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Richard Nordquist

Why Do You Write?

By May 23, 2008

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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":

  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.

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?

Click on the comments button below to tell us why you write.

More About Your Writing:


May 26, 2008 at 6:10 pm
(1) Ray Burton says:

I write to get my point or opinion across and to express how I “feel” about a certain person or situation; to “have my say” so to speak. I suppose on an egotistical level, I also write to be remembered long after I am gone. Like my music, writing is an art form and I can only hope that younger generations never lose command of the
english language which is in my opinion one of the greatest communication tools ever devised, especially when the right words are married to the perfectly matched melody. This is why the lyrics of certain songs get burned into the brain and can last an entire lifetime. Words are wonderful!
Ray Burton 2008

May 26, 2008 at 8:01 pm
(2) Lorraine Cook says:

You can show your children photos of their great grandparents and what can they see? Nothing more than what they looked like. Now give them the box of preserved, treasured letters these two wrote to each other while he was away soldiering in WW1 and watch the tears well in their eyes, watch them curl up in a chair and reach into their own history with love and compassion for two people they never met but came from. No photo can do that, the photo has more meaning only after the written words have been absorbed and the people revealed. The pen is mighter than the sword, if we want our future generations to know from where they came then by all means keep taking photos but start writing and saving the family letters (or emails – great in scrapbooks).

May 28, 2008 at 10:46 am
(3) Parepidemos says:

Two reasons: therapy and impact.
Almost since I first learned to form letters and spell words, writing has helped me figure out myself, my feelings, what’s true about me. Journaling is the comb that pulls my tangled desires and inner motives straight so I can know myself.

But more importantly, I write for impact. It is my best hope to influence thousands whom I will never meet, and the best way to maximize my positive (and mitigate my negative) influence on my children and grandchildren. Writing for impact is advocacy now and legacy later. The people in my life– and the issues we face as a city, nation, and planet– are so important that I cannot remain silent.

A skillful pen, a carefully employed keyboard, speak more loudly and clearly than any bullhorn on a street corner.

May 28, 2008 at 1:38 pm
(4) Mary Lou Pearce says:

I write because I have an endless compulsion to. Ideas crowd my head clamoring to be set down on paper. This doesn’t mean I would like to paid for my fiction writing, just means I will continue to write whether I make money at or not.

May 28, 2008 at 2:07 pm
(5) Michele Saint Amour says:

Freaking long paragraphs. I write to entertain and to heal.

December 6, 2009 at 5:32 pm
(6) greg pittman says:

do you?

May 28, 2011 at 1:44 am
(7) angelina says:

i write because otherwise my head would become so filled and overwhelmed with the massive multitude of thoughts, phrases, and ideas in my head, that i might just explode from the pressure.

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