10 Authors Share Their Honest Answers To The Question, “Why Do You Write?”

Flickr / Alexander Kaufhold
Flickr / Alexander Kaufhold
I always keep a copy of Margaret Atwood’s, Negotiating with the Dead, close by because it reminds me–gently–why I work with words and stories and characters. The importance of it all. I’ve heard the question, “Why do you write?” asked of authors all the time–it’s an easy question to ask, but it requires some thought on the author’s part, I think. And because I have the privilege to work with so many talented authors, I asked them to record their own responses to the oft-asked question. Atwood, in her book, gives her own list of reasons which you should read on your own time! They’re great answers. And so are these.

1. “I write to share my particular truth, what the truth is like for me. I write because I believe in this profession, and in words, and in people who write and read carefully. I write because I believe that writing can change us. I write so my daughter won’t have to feel defined by the outside world, so she’ll be able to define herself and no one will try to make her stop.”(Original response from Stymie Mag)

Matthew Salesses, The Hundred-Year Flood

2. “I give lots of reasons to this question, all of which are only partly-true: I write to inform, I write to learn, I write to escape this world, to hop in my spaceship, my flying robot, to high-five my sword-wielding Girl Friday co-pilot and see the End of Time, to battle aliens and monsters, to make fun of the bad guy’s facial hair, to save the world, to fall in love and kiss beneath the stars, to live forever. But the mostly-truth, the honestly-basically-actually-true truth, is this: I write because I’m a junkie.

It’s probably a real thing with a real name, but I’ve always called it flow.

I wake up, I make my bed, I brush my teeth. There’s coffee and breakfast. I sit down at my desk. I yell at the neighbor’s yappy dog. I stare at my story. After a few minutes, I can read words again. Nothing’s coming. Tomorrow maybe. I don’t want to do this right now there’s a new episode of True Detective and — “Shut up,” I say, “focus.” I slap myself in the face like a crazy person and read yesterday’s words. I try to write past them. I fail. I read yesterday’s words again. I try to write past them. I almost make it. One more time from the top, and then I’m writing. Fifteen minutes later the real world’s gone. My family and friends and the city I live in, my neighborhood, my bedroom — it’s all gone. Now it’s me and Layla Storm trapped inside a simulated world, year 2350, with sentinels breathing down our necks and invisible boys to save from silliness, and giant dogs, and interplanetary civil war. I’m vibrating. Characters are whispering in my ear, and whole new landscapes open up in front of me — floating villages, holographic labyrinths, an underwater laboratory in the Jovian System plagued by ghosts?, the Ghost Ship of Europa — and while yes, it can certainly be said that I am doing this, that I am creating these people, these places, this story, that I am only jotting down some very complicated, very detailed psychotic episode, it feels like something else. It feels like something important pouring out of me — pouring through me, from someplace above me, beyond me — and nothing in my life has ever felt as good. I have to keep it safe. Is this what love is? I really don’t know (I’m a glorious fucking nightmare at romance). But this is why I write. I write because I can’t stop.”

Michael Solana, Citizen Sim

3. “It’s freedom, you know? Putting words on a page, giving them life.”

Carrie Visintainer, Wild Mama

4. “There’s that saying about how painters like painting, but writers like having written. For me, writing is not particularly pleasurable. Research is, thinking about what I might write is, even editing is–but the actual writing process is often miserable. It’s never as good as it was in your head, it won’t come easy, it’s maddeningly slow. But of course I do spend a lot of time on it for one reason. Writing is enjoyable (and necessary) to me in the sense that it is inherently a relief. I write because I feel like I have to. If I don’t, these things are bottled up. Or I feel frustrated to see people thinking or doing or believing the wrong things. I want to talk to those people. I want to say something to them that maybe only I can say. My experience as a reader has always been that the best books are the ones that writers feel like they had to write–that they could not not write. So that’s sort of the mindset that I approach my own work with.”

Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way

5. “Reasons for writing break down into two categories: introspective and extrospective. On the introspective side, I write because it gives me pleasure to create something out of nothing, because my days would feel empty and formless without it, and because it boosts my self-esteem to do something I’m good at. But introspection only goes so far. At some point in the process of writing a novel—maybe two-thirds of the way through—I return to a vision, a kind of self-directed mental movie, that helps center me in terms of my public role as a fiction writer. I imagine a woman (for some reason it’s always a woman) in Washington DC’s Union Station about to board a train for Boston. She’ll have some time to kill en route, so she goes to the station bookstore and browses the wall of fiction. On it are the usual suspects, the classics of nineteenth and twentieth century literature, along with a selection of contemporary novels. And, because this is a fantasy, there’s my book as well, the one I’m working on in its future finished form. Something about it must intrigue her, because instead of buying the latest Zadie Smith or Jennifer Egan (which would’ve been good choices as well) she purchases my book and brings it with her on the train. It takes a while for the passengers to settle, but by the time the train has pulled away and the conductor has come round to take tickets, my reader has her shoes off, a glass of red wine from the club car in her hand, and my book in her lap open to page one.

