Verba volant, scripta manent. “Spoken words fly away, written words remain.” Why do writers write?
Writers write for different reasons. Some write for fame, fortune, fun, feelings, or the future. What’s your purpose for penning poetry or prose? For praise, passion, persuasion, or profit? (Yes, I’m trying to alliterate.)
It is common knowledge that feelings of melancholy compel humans to write. When we are overcome with emotions, we are inclined to write more unreservedly. At least that was how it was for me. I always kept a journal when I was young. At first, it was only for my English class, as our warmhearted teacher encouraged us to do. I stuck with it, partly inspired by Anne Frank, but mostly as a way to pour out my deepest feelings, desires, hurts, anguish, frustrations, and disappointments. I was an angst-ridden teen. Then, in my early 20’s, I had what I thought was a quarter-life crisis. In my short existence, it seemed like I didn’t have much to say as there wasn’t much going on in my life, just the ordinary, routinary, mundane things that people don’t boast about. And yet, I still had a lot to say in my journal. That it was confidential, it was just between the pages of my notebook and me, I wrote honestly and unencumbered as if confiding to a therapist or a friend. There was no filter; I just jotted everything that flowed from my mind to the paper. It was cathartic.
Somewhere along the way, though, I stopped writing altogether. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact date nor the reason that forced me to stop. Maybe I was too busy at work. Or I was so happy in a relationship. One folk singer was once asked how come all his songs were sad. His answer: “Because when I’m happy, I don’t have time to sit around and write songs” ( Why Am I Only Able to Write When I’m Sad?, 2016).
Or perhaps life finally happened. All I know is there was a huge gap between the time I was journaling and now that I’m back. More than a decade! Though this is a different form from before; I don’t write as freely as I did. Now that I think more about it, I feel it was predominantly out of fear of criticism, of failure. Whenever I perused other writers’ works, I couldn’t help but feel intimidated. Their words just seemed to glide smoothly and effortlessly.
My reasons for writing again are not noble as most writers. Recently, I discovered something regarding my health that made me consider a change in career (if you can call it that lol), so here I am. It might be a good start, I suppose. Though I have a lingering feeling that I am so far behind. I wouldn’t go as far as call myself a writer; I’m more like an aspiring writer. A statement to which Matthew Reilly emphatically said, “There is no such thing as an ‘aspiring writer.’ You are a writer. Period.”
At any rate, I scoured the internet for the reasons writers write, and here are some of my favorites:
Orhan Pamuk, author of My Father’s Suitcase:
“The question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question, is: Why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can’t do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it. . . .” (as cited in Nordquist, 2019).
Alfred Kazin, author of The Self As History:
“One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in time, in others’ minds.” (as cited in Nordquist, 2019).
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated:
“Why do I write? It’s not that I want people to think I am smart, or even that I am a good writer. I write because I want to end my loneliness. Books make people less alone. That, before and after everything else, is what books do. They show us that conversations are possible across distances.” (as cited in Nordquist, 2019).
Alice Hoffman, “The Book That Wouldn’t Die: A Writer’s Last and Longest Voyage.” The New York Times, July 22, 1990
“It is the deepest desire of every writer, the one we never admit or even dare to speak of: to write a book we can leave as a legacy. . . . If you do it right, and if they publish it, you may actually leave something behind that can last forever.” (as cited in Nordquist, 2019).
Terry Tempest Williams, “A Letter to Deb Clow.” Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. Pantheon Books, 2001
“I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write to honor beauty. I write to correspond with my friends. I write as a daily act of improvisation. I write because it creates my composure. I write against power and for democracy. I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams. . . .” (as cited in Nordquist, 2019).
Ayad Akhtar, author of Homeland Elegies:
I started to sense that I was avoiding something about where I came from and who I was . . . And I realized that the best way to respond to this growing awareness was just to be still about it and to see what happened. And at some point, I started to turn and look over my shoulder-metaphorically speaking-to see what I had been running from. And at that point, there was this burst of creativity.. . .
I am trying to write to the universal. That is what I am trying to do. Period. End-of-story. What I hope is that by writing from a particular place-that I know and that I find fascinating and that I have a whole lot of love for and problems with-I can open onto the universal (as cited in Caplan, 2021).
Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half:
Novels simulate the experience of thinking another person’s thoughts. I love television — I watch probably way too much — but when you’re watching TV, you’re not thinking the same thoughts. There’s no other way to do that than reading fiction. As close are you are to people you love, you will never think their thoughts or feel their feelings. That’s something the novel does that other forms cannot. I also appreciate the language of novels, and the fact that novels are a slower way to experience time. In the politically fraught moment we’re experiencing, it’s been refreshing to turn off a screen or step away from a constant influx of insane news.
