Why We Write

At some point during every interview with a writer, or during any biography or autobiography, the question is inevitably raised, ‘Why do you write?’ Of course, the question is bifurcated (and for this reason psychotherapists avoid ‘why’ questions), on one hand meaning ‘what causes you to write’ as in ‘what factors contributed to the will to write’, and on the other hand meaning ‘what do you hope to get out of the experience’. ‘Where will it lead?’

It must be pointed out that it is highly unlikely that anyone has the urge to write for only one of these following reasons, however one will usually predominate. Also, we may note that these categories are not clear cut: they will tend to overlap. Many aspects of writing to validate one’s existence are shared with writing to deal with absurdity or to play God.

Communication is the essence of humanity

Everyone has a story to tell. At least that is what we say when we want to be generous with the people around us. Despite the incredible advancements in the modern methods of communication, many of us still feel isolated, even alienated. The desire to communicate is a fundamental drive within a gregarious species such as ours. This, of course, creates certain problems, for the art of writing is not real communication in the traditional sense, since there is so little in the way of response, of feedback, other than through critical avenues. For the most part, the reader does not get to comment back to the author. However, we will still feel satisfied that we, the writer, have at least played our part: we have put our message across, and we must simply assume a response in return. The true return of the communication must be accepted sotto voce in the form of the sales of the work: if it sells well, then the people have made a comment and we have our ‘communication’. For a poet, the acclamation at the end of a live performance of a poem is often more important than any sense of assuredness that the poem was ‘understood’, for the acclamation is the communication. The critic or the reviewer calls this ‘the public dialogue’ or ‘the artistic dialogue’. Yet it is almost oxymoronic that we picture the lone writer in their study furiously typing away at their opus magnum, while the rest of the world carries on without them, and yet we still see this as ‘communication’.

Validating one’s existence

Men and women write for different reasons and the difference is noticeable in their diverse styles. Women tend to write because their stories validate their emotional expressions: ‘I feel, therefore I write.’ For some it may even be ‘I write, therefore I feel.’ Their stories tend to express personal experience as a greater core element, rather than as an auxiliary mechanism on the circumference of the work. Men, on the other hand, always regret that they can not ‘create’ in the significant way that women do: in other words, their contribution to the reproduction of the species, of life itself, is minimal. If men can not create in this deep and meaningful way, we find other ways to create in a form which we hope will be at least as enduring. A woman’s reproduction will last the centuries in the ongoing generations; a man hopes to last as long in a single bound with a single work of some celebrity. While we may be pleased at the idea that one of our works has a momentary success, both critically and financially, we all dream that something which we have written will still be read, or better quoted, a hundred years from now. In each case, whether a man or a woman, we validate our existence by reproducing ourselves: scribo ergo sum. It is in one way a tombstone while we are still alive, marking out our permanent place in the world.

It is in this section that we most often find people saying, ‘I write for the sake of the art; it is the art which drives me!’ But this is most often a piece of pretentious masturbation. True, we may have a love of art, and we may wish to be a participant in it, but its mere existence does not explain why we wish to be a participant in it. The reasons are in the ego, not in the event or the image.

Dealing with the absurdity

The French author Albert Camus pointed out in his book The Myth of Sisyphus that many of us struggle with the absurdity of life. This is not ‘absurdity’ in the modern, colloquial meaning, that of ‘stupidity’, but rather the theatrical meaning, that which we find in the term ‘Theatre of the Absurd’. It is the distance between the world we would like to experience in the ongoing interplay between the participant and their ‘scene’ and the world as it really is, a world which for the greater part is unchangeable, other than through some accidental or incidental force majeure. Beckett wrote of the absurd ‘distance’ between two men waiting for Godot and the real-world fact that he would not be coming. How do we deal with this immutable absurdity? For many, they live in a benumbed and anaesthetised world of inertia, of daily drudgery and nothingness; for others, they succumb and take their own life. But for those who wish to rise above the absurdity, they create. According to Camus, creativity is an antidote for suicide.

Rivalry of thought

As an extension of these previous three points, many people write in order to set themselves up as a rival to another person’s professed beliefs. Sometimes it is oppositional, as in one person expresses a viewpoint and we wish to counter-argue it. On other occasions, the thoughts of another inspire us to do better. We think, ‘If I had written this, I would have done so in such and such a fashion!’ There is nothing cheap in this. We know that so much of the social, spiritual, intellectual and technological evolution of the species has been based on the desire to do better. As a species we feed of what has gone before and represent it in a constantly new light. Even Shakespeare himself obtained many of his ideas from the popular works of his times. The purest of originality is a very rare thing, and all artists, if they are honest with themselves and the public, will be aware of and profess the ‘givens’ in their life: and the influential work of another is often one such ‘given’.

To be God

Every one of us has at some thought, ‘If I had my way…’ The power of God is the power to create by speech. God said, “Let there be…”. The connection between the purely noumenal thought and the phenomenal reality rests in the ‘word’. This is the fundamental creative argument not merely of the Bible, but of most religion. [For those who do not know, the word noumenon, deriving from nous, the intellect, refers to that which exists entirely as an intellectual conceit, and is contrasted with phenomenon, that which shows itself in the material universe.] So the desire to create is not merely that of self-validation, mentioned earlier, but also that of an omnipotence of a deity, whose words make a particular world. Our observations and descriptions do not merely reflect reality, they form an essential part in making the thing what it is. We elevate ourselves from being a mere participant in the ‘dialogue’ to being the Supreme Creator.

Changing the world

All five of these previous reasons becomes refocussed in the desire of many writers to ‘change the world’. Changing the world is, of course, an unrealistic ideal at the furthest extremity of possibilities. For most writers, we are content with the notion that we may have changed the viewpoint, and therefore the life, of at least one person, because we are not deluded. We know that if by some remarkable feat the world does change, it always starts with one individual, and they are the one who pushes the cause. They will say, ‘I read this amazing book and you really ought to look at it.’ It creeps like a slowly expanding puddle, one drop at a time (guttatim), stretching as far as its natural tolerances will allow it. We know that this is an important ingredient in the raison de faire for many writers because of the intense desire always to be seen as the originating author of an idea: ‘I first thought of it’ is a driving proclamation!

There are many other subsidiary reasons for writing, such as a promise that one made to one’s grandmother on her death-bed, or to impress the object of one’s heart, or to test out the grasping of some new-found language. These are all personal rationales. I have dealt here with some of the biggies which drive the profession as a whole. The usefulness of such a thesis is that the most successful writers have always had an acute awareness not only of what they want to write, but also of why they want to write. The answers, ‘Just because I do’ or ‘It is just an urge, I feel compelled’, are aimless and only serve to make the writer less focussed. Before a single word has been written down, we must ask, ‘What am I doing and what do I want to get out of this?’ In other words, ‘Why?’

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