Why Do Writers Write?

"The spoken word passes away; the written word abides"*

William Styron Portraits
"You write because you want to be read." - William Styron. Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

In his Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791), James Boswell reports that Johnson "uniformly held to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.'"

Then Boswell adds, "Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature."

Perhaps because writing isn't a particularly lucrative profession (especially for beginners), most writers side with Boswell on this issue.

But if it's not money, what does motivate writers to write? Consider how 12 professional writers responded to this question.

  1. The question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question, is: Why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can't do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it. . . .
    (Orhan Pamuk, "My Father's Suitcase" [Nobel Prize acceptance speech, December 2006]. Other Colors: Essays and a Story, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely. Vintage Canada, 2008)
     
  2. To Learn Something
    I write because I want to find something out. I write in order to learn something that I didn't know before I wrote it.
    (Laurel Richardson, Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life. Rutgers University Press, 1997)
     
  1. To Think More Coherently
    I write because I enjoy expressing myself, and writing forces me to think more coherently than I do when just shooting off my mouth.
    (William Safire, William Safire on Language. Times Books, 1980)
     
  2. To Keep From Going Crazy
    I write because it's the only thing I'm really very good at in the whole world. And I've got to stay busy to stay out of trouble, to keep from going crazy, dying of depression. So I continue to do the one thing in the world that I feel very very good at. I get an enormous amount of pleasure out of it.
    (Reynolds Price, quoted by S.D. Williams in "Reynolds Price on the South, Literature, and Himself." Conversations With Reynolds Price, ed. by Jefferson Humphries. University Press of Mississippi, 1991)
     
  1. To Make a Home
    One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in time, in others' minds.
    (Alfred Kazin, "The Self As History." Telling Lives, ed. by Marc Pachter. New Republic Books, 1979)
     
  2. To End Loneliness
    Why do I write? It's not that I want people to think I am smart, or even that I am a good writer. I write because I want to end my loneliness. Books make people less alone. That, before and after everything else, is what books do. They show us that conversations are possible across distances.
    (Jonathan Safran Foer, quoted by Deborah Solomon in "The Rescue Artist." The New York Times, February 27, 2005)
     
  3. To Have Fun
    I write basically because it's so much fun—even though I can't see. When I'm not writing, as my wife knows, I'm miserable.
    (James Thurber, interviewed by George Plimpton and Max Steele, 1955. The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. II, ed. by Philip Gourevitch. Picador, 2007)
     
  4. To Evoke the Past and the Present
    Nothing ever seems to me quite real at the moment it happens. It's part of the reason for writing, since the experience never seems quite real until I evoke it again. That's all one tries to do in writing, really, to hold something—the past, the present.
    (Gore Vidal, interviewed by Bob Stanton in Views from a Window: Conversations With Gore Vidal. Lyle Stuart, 1980)
     
  1. To Keep a Hold on Life
    We do not write because we must; we always have choice. We write because language is the way we keep a hold on life.
    (bell hooks [Gloria Watkins], Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. Henry Holt and Co., 1999)
     
  2. To Unload
    [Y]ou get a great deal off your chest—emotions, impressions, opinions. Curiosity urges you on—the driving force. What is collected must be got rid of.
    (John Dos Passos. The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. IV, ed. by George Plimpton. Viking, 1976)
     
  3. To Leave a Legacy
    It is the deepest desire of every writer, the one we never admit or even dare to speak of: to write a book we can leave as a legacy. . . . If you do it right, and if they publish it, you may actually leave something behind that can last forever.
    (Alice Hoffman, "The Book That Wouldn't Die: A Writer's Last and Longest Voyage." The New York Times, July 22, 1990)
     
  1. To Discover, to Uncover . . .
    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. . . .
    (Terry Tempest Williams, "A Letter to Deb Clow." Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. Pantheon Books, 2001)

Now it's your turn. Regardless of what you write—fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, letters or journal entries—see if you can explain why you write.

* "Vox audita perit; littera scripta manet"
(adage in William Caxton's Mirror of the World, 1481)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Why Do Writers Write?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 12, 2017, thoughtco.com/why-do-writers-write-1689239. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, June 12). Why Do Writers Write? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-do-writers-write-1689239 Nordquist, Richard. "Why Do Writers Write?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-do-writers-write-1689239 (accessed January 17, 2018).