Do You Know Why Writers Write?
I didn’t know how to answer this question.
Why do they write?
No idea. I’ve always been sure of one thing only: they (we?) need an extremely valid reason to spend hundreds of hours sitting in a chair bleeding (a bit dramatic - I know - but it’s a famous Hemingway quote).
I researched for adequate reasons and found - not one! - but four.
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The Four Great Motives For Writing
Therapeutic benefits, boredom, stress, ambition, and many others all somewhat contribute, but they’re not our answer. We’re looking for deep and common reasons that affect every writer, albeit in different proportions.
In the essay ‘Why I Write’ by Georgy Orwell, he describes - contrary to what the title suggests - the four great motives for writing that govern each and every one of us.
“Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.”
Below are some key passages.
1. Sheer Egoism
Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.
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. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or a writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
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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. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
Mind that the word ‘political’ is meant here in the broadest possible sense.
What About You?
Orwell’s elements are absolutely on point. I recognise how they coexist in me and vary in proportions over time. What motivated me to write in the past is very different from what is driving me now.
Today, if I would take a picture of the proportions I see in myself, it would look something like this:
I’d highly recommend taking the time to draw a picture of yourself as I did here and try to understand your ‘inner motivation balance’. I believe it’s an excellent strategy to check or increase your self-awareness — for me, at least, this was mindblowing.
What’s your inner motivation balance?
Furthermore, let me point out that having a precise answer to the too often asked question ‘why do you write?’ serves the noble scope of being unbearable (particularly with annoying people). According to the graph above, my answer would be:
“Oh, let me think…I write every day out of sheer egoism. But, of course, it's not just that. I'm not alone on this planet, am I? No…strong political purposes guide me along the way, I’d say. These two elements are the main reasons. Naturally, I’m not completely devoid of aesthetic and historical impulses. You know? They contribute, albeit to a small extent.”
Extra Though: There’s No Definitive Answer
Is your why not wholly defined? That’s fine.
If you’re a writer, what really matters is that you keep writing: to create something is reason enough - no need to overthink.
Probably, this is what Orwell meant in the honest confession at the end of his essay:
“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”
As much as I love precise and all-encompassing answers, yet being led by some demon seems a valid option to me.
I’d gladly accept that.
“Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”
See you next Wednesday,