The Real Reason I Write.

I would provide the link if I could remember it, but I didn’t bookmark it at the time. However I can tell you it was an interview with a highly successful (financially) author of best selling novels. Suspense is their genre, I believe. And one quotation from this author had me a bit annoyed. Since I forgot the link like a fool, I will have to paraphrase what they said. It was something like this:

The reason I write novels is simple; I can not stop writing. I live and breath the act of creating these stories for myself, always have. And for me to stop writing them would be to stop breathing.”

I took to Twitter to announce my skepticism about such a statement.

If such a novelist were doing it strictly because they loved to write things, why would they go through the endless, exhausting, and often demoralizing gauntlet of the traditional large publishing house? The path of least resistance would be to  keep that novel in a drawer to share with a few close friends, skipping all of that New York City nightmare.

Don’t get me wrong. There are legitimate reasons for heaving one’s self into that nightmare. Fame. Bragging rights. A sense of approval from the supposed literary gatekeepers. Could be a “bucket list” item. The previously mentioned desire to make money. Some may even do so in hopes of their story reaching a wider audience, and hence touching more people. (Though by the time a big house is done with it, it probably will no longer be the author’s story, and even then there is little chance the house will help it reach people, but that’s another post.)

I’d accept all of those reasons, alone or in combination. They are not all my reasons, but they would be legitimate, if claimed by an author.

Yet the one reason I just cannot accept from someone that is firmly ensconced in commercial fiction success is “oh, I just love writing, and I can’t stop. i do it for me.”

Sure. So you won’t mind providing every novel you write for the rest of your life, free of charge? Or back during your debut novel, you would have been just as willing to tackle all of those obstacles if you were guaranteed zero money for your effort, and that at most 100 people in the world would ever read it?

I’m not suggesting wealthy and famous authors don’t take pride in their writing. There are times when they may indeed spend hours a day for weeks at a time writing a novel, epic poem, or screenplay purely for their own enjoyment without the desire to sell it to anyone. Nonetheless, I have to wonder.

In my writing group there is a woman who writes literary fiction. Based on the few samples of her work I have read so far, she has a talent for doing so. I enjoy her pieces, despite not being fond of literary fiction most of the time. This woman has expressed she has no interest in being published. She writes simply to get the stories out of her mind, and to see if other people in the group, and friends of hers get something from them.

I know another writer who recently decided, after years of rejection letters, to skip the idea of having someone in New York City who doesn’t know her declare her work “good enough” for consumption, and is instead self-publishing. She has been writing this fiction for years, and editing it as well. She believes that what she has written has achieved her vision for it as best as possible, and is ready for others to take part in the experience of reading her work. (And perhaps make some money on it on the side. She has worked in marketing after all.)

Two things were true in both of the above cases. The first is that neither writer at this time feels motivated to crawl through the desert of traditional publishing. They have maintained control over what their fiction is to them, and are proud to do so. The second thing they have in common is that neither one of them, to the best of my memory, has ever claimed that they write 100% for themselves simply because they “need” to. I won’t put words in their mouth of course, and it is possible both of them do feel this way. Yet in both cases, something other than writing in isolation is taking place by virtue of the fact they have allowed someone else to read their work.

A freelance-writing friend of mine put it well when I sparked this conversation on Twitter. She said that despite the fact she loves language, and creating good sentences and pieces, writing into a vacuum was not enough for her. In other words, she does want people to consume her product. If she didn’t make her living writing, she would still write, but she confessed she would not be able to write as much.

However the problem I have with the “I write because I need to” approach is not that I feel making money is the only legitimate reason to write. I have already named several other reasons in this post. No, what bothers me about financially successful authors that claim this motivation is that it rings of false nobility. As though writing for any other reason but love were not pure. As though such people are not in fact taking their checks to the bank like everyone else is.

Twitter friends pointed out that I shouldn’t expect people to avoid making a living doing something they love. I should not, and I do not.  But if one is in fact making that living soley because of what they write, they are not doing it because they love it. They just happen to be lucky enough to love some aspects of their job, I’d say.

