Why Write?

“I have hated words
and I have loved them,
and I hope I have made them right.”
— Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

There is a lot to hate about writing.

 …

For one, it is damn difficult to get done, much more so to get done well.

  …

“I get a fine warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.” — William Styron

  …

Two, for all the demands it has, writing offers no guarantee of success or any other form of reward, whether extrinsic or intrinsic. You could sit for hours, days even, writing, but still end up feeling as crappy and unaccomplished as you did when you first attempted to write. The frustration builds as you recognize your effort isn’t adding up to anything worthwhile, really.

  …

“Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of a writer. It is like making wallpaper by hand for the Sistine Chapel.” — Kurt Vonnegut

  …

Then add to that the risk of rejection you face when you do come up with something. That piece of writing on which you’ve labored for a reaaally long time can, in an instant, get slammed by your editor. That one piece into which you’ve poured your heart, soul and entire being can get ripped to shreds by random people or be entirely ignored by your audience. To the writer, no matter how many times these things happen, it still hurts.

  …

“Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book, your composition of yourself is at stake.” — E. L. Doctorow

  …

So — need for a heckuvalot of effort + zero guarantee of payoff + high risk of rejection? This is certainly no recipe for something anyone would choose to do, let alone do over and over again.

  …

But the writer chooses to do it anyway.

Why?

  …

I can only guess at the answer. Each writer probably has his/her own reason for keeping at his craft. Still, let’s give this a shot.

  …

  1. Calm the unrest

“I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still.” — Sylvia Plath

Writers have long struggled, I think, to explain to the world just how difficult it is to be a writer. And how weird. They seem, both to themselves and to the rest of the world, an entirely different breed of humans, with struggles, drives, and quirks of behavior only they and members of their in-group can ever fully comprehend.

“Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.” — Unknown

For one thing, many writers have made mention of this “unrest” within them—voices, quivers of thought, some form of disquiet or instability—that will not resolve unless “what needs to be written is written down.” Having to write is itself an agonizing endeavor, but to the writer, the not being able to write is an even more agonizing state. Thus, the act of writing is not always something the writer does because he wants to. Often, he does it because he needs to.

“There is no greater agony, than bearing an untold story inside of you.” — Maya Angelou

 …

  1. Pursuit of truth

“Great authorship is all about truth. To write the stories of our lives as honestly as possible, we must thoroughly reject crap.” —Martha Beck

Think of the literary works that made the most impact on you. Pieces of writing that struck you, poems that made a dent in your memory, stories that sent goosebumps up your spine, song lyrics that just wouldn’t leave you. Chances are, all these things stayed with you because they ring true to you, in one way or another. They may have echoed emotions and experiences you’ve had before, resonated with the truth of your being, or revealed fundamental truths about the world and life as you know it. This is the kind of effect every writer secretly hopes to achieve through his words—a moment’s connection with the reader, created by the commonality of their experience or an epiphany evoked by the simple statement of a truth.

“That is the goal of a writer, maybe. Maybe that is the goal. Maybe this it: If I can somehow make a single sandcastle – just a single one – out of something you’ve never understood but have always felt in the deep of you, then I’ll be a writer. Maybe I’ll be a writer then.” — Hannah Brencher

Hence the writer writes in pursuit of the truth, be it about himself, about the world, about love, about life, about death. It is his hope that he may capture some essence of life in its purest, and present it through his work for others to identify with, reflect on, or connect with by virtue of the humanity they share.

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

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  1. Power

“Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair; they can transfer knowledge from teacher to student; words enable the orator to sway his audience and dictate its decisions. Words are capable of arousing the strongest emotions and prompting all men’s actions.” — Sigmund Freud

Words are powerful—this much is evident to the writer and non-writer alike. But contrary to popular belief, writers don’t often feel like all-powerful masters of the written word. In fact, they more often have a creeping suspicion that might really just be frauds, after all. They would like to believe they are fulfilling a special calling, yes, but they secretly harbor a fear that they are nothing more than just a bunch of pretentious, self-indulgent, deluded beings who believe they’ve been chosen for something.

Nonetheless, during moments when the writer does experience that effortless flow of words rare even for people of his craft, he doesn’t necessarily ascribe it to his own giftedness. It is rare, if at all, to hear a writer describe himself as “powerful”; to him he does not have the power. Rather, he is merely the channel of that power. And he continues to write, even in moments when it feels like he is “blocked” as a channel, in the hope that if he perseveres enough he will get to the day when that block is lifted away. He writes in anticipation of that moment when he will once again feel that he is indeed, in Susan Sontag’s words, “the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond” himself.

“You don’t live there always when you write. Mostly it’s a long hard walk. Sometimes it’s a trudge through fog and you’re scared you’ve lost your way and can’t remember why you set out in the first place… But sometimes you fly, and that pays for everything.” — Neil Gaiman

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  1. Finding—or creating—meaning

“Part of becoming a writer is the desire to have everything mean something.” — Louise Erdrich

It is not hard to imagine how the search for meaning may be one of the primary motivations a writer has for picking up a pen and writing. To the writer, writing is a way of thinking as much as it is a product of it. When there is something he wants to understand better, a loss he is finding hard to come to terms with, or a kind of inescapable suffering he is made to face, the writer draws up his pen and desperately tries to make sense of these things through writing.

The writer does not always know whether he will indeed find or get to create meaning in the seemingly meaningless, but this does not deter him from writing anyway. After all, it’s the only thing he has, really. It’s his only chance to ever find any answers, clarify things. To him, writing is a way of settling the mud, clearing the water, seeing anew. He does this for himself, he does this for others. He does this in the hope that his words might clarify things a bit more, and reveal even just one facet of what it means to live, to love, to die, to hope, to have courage, and to be human.

“A writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.”— Anne Lamott

· • ·

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Thus, let me sum it up to this—writing is discovery. It is discovery of truth, of one’s purpose and role in the grand scheme of things, of meaning. The writer continually labors towards the discovery of these things—as do all people. The only difference between him and the non-writer is that he is nagged by that unrest, that internal disquiet, to put pen on paper and write about these discoveries, his labors towards them, or his failures to reach them.

The writer recognizes that the process will not cease for so long as he lives—there are always truths to seek, forces to channel, meanings to uncover. He understands, too, the uncertainty inherent in the task, how he must be content to discover things only as he experiences or stumbles upon them. There is no getting ahead of himself. He cannot know the path before he walks it; he cannot pin down the endpoint before he arrives. As Anne Lamott said, “This is the nature of most good writing: that you find out things as you go along.”

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The writer happens to think that this, too, is the nature of life.

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With writing mirroring living so much, to the writer the distinction is thus often blurred.

The question of why he writes therefore boils down to a simpler answer:

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To the writer, writing is living.

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