Columns > Published on February 27th, 2013

Why Write?

In the twenty-first century, everyone writes, to some degree.  The ability to sequence words on a page is a requirement for success in a data-based world. Writing is communication, identity, power, profit.  It’s the means by which we conduct all kinds of transactions, whether we’re bringing a lawsuit or flirting via text message.  Writing is social, commercial and cerebral flow.

So, ‘Why Write?’ seems like a simple enough question, with plenty of cheerful mid-afternoon answers.  We write to share ideas, tell stories, maybe make some money and other people smile/laugh/cry/empathize.  In this Information Age, the desire to write is generally viewed as respectable, an itch it’s okay to scratch, an appropriate career path to follow, one that means not having to run any more errands for sailors.  “I write”, you say at parties, and people nod, impressed at your sophistication, artistry and intellectual stature.  “She writes”, your parents say to distant cousins or passing plumbers, and they nod too, assuming this means celebrity, riches, a life less ordinary, the expense of education not gone to waste.  How nice, how wholesome, how enviable it is to write.

It’s also a complicated bitch of a question with teeth that come back to gnaw you at odd, insecure hours. At 3 a.m., the urge to write makes no sense at all. Writing is compulsion, narcissism, insanity, theft, the cursed highway to perpetual isolation, poverty and misery.  It’s a constant chore, a grim struggle to organize concepts into paragraphs, a losing battle between actuality and thought, self-promotion and self-loathing, sensibility and grammatical construction. Writing is the worst kind of addiction, a terrible, eviscerating experience — but not writing can be even worse.  While writing is supposedly vital to our social flow, writers (the people we label as “good at” writing) come a long way down the list of cultural currency holders, below athletes, warriors and reality TV stars. Print is obsolete, journalism is dying, and any monkey who can type is published online to the delight of apparently undiscerning readers. Amazon, Google and Apple control the lion’s share of content distribution and are always looking for ways to devalue the author’s already meager cut. Why write, indeed?

We write to share ideas, tell stories, maybe make some money and other people smile/laugh/cry/ empathize.

The question has been addressed by writers over the decades. In his 1946 essay, Why I Write, George Orwell delineates four basic motives – present at varying degrees at different times in a writer’s life – for churning out words:

(i) Sheer egoism.
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm.
(iii) Historical impulse.
(iv) Political purpose

Orwell admits he is shaped by the turbulent times (“In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books... As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer”) and that political purpose is weighted accordingly in his work.  Writing, for Orwell, and many of his generation, is driven by anger and a sense of injustice as much as by the desire to arrange aesthetically pleasing sentences on the page.  His lofty aim is “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole”.  Writing is worthy, heroic, a noble calling for an intellectual knight errant.  Yet he also acknowledges the driving force of “sheer egoism”:

I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don't want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. 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.

Writing thirty years later, Joan Didion picks up on Orwell’s “vain, selfish, and lazy”, in her Regents’ Lecture to Berkeley students, later published as Why I Write.  For her generation, personal expression outshines political reform as a motive.  Didion writes through the refracting lens of her own experience.  While Orwell believes “one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality”, Didion glories in the I, I, I:

… writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.
Writing is compulsion, narcissism, insanity, theft, the cursed highway to perpetual isolation, poverty and misery.

In 1976, before dual screen entertainment, before kitten videos, before books had to compete for our leisure hours with Angry Birds or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Didion’s claim that the writer can hold full sway over “the reader’s most private space” may have been arrogant, but it was also accurate.  Authors could command attention, even outside the pages of their book, as part of an ongoing cultural conversation.  When she gave the Why I Write lecture Didion was a bona fide celebrity. Caitlin Flanagan recalls “it was a madhouse. There were tearful women who were turned away at the door, others grateful to stand in the back or to sit on the floor, a huge, rapt crowd” [1]  This kind of rockstar reception is reason enough to write – isn’t this, secretly, what all writers crave?

Jonathan Franzen has had his fair share of rockstar attention – notably when his spectacles were stolen and held to $100,000 ransom during the London launch of Freedom in 2010 – but he’s also Orwell’s heir (especially regarding ‘Historical Impulse’ and ‘Political Purpose’) when it comes to examining his motives for writing.  His 1996 Harper’s essay (which, republished in 2002, came to be known as Why Bother?) extends his personal “despair about the American novel” into a discussion of his reasons for continuing to write long-form, social realist fiction in the age of the Internet.  He struggles with the “conflict between a feeling I should Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream, and a desire to write about the things closest to me.” Franzen picks up on Orwell’s ‘Political purpose’, and suggests this is a duty, rather than a choice:

…since the one modest favor that any writer asks of a society is freedom of expression, a country’s poets and novelists are often the ones obliged to serve as voices of conscience in times of religious or political fanaticism.

