Why do we do it? The reasons for writing are as various as writers, but among them are common threads that unite us.
1. For the trance
I can lose a whole day writing. I forget to eat or drink. I come round hours after beginning and discover I’m cold. Writing takes us into an inner world that is endless and extraordinary.
In Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos, John Berger describes one of those luminous moments when an ordinary place takes on luminous, otherworldly quality:
Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests. The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.
When we write, we’re opening ourselves up. Writing takes us into another space. As Virginia Woolf described it:
I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the thick of the greatest rapture known to me.
2. To bear witness
For Berger, this sense of witnessing involves total immersion and openness to other people and to other places.
Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories — storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.
Writing about witnessing an act of ecological destruction in ‘The act of writing: speak and bear witness’ Erik Reece says:
In the end, I can say that my experience on Lost Mountain turned me into a Jamesian pragmatist — someone who believes a thought isn’t really worth having unless it can be converted into an act of conscience.
nonfiction’s greatest strength and virtue (is) its ability to bear witness and the veracity that comes from that act.
The same is true of fiction or poetry. The ability of the non factual to illustrate truths is profound.
3. To explore what it means to be human
In writing we learn about our inner world and reflect on who we want to be:
Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself…It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent.
Writing can be an opportunity to reflect and heal, to discover ourselves in the process and work on deep issues. As Gao Xingjian says:
Writing eases my suffering . . . writing is my way of reaffirming my own existence.
And if we have our senses open, we also move on to reflect more widely:
It’s a way for me to address and counter my questions about what it means to be human, or, in my case a Dominican human who grew up in New Jersey.
4. To make meaning
Associated with the urge to fathom what makes people to tick, to constantly grapple with the human condition, is the desire to make meaning. T S Eliot talks of how we can miss meaning in his poem ‘The Dry Salvages’.
The moments of happiness — not the sense of well-being, Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection, Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination — We had the experience but missed the meaning, And approach to the meaning restores the experience In a different form, beyond any meaning We can assign to happiness.
Victor Frankl posited that the main search of mankind is not happiness or pleasure but meaning.
Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.
Writing not only witnesses to the experience, but finds the meaning. Narrativising gives life shape.
5. To connect
And when we witness, reflect on humanity and make meaning, we connect. We write because we’ve seen things, felt things and want to share the journey. We write because we’ve got something to say and long for the conversation. We write because we have a perspective that begs exploration.
That is why I write — to try to turn sadness into longing, solitude into remembrance.
6. To affect the world
When we connect, we have impact.
When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.
Writing can be a lonely activity, but sending our writing into the world is a public act of hope.
7. To imagine alternatives
Why am I compelled to write? . . . Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and anger . . . To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispell the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit . . . Finally I write because I’m scared of writing, but I’m more scared of not writing.
Gloria E. Anzaldúa
This is a great and positive way to look at writing, especially in an age when the dominant politics screams that ‘there is no alternative’.
But there are alternatives and writers can comunicate them. Anaïs Nin puts it like this:
I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me — the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art.
8. To live life in all its fullness
Writing is vital and we are often most alive when we are doing it. Writing is an activity that draws us into the moment. When we write we see every blades of grass, hear the birds sing, catch the exact shade of the setting sun. Writing opens up every sense.
9. To learn
Writing encourages us to read, to learn, to think, to research, to dig deep inside ourselves.
I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
Writing is powerful way to encounter your inner-scape and the world. As Terry Tempest Williams puts it in ‘A Letter to Deb Clow’ from Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert:
I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write to honor beauty. I write to correspond with my friends. I write as a daily act of improvisation. I write because it creates my composure. I write against power and for democracy. I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams. . .
10. to make art out of everyday, ordinary moments
I believe there is hope for us all, even amid the suffering — and maybe even inside the suffering. And that’s why I write fiction. It’s my attempt to keep that fragile strand of radical hope, to build a fire in the darkness.
So much gets lost. There are too many moments to capture them, to always find the meaning, but some of them make it.
11. To know the elixir of autonomy
A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.
Writers are often people who don’t have the easiest fit with the world’s busyness, it’s noise or it’s demands to sell your soul. Many writers don’t the opportunity to write full-time and leave that world behind, but even if it’s for an hour a day, writing gives this freedom. As Cal Newton points out in So good they can’t ignore you, a happy, succesfull, meaningful life is one in which you have some autonomy.
I write because I love writing. I think I became a writer in order to explore my ideas and responses to the world around me, which I often found it difficult to share with others. Also I liked my autonomy, and a writer can choose his or her own working hours — midnight to dawn or whenever. The difficulty of becoming a writer never bothered me. I knew it was going to work for me sooner or later. And if you’re a writer you don’t have to retire but can keep on doing the thing you love till you drop off the chair.
12. To leave a legacy
There is a kind of immortality in writing. It’s part of the dent we make on the universe as we pass through.
13. For the love of stories
I just knew there were stories I wanted to tell.
Octavia E. Butler says.
Writers, whether of nonfiction, fiction or poetry, love stories.
14. Because it’s who we are
When we love stories so much that narrativising becomes who we are, we can’t not write. We write because we have no choice. Because we are writers.
Want to become a different story?
If you’d like to keep thinking differently about writing, creativity and life, please sign up to follow my blog and the ‘Becoming a Different Story’ Newsletter.