If you are one of those who believes that in order to be a successful writer, one must be compelled in every waking moment to sit at a keyboard and write without break for hours a day, and indeed needs family to drag them from the keyboard in order to eat and shower, than say hello to a failure. If you think that they only way to “make it” as a writer is to always be satisfied to write things even if we were to be promised they would never be read by anyone anywhere, say hello to someone who is never going to make it, because neither of those things is true for me.

The fact is, I want people to read my stuff. I want these blog posts to cause readers to think in a new way, or to just reaffirm to like-minded people that they are not alone in how they think. I want to give people ideas with these posts, and inspire them somehow. I want them to share that with others. If I wrote them only because I was in love with the idea of writing them, I’d put them in a private Word file, and read them to myself every night. Better yet, I’d save the energy, and just think them to myself.

I write my fiction in hopes of making readers feel the same way as the story unfolds for them, as I felt when it unfolded to me. I want lots of people to think that the characters, settings and events I have had a hand in creating are neat. Memorable. Cool. Touching. Funny. I want readers to feel different somehow after they read my fiction than they did before. If I didn’t feel that way, I would have stopped at the first draft of my novel, printed it off and stuck it in my closest, unedited, where I could leaf through it alone any time I wanted. Things we write just for ourselves need no second draft. Or third. Or tenth.

Part of it is also that I feel my writing is the only way by which to prove to certain elements my intelligence, my worth to society, and my value as a human being. Right or wrong, that is another reason I write. (And it has worked sometimes.)

Some of my writing I do simply because I make money doing it. I take pride in its quality, and I sometimes enjoy the subject matter of pieces I get paid to write. But I do get paid, and there are many things I wouldn’t be writing if not for the fact I got money for them.

The truth for me is, writing is not my breath, and my food. It would be easier to not write something than it is to write it. Writing can be a tedious, exhausting, soul-sucking labor. At times writing can also be an exhilarating, invigorating, life-affirming labor. But in both cases writing is a labor. Even if you are good at it. Especially if you are good at it. And because it is a labor, I’d do less of it if I were rich tomorrow. Certainly less of the tedious, exhausting kind, and more of the life-affirming kind. The kind that may not be marketable, but the kind I nonetheless feel compelled to write.

Even then, I wouldn’t sit back as a rich guy and just write all day if an angel whispered in my ear and assured me it would never be read by anyone. Though if the same angel whispered in my ear today, as a writer without money, and promised me that millions would want to read my next novel, so long as I made no money from it, there is a chance I’d still write. Hell, I probably would.

In a way I guess I do write because I need to. But because I need to make a difference. Have an impact. Bring more light into the world. Deepen the human experience, even if it is only for the few thousands people that read my stuff. Yet it is not because I get euphoric at the mere notion of watching myself string sentences together to make a solid piece. (Even though I am damn good at doing so.)

Why do you write?



  1. I write because it’s the best way I express myself.

  2. I love you, but I disagree. 🙂 It seems to me that you dislike this statement from financially successful authors… but seriously, how often is the question asked of non-financially successful authors? Isn’t the sample a bit skewed? No one cares why Joe Schmoe who isn’t published continues to write, because they’ve never heard of him. And Mr. Hot Shot author wasn’t always a hot shot. I don’t think they (most of them, there are probably some that go against this) would’ve started writing if they didn’t love it, at least a little bit. So why should their reason for writing change once they’ve seen success? I’m one of those people who says I write because I love it. Also because, as Dovey95 said, the written words is the way I can best express myself.

    But it also seems like you don’t think a person can love their job, or love something that is at times difficult and challenging. (If that were true, no one would ever have kids haha.) I don’t think there’s “art” (which you do for love) “job” (which you do for money) and no place where they can meet. My sister in law draws, paints, sculpts, etc. and has always loved it, but pursued higher education in something she thought would be a good “job”. Now she’s starting grad school to pursue a path where she can incorporate her love into her job, which she should’ve just done in the first place lol. My point is that if what you love CAN be your job, why shouldn’t you let it? And does that change the fact that you love to do that particular thing? I don’t think it does. Lastly, in response to: “Things we write just for ourselves need no second draft. Or third. Or tenth.” I most definitely disagree. Just because I write for myself first and foremost (of course the consumer comes into play when I’m looking to be published, but not before my own interest in the story) doesn’t mean I’ll accept mediocrity from myself there any more than in the job I get paid to do.