Yet he doesn’t quite see himself as Orwell’s knight errant, seeking to redress wrongs through words.  For Franzen, the act of writing is one of revelation rather than revolution. He concludes:

...not that a novel can change anything but that it can preserve something.  The thing being preserved depends on the writer… Whether they think about it or not, novelists are preserving a tradition of precise, expressive language; a habit of looking past surfaces into interiors; maybe an understanding of private experience and public context as distinct but interpenetrating… Above all, they are preserving a community of readers and writers…

Why do we all write, then, in 2013?  Are writers simply custodians of culture, or can they achieve anything more in the era of Twitter and YouTube? Earlier this month at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University, I chaired a panel discussion on the subject.  The panelists, an eclectic group with decades of writing experience in every medium from radio to historical novels to memoir to advertising, explored the ramifications of the impulse to write.  How does one eat, create, and navigate technological change? Their comments expand on Orwell, Didion and Franzen, and share their personal motivation for writing.

Tony Brignull has won more awards for his copywriting than any other British writer, and has also published short stories and poetry. He finds the process of creative writing

…very similar to writing copy.  I am just as suspicious of anything that comes too quickly.  I find it is often flashy or it's been done before. Even if I love it I do it again, I keep going until I come across something that dares me to write it.  When I get the feeling I may have gone too far I know I'm touching something that might interest readers.

For Brignull, writing involves winnowing away at the words (“I write and rewrite”) until what remains is the simple truth.  Craft is about using the fewest words to make the greatest sense.

I try to be as truthful to the experience or emotion which prompts a poem as I am to a company I have to advertise. This means eliminating any word or phrase that is untruthful (often revealing itself by being dull, clichéd or simply redundant).

Alyn Shipton came to writing through music. He’s the jazz critic for The Times and a presenter/producer of jazz programmes for BBC radio, and has published biographies of many musicians, including Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Cab Calloway.  His yearning for truth comes in the form of telling biographical stories, especially those of jazz icons:

I've spent a fair amount of my time on the road as a musician, and nothing can compare to the bandwagon stories that we swap late at night coming home from a gig. These are partly folklore, partly first-hand experience, partly wild exaggeration, and sometimes — however bizarre — actually modest understatement, but always engaging, and often very funny…

Exploring a single individual’s life can open the door to the experiences of many others.  When Shipton was writing the biography of songwriter Jimmy McHugh, he discovered, by the end, that he had

… explored early aviation in the States and the tragic death of aviatrix Harriet Quimby, the world of pre World War One opera with Caruso and Tetrazzini, the dawn of radio broadcasting, the invention of song-plugging (McHugh would ride round Boston on a bicycle with a miniature piano on the handlebars playing the latest hits), the promotion of early records, the Wall Street crash, the dawn of talkies and film musicals, Broadway successes and failures, and, maybe more surprisingly, seaside entertainment in 1920s Blackpool, and the use of swimming galas in healing postwar relations with Japan in 1946. Add to that inside stories of the Kennedy clan, the murky world of fin de siecle Bostonian politics, and film set accounts of Shirley Temple and Frank Sinatra, and the book is just a series of ever more remarkable stories, that somehow adhere to the life of one remarkable man. Finding, telling, and fitting together such tales is the best reason I know for sitting down every day at the keyboard and getting going on the next thousand words...

Novelist Clare George (author of The Cloud Chamber and The Evangelist) says she sits down at the keyboard because of the “stories [that] buzz around my head in much the same way they did when I was seven”.  For her, writing is about tying “characters and conversations and situations and settings” together:

…without plot they just go puff! and slowly vanish into the ether, to be replaced by new ones. As I grew up, I learned that the way to pin them down and make them last is by defining them through plot. Sometimes this struggle either just becomes too much, or I'm too busy with other parts of my life (mostly earning a living) to be able to devote enough time to them to make them work, and then I stop writing.

Like Shipton, she looks to recent history for inspiration:

… I grew up in a family of scientists, so from the start scientists tended to crop up in my fiction. I stumbled across a scientific plot when I wrote a short biography of my grandfather for a life-writing module at the University of East Anglia, and discovered that real-life scientific discoveries provide a version of the quest story in a part of the modern-day world that I feel comfortable bringing to life. And then I found out just how fertile these real-life stories are. They include actual concrete situations that involve questions of ambition, conscience, communication, identity and so much more, and at the same time provide potential metaphors which promise to bridge the gap between the bizarre forces that govern the material world and the stuff that goes on in our heads.

