Why do Writers Write?

I’ve often asked myself why.  Why do I do this?  Why do you do this?  Why do we spend hours every day – or most days – engaging with the blank screen or blank page and labouring to produce words – words with meaning, emotion, information?  Words.

And why words?  Why not knit, draw, bake, garden, make model planes, breed dogs, or even just do a nine to five Monday to Friday job with a salary you KNOW is going into the bank on a set date, then go home each day and barbecue some steaks or sit in front of the TV or go to a nice restaurant with your family?

I used to think it was just because I was screwed up.  Or because I was an only child and not used to company or because I had to make my own entertainment, or because putting my thought-words into actual vocalised words was hard.  Part of me still thinks this might be true.  Even though I have a family, I’m still a very solitary person.  I don’t mean to be, I don’t even like to be alone that much, but it’s a kind of a habit, I’m used to it.

But that isn’t the whole reason.  And I suspect (haven’t actually checked!) that there are a number of sociable writers out there from large, boisterous families, writers who enjoy engaging with others.  So why do they write?

When asked why as a mother of a growing family, she had stopped writing, Winifred Watson, author of the wonderful ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’, said “you can’t write if you’re never alone.”  Watson was a hugely popular author in the 1930s and very successful, but now she is almost unknown.  If she wrote purely for personal fulfilment, then once she was married and raising a family, I can understand that the need to write may have gone, or been satisfied in domesticity.  But for myself and for many writers, I still don’t think this is the whole story.

There is something about creating another world, something about purging myself of all those words that need to be put onto paper.  But it’s not just about escaping reality, not just about unburdening oneself.  Yes, it is often – but not always – a compulsion.  There is an urge to create in an abstract way sometimes, a need to make something with your mind, your hands and then be able to step back and think, ‘yes, I did that’.

There is also a desire to communicate with others.  Often as writers we wonder if other people – our readers – will see and understand the message we are seeking to bring to them, and if they will see it in the same way that we see it.  Often they do not, and they find something new in our words.  Literary Criticism shows that reading is an active process as is perception, and that there are many ‘truths’ hidden in a text.

One well-known writer whose name escapes me at the moment said, when asked why she wrote, said that the question should really be, “why doesn’t everyone?”

The jury is still out on this question.  I think it may be one of those how-long-is-a-piece-of-string type questions.  So I will close with a quote from a book that has been the most influential on my writing career:  Dorothea Brande, whose book ‘Becoming A Writer’ was published in 1924, said this: “A Writer writes”.

End of.

7 thoughts on “Why?

  1. Why do I write? Well, you’ve covered two of the main reasons: compulsion and the desire to share ideas through story, Caron.
    Mankind has told stories ever since he shared a campfire with others. Such tales probably started as a way of sharing the needs and methods of hunting so new ventures would succeed and feed the group. We’ve developed this fascination with words that form tales into a ubiquitous form of communication. We can now share our thoughts, dreams, hopes, fears, loves with any number of people.
    I always felt I had something to say, and writing seemed the best way to do that. I’m no orator, and the opportunties for speaking to large numbers are limited, so spreading the story through the medium of the written word seems the most sensible way forward.
    There is another reason for me: I’ve discovered that I operate better physically when I’m creating a story. I feel healthier, more energised, more alive. And, of course, as a writer, I can live hundreds of vicarious lives. I can be a hero, a murderer, a lover, a wolf, a room, a woman, a child, a horse; I can travel to the Arctic, climb Everest, fly to Mars, dwell in a land that exists only in my imagination. What better way to live?
    I wonder what might happen to my sanity (assuming I can be deemed sane, of course) if I failed to exercise my imagination through my writing.
    There. That’s at least a partial answer for you. I wonder, though, why no one else has taken this opportunity to explain their reasons.

    • Partly for me, it was a need to move on from my imaginary friends to something a little more tangible. I was a lonely child, and have often been a lonely adult, so I needed someone to talk to. As you say, what indeed might happen to one’s sanity if writing were not an option?

      • Writing can certainly be therapeutic. I grew up with brothers and a sister, and the usual cache of schoolfriends. Whilst I was never lonely, I was often solitary by choice and I think that allowed me to free my imagination. But, for a writer, I had the distinct disadvantage of what I consider an idyllic childhood! I think my need to write arrived later in life, after my mother died two days after my 16th birthday and I started to seriously question many aspects of life. That loss, coupled with a failed first marriage and the experience of fourteen different jobs, informed my life and inspired quite a lot of my writing.
        Now happily married again, I draw on those earlier experiences in my writing, as I suspect you do in yours.

      • Definitely therapeutic, and I think writers often turn out to be a bit dysfunctional in a broad sense, the past is a great palce to go mining, but I’d like to think it makes me a better writer and makes me more empathetic towards others. As you say, it can take a life crisis to make you spend time pondering the big Whys of life, as you are currently doing on your blog, and these events shape our lives and our creativity. Winifred Watson, the author of ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’ was a huge success in the 1930s, then stopped writing when she married and had a family. When asked why she stopped writing, she said ‘you can’t write if you’re never alone’. As you said, you need to choose to be solitary for at least part of the time, as writing is in part an inward process.

  2. The need to be ‘alone’ is definitely one tha chimes with me. I’m married to a wonderful woman who understands that sometimes I need to ‘alone’. Even when we’re walking together in the forest, she recognises those moments when my mind is otherwise occupied and so doesn’t intrude. I get a lot of my ideas for writing during those times. And I have a small bedroom as a study. I’m busy creating in there and Valerie is at her desk, in our shared bedroom, doing her family research. It works a treat for both of us!
    I could never be one of those writers who go to a cafe or some other public place to write. Wouldn’t work for me.

      • Ah, I can’t write in noisy or crowded places, but I always carry with me a Moleskine notebook with a dedicated pen so that, wherever I am, I can jot down any idea that occurs to me.

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