it back again differently, so that everything is used and nothing is lost. Because it’s something to do to pass the time until she is old enough to experience the things she writes about.’ ~Nicole Krauss
- ‘The world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and anger…’ ~Gloria E. Anzaldúa
- ‘I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me — the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living.’ ~Anaïs Nin
- ‘I find the creative process incredibly cathartic,’ says John McMenemie. ‘I used to write songs and poems – I still do – but as I’ve grown older I’ve gravitated more towards fiction. ‘Yes it’s escapism, but writing also helps me to work through my own demons. By channelling the darkness I can use it to make something. It gives me hope. Creating entire worlds where once there was just a blank page is extremely satisfying.
- For BF Jones, writing offers ‘a combination of airing my anxiety and frustrations, pushing myself and distracting/amusing myself.’ And the more she writes, the more she pushes herself. ‘English is my second language and I was always concerned my style would come across “clunky”,’ she says. ‘Now I’m still challenging myself but in a different way – I’ve been exploring new routes lately. I got the poetry bug, and am going to much darker and much quirkier places than I would have dared to do a few years back.’
5. Because Of A Compulsive Need To Write
Some writers write because – however hard they find it – it’s not as hard as not writing.
- ‘I write to find out how much I know. The act of writing for me is a concentrated form of thought. If I don’t enter that particular level of concentration, the chances are that certain ideas never reach any level of fruition.’ ~Don DeLillo
- ‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.’ ~Flannery O’Connor
- ‘For me, writing is like being gay. You finally admit that this is who you are, you come out and hope that no one runs away.’ ~Mark Haddon
- After enjoying the buzz of creative writing, encouraged by one Mr Taylor, an inspiring English teacher at school, novelist Stephen May lost the habit of writing for a long time. ‘I was a kid in need of any kind of validation… I loved writing then,’ he recalls. ‘Then I gave up any sort of writing in my late teens. But I think it was John Irving who said, “If you’re a writer who doesn’t write then you will always be slightly miserable.” And that was true for me. I was a bit depressed. I weaned myself back gradually, and for a while there was real joy in writing. I was like a kid again, turning out stories for Mr Taylor to read, but though success and prizes have followed, the joy in the process hasn’t lasted. For me now, writing is a kind of OCD. A weird compulsion. I’d give it up if I could. I actually hate writing. The physical effort of a first draft particularly feels like ripping out some of my own organs. It’s painful and stressful and generally agony. I do like having written though. And I quite like editing. And now I’ve been doing it every day for so long that it feels strange not to not do it. ‘I write, not because writing feels good but because I feel worse if I don’t write.
- BF Jones sees a compulsive element in her method too. ‘I find writing is a bit like running, you eventually become a little addicted to it. And, like running, if you fall out of the habit it’s much harder to get back into it!’
- Alex Woolf agrees: ‘The world is full of people who feel they could be writers but always have some excuse as to why they’re not actually writing. The thing about being a writer is it’s a vocation, not a career. It’s not even a choice. It’s just what you are. If I’d never been published, I’d still be a writer.’
What About Money?
- Dorothy Parker definitely wanted money: ‘As for me, I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money. I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it.’
- Russell Baker says: ‘I’m writing because I love to write, of course. It was just a pleasure to write. I’d write things for fun and throw it away. Of course, once you start making money it becomes work and it ceases to be fun, but your writing gets better.’
- Virginia Woolf said: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
- Jack London wanted to buy more land: ‘I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.’
- Frederick Forsyth said: ‘I’m slightly mercenary: I write for the money.’
Most of the writers I spoke to put the prospect of making money very low on their list of motivations.
- Amanda Saint: ‘After 12 years of involvement in the publishing world, I have absolutely no expectation of monetary reward for my fiction writing! I can only write the stories I am compelled to write. So I think I am just the kind of writer I am. If my stories get published and/or make a bit of money, that’s great but it’s not what motivates me to write.’
- Amy Barnes: ‘I honestly don’t have monetary expectations from my writing. My “day job” is also writing, and I do expect money there. My husband, on the other hand, would very much like to be our pool boy (and to have a pool) from my writing…’
- BF Jones. ‘I’m definitely not in it for the money (I have a full-time job for that) and at the moment writing remains very much a hobby. Which is great, as you get less angry at your hobbies as you do at your job!’
- John McMenemie: ‘For me it’s all about the process. Crafting a piece, working on the structure, bringing something meaningful or beautiful into the world where there was nothing. I have loads of writing that I’ve worked on which will never see the light of day, but that doesn’t make it any less valid than the pieces I’ve had published. It all counts. It’s all worthwhile. However I would be hypocritical to pretend my dream wasn’t to make a living out of writing…’
- Michael Grant Smith: ‘I’m conflicted about the money aspect. Having been paid to write, I think effort and talent should be compensated. On the other hand, art should be explored and developed for its own sake. I hope to become wealthy so I can re-examine my feelings in this regard…’
The Last Word
I hope this post on why writers write inspires you to carry on writing – no matter the reason you write.
About the up-and-coming writers:
- Amanda Saint is a novelist and short story writer.
- Stephen May’s novels include Life! Death! Prizes! (shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award). His new novel, Sell Us The Rope, is the story of a young Stalin’s time in London in May 1907.
- Amy Barnes’ works includes Clean-up on Aisle 5, Mother Figures and Ambrotypes.
- BF Jones is the author of two poetry collections, The Only Sounds Left and the Bowie-inspired Five Years, and a flash collection, Artifice. Her new collection is called A Thin Slice of Anxiety (Anxiety Press).
- Alex Woolf’s many books of adult and YA fiction include Mr Jones, Work in Progress, the Chronosphere series, and Aldo Moon.
- Michael Grant Smith’s fictions include A Keeper of Things, Unreliable Sources, and Reconstruction.
- J.R. McMenemie’s debut novel, Full Wire, is published by Indie Novella.
- Cheryl Pappas is the author of a flash fiction collection, The Clarity of Hunger.
by Dan Brotzel. Dan is the author of Hotel du Jack, a collection of short stories, co-author of a comic novel-in-emails about an eccentric writers’ group Work in Progress (Unbound), and a solo novel, The Wolf in the Woods.
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