Columns > Published on August 27th, 2015

What the Fuck Are You Writing For?

So Why Do You Write?            

This has to be a question you’ve asked yourself. Or read in a writing forum somewhere. We all ask ourselves this at some point, usually when the need to justify the time, effort and anguish becomes intense. After a slew of rejections or when an acquaintance gets published. Or when you read over what you wrote the day before and wince.

Why the fuck am I doing this?

You could be watching Cupcake Wars after all. Or hanging out with your best guy or gal. Or throwing a Frisbee to your dog. You could be doing any one of a host of better, more enjoyable, more productive things, but instead you return to the screen, night after night and chase the pesky words down those pesky rabbit holes.

When this question comes up on a writing forum, it gets a big response. We’ve asked ourselves the question, now we want the world to hear our answers. We want everyone to know that our writing has a reason. That it’s not just a waste of time.

Reading books develops our sense of how others feel and think. Reading books makes us civilized.

What are those answers? Here are a few:

  • I write to give a voice to the people in my head.
  • I want to see my parents’ faces when I give them a copy of my book.
  • I’ve dreamed of being a writer since I can remember.
  • I write because my characters seem real to me and I want to tell their stories.
  • I write because it helps me cope with my demons.
  • I write because I want to share my experience with others.
  • I write because it means I can live through experiences I wouldn’t normally have.
  • I write because it makes me happy.
  • I write because I must. I just have to.
  • I write so I can express myself.

These are all taken from actual responses to the question why do you write? The people giving these responses fully believe that these are good reasons to write.

They are wrong. Every one of these is a bullshit reason to write.

Stop Lying. Why Do You Really Write?

These are not just bullshit reasons to write, these are also lies, because in the words of Gregory House:

We lie about how much booze we drink, how much we eat, how much we work out. We lie about our achievements and our failures. In our heads we have a version of ourselves which is better looking, stronger, thinner and smarter than the genuine article, and while we might occasionally look in the mirror and understand that our imaginary self and real self do not match up, this is a secret and rarely shared thought. We lie to maintain the reality of this illusory self and the one imaginary trait we defend most valiantly is that despite all the evidence to the contrary we are a nice person.

In our cups we’ll admit to being weak, or indecisive, or lazy. We’ll even admit to being all three, when the hour draws late, the numbers thin and the mood becomes confessional. Those are all acceptable sins, ones which hurt us more than they hurt others. But we also all commit sins we won’t confess to a soul. We bully. We envy. We crave power. Admitting to those things means admitting we’re not nice and admitting you’re not nice means staring into the abyss of the human psyche and realizing that niceness is an illusion and we are all totally screwed.

Here are some of the real reasons we write:

  • I want everyone to listen to what I have to say.
  • I want everyone to know how tough I’ve had it.
  • I want people to feel sorry for me.
  • I want other people to realize how wrong they are about me.
  • Because when I’m published, everyone will see how smart I am.
  • Because when I’m published I will bask in the adulation of others.
  • Because when I’m published, I can make my rivals feel bad.

We might claim we write so we can give voice to our characters or immerse ourselves in the joy of words or share our imaginary worlds with others, but those are our nice person reasons. Deep inside, we actually write because we long for pity or attention. We write in hopes of success because we believe this will get us the power we deserve.

But does it matter anyway? Our reasons for writing might not look very pretty when we lift our inner stones and watch those reasons crawl away from the light, but who cares? It’s only writing after all. Who gives a fuck why we do it?

Why Books are Too Important to Fuck Around With

In The Better Angels of Our Nature - Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker describes how people living in 14th Century Europe liked to entertain themselves. They didn’t (given there was no TV) watch live crumpet-baking demonstrations or spend time sharing their pottage with a swain. They liked to nail a live cat to a stake and take turns trying to batter it to death with their bare heads. People didn’t only kill cats then, they also killed each other. All the time and horribly. Torture – an accepted part of the legal process - also formed a spectator sport. People flocked to see other people broken on wheels or dislocated on racks. Violence was commonplace, widespread and legitimized. Apart from a few pockets of disorder (I’m looking at you Isis) it isn’t now. Why is that?

A good book holds our hand. It speaks to us. We may not be aware of it, but as we read we trust our secrets to the pages between our fingers.

