Why Do Writers Write!?

Do not take my word for it, but that of Mr Orwell.

This piece is the most popular I have ever published.

The main reason — I think — is that most writers never asked themselves such a question. They don’t know exactly why they write and are surprised to read such a basic question.

We need a hell of a good reason to spend hundreds or thousands of hours sitting in a chair bleeding.

What truly motivates us?


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The Four Great Motives For Writing

Therapeutic benefits, boredom, stress, ambition, and many others all partially contribute, but they don’t actually answer the question ‘why do you write?’. We are looking for deep-seated and common reasons that affect every writer, albeit in different proportions.

I’ve found the answer to our quest 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 the extracts.

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.

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

Mind that the word “political” is meant here in the widest possible sense.

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.

What About You?

Orwell’s elements are absolutely spot on! I see how they coexist in me and vary in proportions over time — what motivated me to write in the past is different now.

A useful exercise that I recommend is taking the time to draw a picture of yourself, trying to understand your inner motivation balance.

Mine looks like this:

Reflecting on yourself is often worth it, but I believe you could reach a higher level of self-awareness with this exercise — this happened to me!

Not to mention that it helps to prepare a rich and posh answer for the next time you’re asked "why do you write?" by annoying strangers. According to the graph above, my answer would be:

“Oh, let me think! Well, I write every day for sheer egoism. But, of course, it's not just that! I'm not alone on this planet, am I? Strong political purposes guide me along the way. These two elements are the main reasons why I do write. Naturally, I’m not completely devoid of aesthetic and historical impulses. You know? They contribute, albeit to a small extent.”

There’s No Definitive Answer

Your why is not completely defined? That’s fine. If you’re a writer, what’s important is to keep writing — as creating something is reason sufficient in itself — 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, being led by some demon also seems a valid option.

I gladly accept it.

“Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

— Gloria Steinem

See you next Wednesday,

Lorenzo Di Brino