Why We Write: The Reasons Behind the Reasons

I read yesterday that it takes the average writer ten years to build a platform. Ten years to build a solid readership. Again, on average, but still, that’s a long time. Two things came to mind:

  1. Anybody who gets into this industry for quick bucks is in for a rude awakening
  2. We must be crazy to do this. Seriously.

Yet thousands of us throw ourselves against the wall each year. Thousands of us at varying places in our careers and varying skill levels. I can’t help but ask: why do we do it? I don’t have a polling sample handy, but some of the answers that I’ve heard?

  • “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.” (This one applies to me)
  • “Something that I read inspired me.”
  • “It seemed like something I was always denying.”
  • “It just seemed like fun.”

One of my personal favorites is from Stephen King: “People want to know why I do this, why I write such gross stuff. I like to tell them I have the heart of a small boy… and I keep it in a jar on my desk.” As good an answer as any, I say.

Clive Barker‘s answers are a bit more nuanced: “I don’t find myself terribly interesting and that’s one of the reasons why I write in the mode of trying to escape from the coral that is me. The removal of the limitation that is the self into the place that is the image are things that are boundless, this is the mystical heartbeat of what I do. It’s always been that.” Escape from your boring self, I can understand that. He also said: “I write out of anxiety and obsession, I write out of hope and passion. I don’t write out of stale marketing ideas because someone paid me a million bucks.” Similar reasons, I think, both borne out of a dissatisfaction with self and one’s state of being. I could see that.

The New York Times did a great blog piece asking students why they wrote, and some of the answers are pretty great:

  • Because I am a spider and words are my silk. This morning I balloon into your feeds
  • 2 get 10 years worth of stories out of my head.
  • Because I sound smarter when I write than when I speak.
  • I write because writing is crack, and I’m an addict.

Of course, I’m sure those people looking for a quick buck are out there, but they have absolutely no reason to admit that. I don’t even judge them for it, hell, if they think they can do it, more power to them. Even better if they do.

While “I’ve always wanted to” is my own answer, deeper thought reveals that it’s not the whole answer. My original hope was to be an artist, either drawing or painting. I started  trying to transform the things that I saw in my head into art at a very young age, but I also saw very quickly that I just wasn’t skilled enough to make it. I never had a steady enough hand, and probably never will. That didn’t stop me, though, at least not at first. I tried to turn those stories into graphic novels, but I was never quite able to capture it. Still, I continue to have a very visual imagination, and when I write a story, I picture it as a movie playing out in my head, complete with chosen camera angles.

So in my case, digging deeper, the reason is because I have a very active imagination that I want to express to the world. I want people to see what I see, and my initial approach failed. Writing is now the best way that I know of to do that.  Oh, I also enjoy evoking emotion in others – that’s a lot of fun.

Yes, I’ve wanted to be a write since I was young, but it’s been a secondary choice. I’m lucky to have talent in it, I guess, and that I enjoy it so much. I don’t even miss the idea of painting or drawing anymore.

Thankfully, I also don’t have a problem with the idea of a ten-year window for readership. That time is going to pass regardless, whether I’m building a readership or not, and I’m going to want to write anyway. Might as well go with the flow.

What about you? When you dig down deep, what are some of your reasons for doing it? I’m curious – if it’s something that you’ve done from childhood, what drove your hand there? Was it because of the stories you wanted to tell that you saw in your head? Or was it something else? I’d like to share your answers in a post someday in the near future.

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  1. Add on the average seven years they say it takes most writers to complete their first novel (and I mean “complete” in the old school, pre-e writing world) and you get 17 years. Yikes. We must be crazy.

    Loved the answers from the students, but you need to add one to your list of why the rest of us do it… we don’t have a choice.

    I don’t usually drop links, but did you ever read my “Why do I like to write horror stories?” post? It was actually my first post ever (and way too long at about 1800 words), but I’ve truncated it for a guest post coming up this week. However, if you get the chance, I think you’ll find some more of those things the two of us have in common.


    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • Hah, I don’t know if my own 23 years puts me ahead of or behind the curve. Yikes. And a very good point. I thought that was kind of covered by wanting to do it from childhood, but I can see how that might not be implicit. I know I feel I have to do it, as well. I actually had not checked out that post, but you’d better believe I’m going to as soon as I get a chance!

      • Yeah, I can see what you mean. There’s a certain level of happiness whether or not we’re doing something we’ve always wanted to do.

