This month’s question in the Writers Ask Writers blog series is particularly challenging, and one that writers are often asked: Why do you write? Here is my response, followed by links to posts from Dawn Barker, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, Natasha Lester and Annabel Smith.
In an online article entitled 15 Famous Authors on Why They Write (Flavorwire), we’re told George Orwell listed four reasons: ‘sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose’—to which he added, in the process undercutting his own certainty: ‘All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.’
The same article quotes Joan Didion as saying: ‘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.’
I find my own instincts far more allied to Joan’s than to George’s.
Another online article (an organisation called Author’s Promoter) boasts a pie chart, representing the results of a survey of 100 published authors. Why do writers write?
As a way to express themselves (15%)
Because they have to (13%)
To help others (13%)
To educate (11%)
To share their imagination (8%)
To influence (6%)
Because they are influenced by other writers (6%)
Because it is a passion and a pleasure (5%)
Because it is therapeutic (5%)
Because it is their profession (3%)
To entertain (2%)
To immortalise themselves or others (2%)
For exposure and fame (2%)
Because they were victims of circumstance (2%)
Because of curiosity (2%)
Now, unless my calculator is faulty, that adds up to 95%, but let’s not quibble.
Once again I find myself with Joan rather than with the 100 published authors who took part in the survey.
In thinking about how to answer this seemingly simple question, I have meandered up and down a few paths—the philosophical, the aesthetic, the downright flippant (Why do I write? It’s not for the money!)—finally leaning towards the existential.
And so I offer a simple analogy.
In 1998, during a holiday to the UK, I travelled to Scotland for the first time. My husband and I drove up through the spine of England, crossed into the west of Scotland, passed through Glasgow, drove north alongside Loch Gare—eventually, that is, after going south for some time thanks to a wrong turn insisted on by the navigator, ahem, me—and finally into the Highlands, our destination. The area around Glencoe was the most spectacular, rugged, luminescent landscape I had ever seen, and I fell utterly in love with it. But my seduction had begun almost as soon as we crossed the border. The outer-city sprawl of Glasgow, the sparse Lowlands, the narrow road winding round the lake, signposted with warnings like BEWARE OF FALLING SHEEP, the dour faces and deadpan humour of people in bars and cafes—I had looked on all of these things and felt a slap of recognition: So this is where I come from. Ancestrally, this was true. But I am two generations removed from my nearest Scottish forebear; I never expected to feel such a visceral connectedness to a place so far from what I’d always thought of as my place.
A few years before this, I had decided to take some Creative Writing units at university. I’d had a patchy kind of background in writing. In primary school, ‘composition’, as it was called then, was my favourite subject. At thirteen, I had my first poem published in the school magazine. In the same year I wrote my first ‘novel’ (about fifteen pages, I think) and was crushed when my English teacher did not value my sense of melodrama and cautioned me against plot contrivances like gypsy fortune-tellers. I also wrote execrable song lyrics in my twenties. However, by the time I enrolled in writing classes at university, I had been working as a book editor for many years and my motivation for choosing these units was closely tied to that rather than to any ambition to be a writer. I wanted to understand the creative processes of the writers I worked with and to put myself on the other side of the red pen, to feel what it was like to have my work critically assessed and edited. I thought it would make me a better editor, and I think it did. But it also gave me a light-bulb moment: So this is what I’m supposed to be doing. And I think I’d had to reach the right time of my life to flick that switch.
These two moments of clarity come from the same place, have same constituent cells—the blood and tissue and neurons of identity. What I do. Who I am.
Here are links to the reasons my Writers Ask Writers friends offered. Every one of these rang true for me. And how about you? Easy question? Or does it get you thinking?
Annabel Smith: …it has to do with the creative impulse, with creating something from nothing, with the deep satisfaction of pounding at a sentence, a paragraph, and beyond, to create something which others will connect with and be moved by. —Read more here
Natasha Lester: …my reasons have to do with being a child and then a teenager and then a young woman and now a much older woman who still finds herself lost in the world of a book.—Read more here
Sara Foster: I write to try to look life in the eye—both when it thrills me and when it terrorises me. I write to explore the vagaries of human nature, the dichotomy of what is said and what is done. —Read more here
Emma Chapman: Writing offers you the chance to imagine a life wildly different to your own, and being a dreamy teenager at the time, any life seemed more interesting than my mish-mash of school and home.—Read more here
Dawn Barker: …writing is an escape, an intellectual challenge, and an incredibly frustrating puzzle that gives me immense satisfaction when I solve it. —Read more here