No matter how inspired the writer is, however, creation is never easy. Roy Sellars is Senior Lecturer at the University of Southern Denmark, teaching English literature and literary theory, and writing and editing academic texts.  He suggests that turning the impulse “to write” into an actual word count is in itself something of a triumph.  There are so many potential obstacles the aspiring writer must overcome:

The first and most important thing, obvious as it is, is exhaustion. The post-Romantic image of creative writing that many of us still have is a bad fit in contemporary circumstances. Over the past fifteen years or so I've found a clear tendency among my students: writing has got harder, not because of intrinsic problems but because of extrinsic demands.

It’s not only the writers who are exhausted.  Sellars thinks that readers are also overloaded, which is why they plump for the easy option when choosing what to buy:

…[It’s] perfectly understandable that fan-based fiction and the celebrity memoir have taken the place in the market that they now have. Identity is reassuring when one as a reader is also exhausted. Why take a risk on something new/different/other, as an exhausted consumer? But this puts the creative writer in a very difficult position, and T. S. Eliot's saying about the writer having to create her or his audience seems more apt than ever (though Eliot would have said "his or her," or just "his").

Thanks to blogs, Twitter and all the self-promotional social media tools out there, it's easier than ever to create your audience.  But is that enough? Eliane Glaser is a BBC producer, Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of English and Humanities, Birkbeck College and author of Get Real: How to Tell it Like it is in a World of Illusions.  Although hopeful about contemporary opportunities for writers, she sounds a warning note about copyright protections, which get trampled underfoot in the rush to publish:

There's a lot of upbeat rhetoric on the subject of writing and the Internet which is all about egalitarianism, open access and level playing fields. The Internet is celebrated for providing all writers with a platform from which to showcase their work. The old rules of copyright and ownership, and the traditional institutions of publishing houses and agents are crumbling. This is supposed to be all to the good in terms of people's ability to express themselves and get an audience for their work.

Glaser raises the all important issue, the fundamental reason anyone has for choosing a career in writing,  how does “audience” translate to “food in the writer’s fridge”?

… if copyright is abolished, and the ecosystem of publishers, editors and agents disappears, then writers will not be paid. They simply will not be able to provide their work for free, unless they are independently wealthy. The 'free' properties of the Internet are often talked up, but the real cost is rarely mentioned: time. Copyright may be part of the 'old' model of publishing, but it's unfairly criticized as elitist and old-fashioned. It is what makes writing truly democratic, because it means that everyone, not just the wealthy, can afford to write.

But there is cause for optimism. Ted Hodgkinson is currently Online Editor at Granta, and he served as one of the judges for the 2012 Costa Poetry Award. His stories have appeared in Notes from the Underground and The May Anthology.  He's fully aware of the pitfalls of egalitarianism, but has faith in the power of editing:

The assumption is often that because anyone can write a blog or self-publish a novel, we will soon be overwhelmed by a tide of corrosively bad writing. Of course nowadays there is a greater proliferation of unseaworthy work than ever before, but alongside this have evolved some nimble sifters of content with the editorial eye necessary to ensure that standards continue to arc in the right direction. Longreads, Byliner and The Browser, to name three, are sites that remove the distracting burble of the internet by aggregating the best content from a wide range of reputable journals and sites. The democratization the digital age offers also means that canny and articulate readers can gain devoted followings and use them to exercise considerable influence, sometimes with just a single tweet. And there are series like, ahem, Granta’s New Voices, which spotlights emerging writers to attentive followers and subscribers spread across continents. It’s certainly vital for writers to be paid for their work, and though I can’t vouch for all of them, there are certainly many online sources that do, and what’s more, an increasing number of places to help nourish a readership and a career.

Why write, then? It seems that the answer evolves over time, dependent on changes in technology and the space occupied by reading within society.  Although declarations of writerly intent change through the years, readers want the same things from books: escape, redemption, comparison.  Therefore, writers should seek, first and foremost, to be read; they must supply writing to the requirements of the market and be led by shifts in the when, how and why of reading.  Without readers - and appropriate channels to reach readers - the desire to write is mere self-indulgence. 

Litreactors, why do you write? Which motivation for writing most closely aligns with your own? Are you driven by egotistical or humanitarian intent? Do you want to tell entertaining stories or shine a light on dim corners of human existence?  And, what kind of purpose do you look for in the authors that you read?


Image via Markus Rodder

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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