Pinker identifies several reasons why we no longer chase pigs with clubs as a pastime and he calls this the Civilizing Process. The elements of the Civilizing Process comprise: a powerful centralized State (sorry libertarians but there it is), a modern economic model with many opportunities to trade and…wait for it…


Pinker’s argument goes like this: reading, and in particular reading fiction, requires that you see the world from the viewpoint of another. We’re all capable of doing this as humans, but the degree to which we’re able to get into someone’s head is a skill we develop with practice and throughout adulthood. For humans, empathy isn’t like walking on our hind limbs or learning to talk: a skill which we’re hardwired to acquire given the right circumstances. Some of us never acquire empathy beyond the most rudimentary appreciation that other people might not always do what we want. We generally call those people psychopaths and they are, thankfully, rare. The rest of us learn how and while we empathize as individuals, we also empathize as a culture. As social creatures, we have a common notion of what comprises acceptable behaviour and that norm derives from our individual sense of the effect our actions will have on others. Our tolerance for violence as a society is a kind of average of our individual empathy. Raise the level of empathy in the citizens of a culture and that culture overall will become more peaceful. Reading books develops our sense of how others feel and think. Reading books makes us civilized.

This isn’t just an argument spun out of thin air. You can correlate the spread of widely available fiction with a groundshift in attitudes towards slavery, capital punishment and torture. Studies confirm at the individual level what Pinker suggests happened on a cultural scale. In short, reading puts the humanity into human.

The Good Reason to Write

Think for a moment about what books mean to you. Ask yourself another question. Why do I read?

At a cultural level books civilize. They educate, they spread information, they encourage empathy and they stress our common experience. If books only operated at the cultural level we wouldn’t ever read them. Reading is an enjoyable experience for us as individuals. Let’s think about why.

Think about the man whose wife is dying of cancer. He sits for hours at her bedside, watching her waste away. Soon he’ll lose her, but he doesn’t want to think about that right now. He doesn’t want to think about her pain or his impending loneliness. When she drifts into sleep and he has nothing to do, those thoughts are hard to avoid. When she falls asleep he picks up his book and reads.

Think about the woman on her commute to work. Her job is boring, unfulfilling and badly paid. Her boss is a bully. Her marriage has failed and she’s bringing up the kids on her own. She’s terminally exhausted. She’s almost broke. She’s scared. On the train or the bus, she picks up a book and she reads.

Think about the kid at school. The one with zero social skills. The one who gets stomach pains every weekday morning. The one who never gets picked for anything ever. The one who is painfully realizing that they will never have the smarts or the looks to ever get off the lowest rung of the social ladder. At recess, while everyone else ignores them as if they are competing for gold in the Ignoring Olympics, that lonely kid has one friend they can resort to. One who never lets them down. That kid picks up a book and reads.

We read to take us away from the horror of everyday existence. The disappointments, the failures, the nagging awareness of the gap between who we’d like to be and who we really are. We read to be transported, comforted, entertained. A good book holds our hand. It speaks to us. We may not be aware of it, but as we read we trust our secrets to the pages between our fingers. I’m scared of the dark. I want to be a hero. I want to fall in love.

Think about all the reasons people give for why they write. These reasons are bullshit because they are about the writer not about the reader. The same goes for the real reasons; those dark desires we can’t admit. Those are also all about us and this is the conundrum. We read in order to receive the balm we need for our souls. We can’t also write for the same reasons. What a book gives us as readers helps us to become better people – more empathic, kinder, more patient – it helps us to become more like the nice person we all secretly believe ourselves to be. If we write for selfish reasons, that act of giving evaporates. Our prose will be stingy and mean. Our readers will not grow hearts when they read our books. They will grow impatient. They will grow bored.

There’s only one way to solve this puzzle and that is to write with generosity. Identify the reasons why you really write and chase them down, one by one. Eliminate them. Beat them to death with a stick if you have to. Shrink your ego to a pea and tell yourself that you will never be successful and that no one wants to hear how mean the world has been to you. Think instead of the people who will read your work. What do they lack? Is it excitement? Sexual fulfillment? Do they need a friend? Fill your book with what they need – thrills, love, sex, information. Let them save the planet, travel the Universe, ride dragons and find the perfect shoes for dancing. Let them do all of that in the same book if that is what they need.

The next time you sit at the keyboard, open a file, read what you wrote the day before and wince, you might well ask yourself why the fuck am I doing this?

Think of the man sitting by his dying wife’s bed. Think of the single mother on the train. Think of the lonely kid at school.

You’re doing it for them.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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