    All that being said… there are probably writers I’d look at sideways if I ever heard them say they write because “I love it and OMG if I don’t write I’ll die!” and call BS lol.

  3. Jennifer, I am not sure what you are trying to say in most of your first paragraph, actually. It isn’t so much about who has made it yet, and who has not, but rather who has put in specific efforts to write in such a way as to ride the system, and who has not. Your Joe Schmoe can be just as guilty of being disingenuous about his writing goals as can Mr. Hot Shot. For if Schmoe is writing by committee, trying to copy the latest fads, talking up editors and agents at parties, and just generally doing everything he can possibly do to get famous and make money off of his novel, he is equally full of it by saying, “I only do this because I love it”, even if he fails to ever get the money and fame he is seeking.

    As to your next point, I don’t feel people have no right to love their jobs. On the contrary. Most people are not so lucky, but if one is lucky enough to get a job doing what they love, more power to them. (And it is mostly luck if they find one, especially in the writing world.) Yet if it is one’s job, then by definition they are not doing it solely because they love it. They may love their job, but it is their job. They make money doing it. And the making of that money does direct more than a token amount of the decisions they make in regards to their writing. And when one proceeds under the influence of an occupation, one cannot claim that they are producing work simply because they enjoy the act of producing it. Anymore than people can claim they make cars only because they enjoy the process of making them.

    Can a professional writer write something that has nothing to do with the market, and that is written only to their own specifications, so as to express themselves in their own way, away from an editor’s prying eyes? Yes. Is that the only reason they wrote the novel that made them famous, which was edited by committee until the Big House machine determined it was marketable? No.

    Now, sometimes people write something exactly how they want it, and don’t want New York, or the Big Five to tinker with it. They have their vision and don’t want it edited. They publish it or market it. Then their pure work, untouched by others, strikes a tune with a lot of people who hear of it, and the author makes money that way. (Much to the consternation of the Big Five, though that is another post.) Point being that again, it isn’t so much the making of the money, but the reasons stated for writing the piece. A piece written purely out of love CAN make money. Thankfully it is becoming more possible each year. But if one slaves over the traditional publishing route, I still conclude that it is more than simple love of creating the product that drives them.

    Nor did I intend to imply that one’s own private work CANNOT be edited. As one’s own private work, one can do with it whatever one desires. Yet they are not compelled to edit it by any outside force. If one is happy just writing endless first drafts so one can say the accomplished that, there is no mechanism to prevent them from leaving it there. And if one self-published there is no official mechanism to force editing, I suppose. But if you hope to go the traditional route, or hope anyone in the self-published world to buy your work, than editing becomes 99.99% required.

  4. Erik Anderson

    The vast majority of my finished pieces are the direct result of my personal financial gain, and yet, I don’t know that I would offer that up as my primary reason for writing. Well, perhaps it is the primary reason that I accomplish any writing, but it is not the primary reason that I *want* to write the things that I write. By that I mean that I love putting my thoughts about a subject on paper, but because the labor of it is so difficult, I rarely ever finish something that will not benefit my financial situation, even if indirectly. But when those motives do force me to work hard and actually finish a piece, I would say that the part I enjoy most about it is not the chance for others to read my work, but rather the way it helps me to understand the work of other writers. Writing scholarship as I did for my college degrees and for the PhD application process (indirect financial benefits) really forces me to engage the text of my favorite authors with an intellectual vigor that I would not otherwise pursue if I merely read those texts. Even though I think very hard about what I read, those thoughts are disorganized and I seldom carry them with me as an active part of my life without clearly developing them in a polished work of scholarship. That isn’t to say that I do not want others to read my writing for anything other than financial gain. I do hope that what I have to write might add to the intellectual and spiritual lives of those who read it, but I would be dishonest with myself if I said I valued that more than an enrichment of my own understanding, which I hope makes me a better person for those who share their lives with me.
    As to why I write for newspapers and magazines, that is another story. If I had the ability to live without money, I would spend a LOT of my time writing those for free. In fact, when I eventually reach the point where I am no longer a financial burden on others, I’ll probably go back to doing that.

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