        But I still think there’s a difference… at least for me. I don’t think someone who has wanted to be a veterinarian since they were a kid will necessarily be kept up by their nightmares if they aren’t doing veterinary work. As for me, however… 🙂

        Paul D. Dail
        http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  2. Insightful! I enjoyed it. Cheers, Pete

  3. My glib answer is, “Because it’s better than watching TV.”

    But that’s the actual truth. What would I be doing with most my free time if I weren’t writing? Watching TV and reading other people’s books (and maybe going to the gym a little more often). Mostly passive activities with little intellectual involvement. Writing makes my brain come alive. It makes me observe the world with a more active eye. It makes me think about more interesting things than, “I eat less than ever and am still gaining weight,” or “Crap, the moss has really taken over my lawn.” That’s why I write.

    • I like that answer! I actually struggle with watching TV for the same reason, though I find reading other people’s books engages me just as much as writing, since I’m actively recreating the scenery in my head. Mind if I use some of this for the follow-up next week?

  4. Didn’t always want to write. Never thought I could, still not convinced. Moved to an island for the next adventure and started a blog to chronicle said adventure. Then the story idea came and would not leave me alone. Had to write it. Started taking classes and writing. Story came pouring out.

    First MS complete and with an editor. Second Ms in the series complete and waiting. New idea started bugging me about a ghost I met at a place where I lived. Starting that 11/1 for NaNoWriMo.

    Now I write because I can’t help myself. I don’t know where the commas go. Sometimes I write like English is my second language. My first line of defense and editor is my husband. He knows where the commas go and corrects my “Yoda speak”. Next is a professional editor who is helping me clarify my voice and tell you the things that remain in my head.

    I know the story is spectacular, hopefully I am good enough to tell it. In the end all we really have is our story.

    • That’s pretty inspirational! I often tell my friends who don’t write regularly that pretty much anyone can do this if they get the bug under their skin – the stylistic and grammar issues can be learned as time goes along. What’s important is the passion that makes you write the story in the first place. That can’t be learned, and it can’t be faked. Mind if I share some of this in next week’s follow-up?

  5. The creativity builds up inside me. If it doesn’t have an outlet, I get all dammed and jammed up inside. I work better when I write. My family doesn’t care if I ever make money at it. I’m happier, which makes them happier. But, it is like a calling. I can’t paint. Wish I could. I can’t sing. Wish I could. So, I make stories.

    • I can relate, Mary 🙂 Sounds pretty much like my own case – I’m just a happier person when I’m being creative. Good things happen in my life when I allow my creative to urge to flow, so I let it go. Mind if I use some of this for next week’s follow-up?

  6. Hi, Jonathan! Just a quick response here to your thoughts on why we write/draw paint/make music~
    It’s true, all true! The rewards for attempted creativity are intangible and almost like chasing the Higgs particle. First, really, is the stoking of a toddler/child’s imagination; as we’re told stories, the engine starts to crank up. Make-believe is so easy; as adults we actually do a lot more of it but
    mostly by falling in line with the delusional & equally made-up stories of how to “fit in” & join the factory. Some of us remember that we can do whatever we want, & for a long time that may be our only reward. If that’s all it ever amounts to, that’s good enough. But there is a HUGE kick
    in being able to take passengers along. It does get lonely traveling through the imagination by yourself. I want to talk to you about that graphic novel thing. Keep hitting that keyboard!

    • Oh yeah, I like that analogy a lot, and I think you’re right that most of us do continue to play “Make believe” in one way or another. Very apt way to put it. Mind if I use some of this for the follow-up next week?

      Hmmm…I’m intrigued about the graphic novel question. I actually have something like a couple years’ worth of comic book series stored up in my head, with a fully-realized universe that I’ve kind of pushed to the side recently. If you want to chat, email me at crimnos at gmail.com, and maybe I can dig up some of my old source material.

  7. I write so readers can watch the movies playing in my head. If my writing makes someone laugh, cry, shiver, or look over their shoulder in fear, then I have done my job. 🙂

  8. I’ve been writing 20 years. What’s another 10? I have been writing since childhood (I was 11, I think). We had to do creative writing for class. That’s my sole reason for ‘starting’. It was part of the school curriculum. I kept doing it because I enjoyed it and because I could actually do it i.e. I was well ahead of my peers – I’m not saying I was a child prodigy. If I was, I’d be published by now, yes?

    There are people who are in this field for a quick buck and they do admit it. Why? Because they don’t get it. They don’t realise how long it takes, how much blood, sweat and tears. I wrote a blog post called ‘The Writer’s Long Road’ on my blog ‘Somebody Has To Say It’ partly because of them, and partly because I felt ‘new’ writers who were serious needed to understand so they can deal with it instead of getting disheartened.

    A true writer, I believe, will keep writing, regardless of how long it will take to be published (if ever) and regardless of how much money they make.

