Sure, sometimes we write because we have to--those reports due at the office, the term papers due at school. But a lot of us also write because we want to. Even, at times, because we feel the need to write. But why?
In his well-known essay "Why I Write" (1946), George Orwell identified his "four great motives for writing":
- 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.
- 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.
- Historical impulse
Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
- 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.
Writing on the same theme decades later, Joan Didion insisted that Orwell's first reason was, for her at least, the dominant one:
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, 1976)
Less combatively, American naturalist Terry Tempest Williams took up the question in a recent essay, which begins:
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, edited by Carolyn Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard, Story Press, 2001)
Now it's your turn. Regardless of what you write--fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, letters or journal entries--let us know why you write. What compels you to wrestle with words, tinker with sentences, play with ideas?
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