Why Do Writers Write?

A blogger asked me to write about why I write. So I've been reading what other authors have said. George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, wrote an essay on the subject that he opens by explaining the start of his storytelling impulse: "I had the lonely child's habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world . . . " 

Put loneliness and books into a jar, shake them up, and what do you get? A writer. Like so many others, I was a sometimes-lonely kid who found refuge in books and began to write because I treasured the company of words. Circumstances stifled my voice; writing gave me a chance to have my say. And I got hooked.

There's power in exploring our stories, even if they're never made public; there's strength to be found in discovering and crafting one's truths. Most of the work that most writers write never makes it into print. As George Saunders put it in a recent interview, "I try to use writing to train myself into a higher version of myself."

An author friend just told me, only half-jokingly, "I write because I'm a masochist!" My husband jokes, "You write because you're a failed plumber." It's true. Every writer is unable to do so many things. So we write.

Why do you write, if you do? 

Michael Chabon Reveals the Slow Method to Achieving Excellence

Several years ago, the keynote speaker at the Montgomery County Community College's Annual Writers Conference was none other than the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon.

Upon hearing in advance that he wouldn't be allowed to entertain questions after his talk, he decided to make the talk itself into a question-and-answer session--with himself.

Raising his hand, his shoulders shrinking slightly with mock timidity, he asked, "Michael, where do you get your ideas?" and "Why do you write?" His wide-ranging answers gave listeners a rich introduction to his life and work.

He conveyed with admirable economy the irony of his sixties childhood. A child of divorce and the son of an active feminist, he listened often to the album Free to Be You and Me (on which well-meaning adults tell children in songs and stories that they can be courageous and strong), all the while taking on household responsibilities to support his career-driven mom and lacking some of the nurturance that can make kids courageous and strong.

He told us that he imagines his readers as friends who'll understand his every allusion, enjoy his every turn of phrase and joke. He listed favorite writers (including Borges, Nabokov, Calvino, and Cortazar) and established himself as a fan of theologian Martin Buber's with a reference to the I-thou relation between reader and writer. And he conveyed with humor and appreciation the laborious method of writing required by a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. His story came from the typewriter era; I will translate it into computer-era methods.

1. Open a blank word document.

2. Type a sentence that could be the opening of a piece.

3. Print it out. Put the paper to your side.

4. Delete the sentence in your document. Examine the line on the printed page, then type it again, editing as you type, interrogating every word.

5. Print it out. Put the paper to your side.

6. Type the first sentence a third time, interrogating it again as you go. Then type a second sentence.

7. Print out the sentences. Put the paper to your side. Delete them from the document. Repeat from Step 4.

You get the idea. By the time you've done this for two or three pages, Chabon reports, you will be deeply enmeshed in a story that will carry you forward a while, until you realize that you have forgotten to keep retyping. This is good. Go on to the end.

With this method, combined with his life's harvest of intelligence and depth and of course much more, Chabon became an extraordinary writer. 

The Inspiration/Perspiration Ratio

Back when I was in an MFA program, I took several workshops with novelist John Edgar Wideman. One afternoon, he told us something that rocked my naive writerly mind to its core. Talent is not the secret to success as a writer, he said. It would get us perhaps 5 percent of the way there. We could travel the remaining 95 percent of the way only through hard work--through years and years of persistent writing and revising, and years and years of submitting widely and enduring rejection. While occasional freak incidents might seem to prove otherwise, he said, such incidents are more than extremely unlikely.

I found this demoralizing. I had somehow believed that publishers would sniff out the future Emily Dickinsons of the world--who sat, of course, alone, composing brilliant pieces with little effort. But soon I learned that even Emily Dickinson labored over every line, and that--far from being a hermit--she sent her poems to influential friends and publishers. Otherwise, her brilliant poems would never have escaped the garbage heap.

As the years roll on, I take Wideman's assertions ever more to heart. And by fall 2013, after writing and revising a short personal essay for an absurd number of hours--including some twelve-hour sessions that crunched my body so tight, I could hardly stand afterward--I had an essay appear in the Modern Love column of the New York Times. I learned a lot through all that revising.

Writing Is Worth the Effort, Whether or Not the Work Gets Published


When all’s said and done, regardless of what our hopes may be for publication or recognition for our writing, we write for ourselves. I encourage you to write what’s most meaningful to you. Do the best you can. Maybe some of your work will be published, and maybe this will bring some satisfaction; maybe not. But if you write and write and do your best at it, then what can you be absolutely sure will happen? You will have a more meaningful life.

The Importance of Telling One's Stories

Over the years, I've worked with many people whose stories have been so important that they've worked on them in illness and even until death. Why? Because leaving their story behind, whether in the form of fiction or memoir, felt crucial. They didn't want to part with life before telling some of what they'd learned during the ride. Here's a link to an opinion piece I wrote about the most powerful instance of this I've encountered in decades of working with writers.