'An Agreeable Delirium': What Compels Writers to Write?

'The mere act and habit of writing ... has produced an agreeable delirium'

George Orwell
George Orwell (Eric Blair), 1903-1950. (Getty Images)

Money? Madness? Some indefinable exuberance? What compels some of us to write?

It was Samuel Johnson who said famously that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money"—a "strange opinion" that James Boswell attributed to Johnson's "indolent disposition."

But British essayist Isaac D'Israeli saw darker forces at work:

The mere act and habit of writing, without probably even a remote view of publication, has produced an agreeable delirium; and perhaps some have escaped from a gentle confinement by having cautiously concealed those voluminous reveries which remained to startle their heirs; while others again have left a whole library of manuscripts, out of the mere ardour of transcription, collecting and copying with peculiar rapture. . . .
But even great authors have sometimes so much indulged in the seduction of the pen, that they appear to have found no substitute for the flow of their ink, and the delight of stamping blank paper with their hints, sketches, ideas, the shadows of their mind!
("Secret History Of Authors Who Have Ruined Their Booksellers." Curiosities of Literature: Second Series, Vol. I, 1834)

Most of us, I suspect, fall somewhere between the extremes of Johnson's hack and D'Israeli's obsessive-compulsive.

In his well-known essay "Why I Write" (1946), George Orwell identified "four great motives for writing":

  1. Sheer egoism
    Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm
    Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
  3. Historical impulse
    Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  4. Political purpose
    Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people's idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.
    (The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays, and Reportage. Harcourt, 1984)

Writing on the same theme decades later, Joan Didion insisted that Orwell's first reason was, for her at least, the most important:

In many ways 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.
("Why I Write," The New York Times Book Review, December 5, 1976)

Less combatively, American naturalist Terry Tempest Williams has offered a series of answers to the same question:

I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create fabric 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. . . .
("Why I Write," Northern Lights Magazine; reprinted in Writing Creative Nonfiction, ed. by Carolyn Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard. Story Press, 2001)

Regardless of whether you've ever published a line of prose or verse, see if you can explain what compels you to wrestle with words, tinker with sentences, and play with ideas on the page or screen.