Writers ask writers: why I write

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

PWFC author collage

31 Comments

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31 responses to “Writers ask writers: why I write

  1. Pingback: Writers Ask Writers: Why Do You Write? | While the kids are sleeping

  2. Pingback: EMMA CHAPMAN » WRITERS ASK WRITERS: Why Do You Write?

  3. annabelsmith

    I feel really sorry for the writers that are doing it ‘for exposure and fame’ – because unless they’re incredibly talented AND lucky, they’re going to be sorely disappointed!

  4. Great post Amanda, although I’m not sure I agree with your teacher stifling the creative process. Gypsy fortune-tellers sound great to me. I also have a far-back Scottish heritage as well, and visited for the first time in 2007. Same feelings as you, driving to Glencoe from Loch Ness, the landscape was amazing and I saw beauty where the others in the car were like meh. It tapped at something inside and I do believe in ancestral connection to place. We have such ties to place during our lives anyway, why not through the blood somehow?

    Will check out other links!

    • I do remember my gypsy fortune-teller appearing rather conveniently, Jenny, so I have to concede that Mrs Connochie had a point 🙂
      Very interested to read of your similar experience in Scotland. Powerful, isn’t it? Way beyond the aesthetic.
      Enjoy the other links, and thanks for reading!

  5. I love the idea of signs that read Beware of Falling Sheep. That is brilliant.

    I love all these posts and always read them, but this is the first time I have commented on your blog Amanda! I’ve just bought Elemental at the recommendation of a customer who visited the bookstore that I work in, where the book has been a bestseller. Thanks to you and your writing group for sharing your experiences.

    • Emily, I wish I’d taken a photo of that sign but it was a narrow, twisty road and I was busy, you know, looking out for sheep! (There’s sheep danger of another kind in other areas of the Highlands—they just congregate on the roads and wander all over the place, and the locals call them ‘the woolly assassins’.)
      I’m so glad you commented today, and thank you for that lovely feedback about Elemental (I’m thrilled to hear that, and I hope you enjoy it) and your comments about our blog posts. 🙂

  6. Oh, ‘the blood and tissue and neurons of identity’ …I love that and hope it’s not creepy to quote you to you! I wrote a blog post about this once and I think I said if I didn’t write I would spend my time stalking writers (wait, I already do that) Anyway 🙂 how else to make sense of light and dark?

    • Haha, thanks, Rashida! 🙂 And I love what you’ve said about making sense of light and dark. I’m not sure I can ever make sense of it, but the questioning matters, as does the uncertainty.

  7. I write primarily because I am compelled to (so the 13% that say because they have to). The ideas come thick and fast and I have to write to gain space in my head or to properly tease out and experience things that seem otherwise a bit vague or blurry around the edges in my mind. Also because if I want to remember them years from now, I need to write them down.

    • You must have a huge archive of stored material, Marisa. What a resource! (My equivalent is a file full of scraps of paper bearing cryptic notes.) The important thing is to figure out what works for you, and you’ve obviously nailed that.

  8. Rose van Son

    A wonderful blog and question Amanda. I write because it gives me a sense of purpose, of who I am. When we write our thoughts are heightened. A few years ago I spent a few weeks with family in the south of Italy. In my mind I still return there, to again experience the colours, moments, food, walks, people. I see this return not as reliving the past but as a collection point for the future, and I am excited by what I see, what I feel. When I write I see and understand more of what I experienced, be it yesterday or all those years ago.

  9. Wonderful post, Amanda. Thank you.

    I fall into the category of being compelled to write. In If I Tell You…I’ll Have to Kill You: Australia’s leading crime writers reveal their secrets, Peter Corris tells of meeting David Malouf and asking if he was writing anything. I totally get Malouf’s reply: ‘What else is there to do?’

    That said, writing is also a passion and pleasure for me. I’ve never understood those for whom writing is a compulsion and a chore. If there’s no love in it, I question why anyone would bother.

    • Haha, I hadn’t heard that great anecdote from Malouf before—thanks!
      Like you, I don’t understand that idea of writing being a tiresome chore. Of course it can be agonising, for a variety of reasons—slower-than-hoped progress, the sense of something just beyond reach, structural headspin, even the sinking need to kill someone you love (on the page, of course!). But agony heightens the sheer elation of getting there!
      Thanks for reading, Angela 🙂

  10. Louise Allan

    I love this post — I enjoy all your posts, but this one is special. Thanks for sharing part of the blood and tissue and neurons of your identity with us.

    Funnily enough, I wrote a piece last week on why I write. The reasons behind why we do what we do, why anyone does what they do, are complex and hazy and not something we tend to think about. Nevertheless, they run very deep.

    • Thanks for that, Louise 🙂
      Did you post a blog piece on this last week? I must go back and find it. A deceptively simple question, but you’re right: the reasons behind any endeavour involving passion and compulsion are probably as layered and complex.

  11. Pingback: Writers Ask Writers: Why I Write | Annabel Smith

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