Cut to: ten hours later. As the train slows into Boston South Station, my reader comes to the end of my book and slips it back into her purse. What she thinks or feels is her business—it’s my job to stay with her until she gets home. And that’s why I write.”

Mike Heppner, We Came All This Way

6. “I write because it hurts too fucking much to not write. Writing allows me to dig into parts of myself that I wouldn’t acknowledge otherwise. Through this process, I’ve gotten to know myself much better. I think there’s a fine line between narcissism and self-exploration, and I think what differentiates the two is the fact that I don’t particularly like seeing what’s reflected back through my writing. Most of the time, I hate reading it back – sometimes because I don’t like what I said, other times I don’t like how I said it. But regardless, I remember the relief I experienced when I first put it down onto paper, and so I chase that. That cathartic feeling that writing brings. Because the alternative – not writing – means that I have to leave all that shit wherever it’s at inside of me, and like I said… that hurts too much.”

Jason Smith, The Bitter Taste of Dying

7. “My first thought was to say, “I write for money.” But if I am being honest with myself that isn’t true. I write because if I don’t write, I start to feel anxious and a little crazy. Writing for me is like exercise: you don’t necessarily do it because you want to, you do it because you know it’s good for you and you’ll feel better afterwards.”

– Gordon Haber, Adjunctivitis

8. “I’m trained as a historian, so writing is my way of making the past converse with the future. Also, I have fantasies of world domination. This will never happen in real life so…I make up stories.”

Paula Young Lee, Deer Hunting in Paris

9. “At this point in my life, I think I write to crystallize and understand my own experiences. Life can be relentless and and overwhelming, but if I describe an event (or person, or place) on the page, I have to focus and engage with my own memory in a deeper, more meaningful way. This, in turn, helps to keep me grounded and encourages me to pay more attention the next time around. It’s so easy to autopilot through life.

A quick example: a few years ago, I was in a car accident. It wasn’t anything serious, thank God, but there was this intense feeling of dread when I realized that my car was going to crash and there was nothing I could do about it. In the weeks after the accident, I was haunted by that feeling of inevitability. To work through it, I wrote a few flash fiction pieces: “Bleach” is about a woman realizing the man she’d just slept with was harboring an awful secret. “Wrens” is about a police officer who acted a few seconds too late. And “Cast Down Your Burdens” is about a group of animals backed into a corner.

One of my former bosses once claimed that, as a creative writing professor, her job was to be a “guardian of the soul.” This sounded hokey to me at the time–I’d always thought of writing as a tool, a means to an end–but I think I now understand what she means. Writing can accomplish a number of things, but I’m glad I could use it to work through some complex and difficult times.”

– Robert Yune, Eighty Days of Sunlight

10. “I write because… I’m not a musician. If I could play music, I’d do that. Music requires no translation. It dives straight into your heart and starts to work its emotional magic on you. Lacking that sort of peerless penetrative power of music, I must rely on words to connect with you. I look at everything I write as a second-rate song. For instance, I always read my work aloud to hear how it sounds–to hear the melody of the sentences.

I write because I want to tell you a story, to sing you my song, and chase that feeling I got it right. I write to convey what I experienced to someone else and have them feel it, as much as that can ever happen; and maybe, in a small way, my sentences will help you feel less lonely, or feel braver. Or whatever. I want you to feel the support of your invisible tribe. Also, I guess I write to bear witness to what I see, and to explain what I know, in the hope that people I’ll likely never meet feel that they’re not alone, that they’re understood, they’re heard, they’re seen, they’re okay.

I write because… it’s how I make sense of the world, and like a curious kid with a frog in his pocket, I want to share what I find. Although, if we’re being real… writing is easily the hardest thing I do every day. And, yet, it feels like I’m playing. That strange paradox proves that writing means everything to me. It’s where I can be honest, earnest, and laugh at all the bullshit. Which brings us back around to it: I write because I can’t sing for shit. Ask anyone. I want to sing you a love song, to rhyme beautifully about outrage, but I can’t. So, I write. It’s the best sound I can offer the world. (And myself.)

I guess, the short answer is: I write because… I’m not a musician.”

Zaron Burnett III, How to be a Fearless Badass Thought Catalog Logo Mark

I read, edit, and publish books for fun.

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