    Writing is in the blood and it’s in the bone. It’s more than an addiction. It’s in the imagination and it’s who we are.

    • I can relate to what you said about your childhood. I was a bit ahead myself, but also not a child prodigy. Some of my own delays were related to be a normal teenage – who wanted to be inside writing when there were other things that you could be out doing? As it was, the amount of time I spent on it made me something of a social outcast; any more was out of the question, even if my dream was to start getting published in my late teens.

      Interestingly, I had trouble finding people who would own up to doing it for a quick buck, but I probably looked in the wrong place. I’d imagine looking from a sample of mostly self-directed bloggers isn’t the best selection to find someone with that motivation. 🙂 But now that you mention it, yes, I see plenty of people who talk about how you’re never “going to get rich” self-publishing, and all I can wonder is whether that’s their goal. For me, money is almost beside the point – I mean, it’ll be nice if I make some, but I’d still be happy making absolutely nothing. This is a labor of love. Definitely going to check out that post, though.

      Mind if I use some of this for next week’s post? I like it a lot.

  9. I started keeping a journal when I was probably ten years old. I started writing in it then for the same reasons that I’ve always been such an avid reader. I felt awkward and uncomfortable around my peers, and I wanted to escape from my mundane existence. It’s only been in the last few years that I started writing with an audience in mind, and I did it all for pussy, man! 🙂 Seriously I was reading a lot of punk rock magazines like Maximum Rock and Roll, and Razorcake, and I realized that what the columnists in those magazines were doing was very similar to what I had been doing in my journal for a long time. I felt inspired, and just started writing.

    For a long time I was afraid that I wasn’t good enough to write for anyone but myself. I didn’t think I had any ideas worth writing about. Before long I noticed that my muse was constantly speaking to me, I just had to start listening. I’ve gotten some good responses to my writing, and that’s pleasing. But more than anything I write because it’s fun. Hell, I write because I have to. When I get an idea, and I sit down and start writing it’s almost impossible for me to stop until I’ve beat that idea into submission (or it takes on a life of it’s own and I serve as a conduit) and I’m done. I can’t imagine not writing.

    • Yeah you’ve pretty much written the whole time I’ve known you, only you didn’t seem to know it! I’m glad you’ve realized that it’s not about being able to write for someone else – the whole process is pretty much about yourself, and the rest is a bonus. I’ll ask you about using some of this next week 🙂

  10. Over the past three years, I’ve often wondered why I write.
    I have earned less than 200 USD from fiction, so it isn’t money. Only a few people have read my stories, so it is not validation.

    Fiction began when magazine editors complained that too many vignettes crept into my writing, which would be better used in stories. So I picked up creative writing, as an exorcism of sorts.

    As the stories came, writing became an addiction, because of these new people and places in my head, an escape from everyday life.

    Some days I write because the escape is easy, I can’t stop writing. It is a high. But it is on days when the stories do not come, when my writing plods, when I miss the magic, that I truly realize why I write.

    When the writing flows through me, it is like meditation. The ‘I’ disappears. There is only the world created, and the words used to create it– words that come from a place I cannot reach at will.

    I write so I can slip into that place, which is above and beyond me. Where, unlike our world, things make sense and are built to last.

    • That’s fascinating, Damyanti! I wondered if journalists or non-fiction writers would get bitten by the bug, and it would seem I have my answer. I’ve always straddled that line myself, but fiction was, without a doubt, my first love, where many of my fellow journalism students in college were focused strictly on writing features and articles and seemed to have no interest in fiction.

      Meditation is a perfect way to put it! I think the same thing, as if I’m tapping into something larger and more important than myself, a form of spirituality. Mind if I use some of that for next week’s follow-up post? I like it.

  11. When I was writing regularly, it was so I could spend time with good friends (my characters) and because of that high you get when you write a sentence that rocks. Plus, it’s my only artistic outlet since I can’t draw or sculpt.

  12. I love writing because as Mary said above, as an artistic outlet. In addition, it beats watching terrible reality shows on television. Enjoyed reading your post!

  13. I taught fiction writing for a decade at the community college level. I always told my students, “There is only one reason to write, and that reason is because you can’t NOT write.” Writing for money? You’ll wait a long time. Fame? You may wait even longer. But if you write because you can’t keep your fingers from dancing across a keyboard, because you’d rather shop for new notebooks and pens than shoes, because you’d rather savor words than a fine wine–then you will succeed, by your own definition, if not by the world’s.

  14. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 10-27-2011 « The Author Chronicles

  15. I write because my only moments of happiness come when I’m writing. They don’t last but, while they exist, they are pure and perfect.

    Judy, South Africa

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