I don’t want to ignore the moment we’re in, or abdicate responsibility to respond to it, but I don’t even know what a fictional response to Trump would even look like! Writing about black people who have humanity is already pushing back against Trumpism. Just asserting that black humanity matters, black bodies matter, black love matters, and black joy matters. That’s my general project (as cited in Caplan, 2021).
Patty Yumi Cottrell, author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace:
I have to feel a desire to write. I don’t know if there’s ever an end goal in mind. But I just have to feel like I really want to do it. I have to feel borderline desperate. And then I want to write. That’s what motivates me. Going long periods without writing, where I’m just doing other things, helps create that feeling of wanting to write . . . I’ve said before that writing for me isn’t therapeutic. I didn’t feel a sense of catharsis or anything like that. But I think I was very bothered by something. You know, this question, it was something I’d been thinking about for years. So it was something that was percolating in my mind. And I guess that’s what drove me to do this.
I think writing is an act of generosity and also selfishness at the same time. That’s my understanding of it. It’s selfish in a way of extracting material from your life and using that. For me, sometimes I think of it as a rather self-absorbed and selfish act, but the hope is that it could be seen as an act of generosity in the sense that maybe people will read the book and be moved by it or come to some kind of new understanding of something that they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t read the book. I think it’s both of those things at the same time. Ambiguity is pretty important to me. I think that’s what I’m attracted to in writing. A clear ambiguity (as cited in Caplan, 2021).
Don DeLillo, author of The Silence:
Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.
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 (as cited in Caplan, 2021).
Natalie Diaz, author of Postcolonial Love Poem:
Why do you think people need stories? We are stories. Even our names are stories. (PEN America)
Writing is an extension of my body. I am seeking the body on the page, even the broken body, even the ecstatic body-even the broken and ecstatic body. I am looking for a field for the body to run in. I am looking for a field where the body might be struck down. I am looking for a field where the body might rest or hide or flee or reap or build a house or set a fire. The body doesn’t want solace-the body wants to be possible. The page has never solved my troubles, but the page has let me know them better, let me know the body of myself better through those troubles. Maybe (as cited in Caplan, 2021).
Garth Greenwell, author of Cleanness:
To write a story or a poem or an essay is to make a claim about what we find beautiful, about what moves us, to reveal a vision of the world, which is always terrifying; to write seriously is to find ourselves always pressed against not just our technical but our moral limits. “One beats and beats for that which one believes,” says Stevens. And we do this without any way of confirming the value of what we’ve done, since unlike tobacco farms and coal mines novels and poems have no objective measure of accomplishment; neither the opinion of critics-which is so often wrong-nor our own sense of what we’ve written, which swings wildly by the hour, can offer any sure judgment of what we’ve made (as cited in Caplan, 2021).
Haruki Murakami, author of 1Q84:
I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on The System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist’s job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories-stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness (as cited in Caplan, 2021).
George Orwell, author of 1984:
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us . . . [But] all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery (as cited in Caplan, 2021).
James Salter, author of Light Years:
Gertrude Stein, when asked why she wrote, replied, “For praise.” Lorca said he wrote to be loved. Faulkner said a writer wrote for glory. I may at times have written for those reasons, it’s hard to know. Overall I write because I see the world in a certain way that no dialogue or series of them can begin to describe, that no book can fully render, though the greatest books thrill in their attempt.
A great book may be an accident, but a good one is a possibility, and it is thinking of that that one writes. In short, to achieve. The rest takes care of itself, and so much praise is given to insignificant things that there is hardly any sense in striving for it.
In the end, writing is like a prison, an island from which you will never be released but which is a kind of paradise: the solitude, the thoughts, the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you for the moment understand and with your whole heart want to believe (as cited in Caplan, 2021).
George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo:
We all get into [art] for that very grandiose reason of wanting to break somebody’s heart or do some really beautiful thing. Those actually require some radical decision-making at certain points in the process.
The result of [the] laborious and slightly obsessive process [of writing] is a story that is better than I am in “real life” — funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining. And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual (as cited in Caplan, 2021).
How about you? Why do you write? Feel free to leave your answers.
Caplan, W. (2021, January 6). Here’s 33 writers on why they write. Literary Hub. Retrieved April 22, 2022, from https://lithub.com/heres-33-writers-on-why-they-write/
Nordquist, R. (2020, August 26). Reasons Writers Write. Retrieved April 22, 2022 from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-do-writers-write-1689239.
Why am I only able to write when I’m sad? (2016, January 10). Quora. Retrieved April 22, 2022, from https://www.quora.com/Why-am-I-only-able-to-write-when-Im-sad/answer/Martin-Reyto