Why do you write? The impulse inwards and the impulse outwards

why do you write

Today I took a Creative Writing workshop at the LSE Space For Thought Literary Festival, which I’d titled Why Do You Write? And Can Knowing That Even Help? It will soon be available as a podcast. It was good fun to run – and I tried out a couple of new writing exercises, but one thing I did that is quite standard fare is I asked the students to jot down, for themselves, their personal reasons for writing.

Now, if you’re a writer, and you feel like exploring this question, perhaps you’d take two minutes to jot down a few possible answers before reading on. That’s what I asked students to do in the workshop, and I think it’s worth doing blind, as it were, for reasons that will become clear.

So, before reading on, grab a pen and jot down six reasons why you write.

Or, you know, ignore that, roll your eyes, and read on.

One thing I’d noticed, in making my own personal list in preparation for the session, was the reasons divided reasonably easily into two categories: inward-oriented impulses, and those that turned outwards.

So, when I asked students to share their reasons with the room at large, and I wrote them up on the whiteboard, I divided them into two columns as I went. Here’s what they came up with – some of it compressed and paraphrased by me, for which I apologise.

  • Because I can
  • Communicate
  • Create
  • Entertain
Enjoyment
  • Reciprocate  – give back something for all the reading pleasure I’ve had
  • To make sense of things
  • Share
  • To keep my head from exploding
  • Protest
  • Compulsion
  • Reach an audience
  • Reflect on things
  • Money!
  • Explore myself and my self-identity
  • Make people laugh and cry
  • Explore my imagination
  • Capture moments
  • Overcome the fear of writing
  • Therapeutic reasons

 

And this was the list I then showed, that I’d come up with. (Some of it tongue-in-cheek)

  • Replicate the joy and intensity of reading
  • Get rich and famous
  • Understand something about yourself
  • Express or share something about yourself
  • Understand something about the world
  • Express or share something about the world
  • Emulate your favourite writer
  • Impose your ideas on others
  • The sheer thrill of creation
  • Contribute to the culture, or the conversation, as you see it
  • Entertain yourself
  • Impress others / make yourself seem more interesting / get laid

As you can see, many of the terms and reasons pop up in both lists, in some form or other. I’d pretty much decided on giving an equal balance between the two impulses, once I’d decided on that perhaps overly simplistic division, but I was interested to see that the students’ list was significantly longer than the outward one, while mine, if anything, erred towards the outward or external.

I say ‘simplistic’, but I do think there is a fundamental split here. We all of us write both for ourselves and for others, to some extent, but if you made a personal list perhaps you’d look at it now and ask yourself: which column do most of your reasons sit in? Are you a ‘for yourself’ writer, or a ‘for others’?

Someone whose answers sat squarely in the right hand column might be at risk of producing meretricious, programmatic, target-oriented, basically uninteresting writing, because they’re so fixated on the effect of their writing that they are blind to the workings of their own writing personality. But someone whose answers stick to the left-hand column might be producing work which doesn’t take that crucial step of reaching out and engaging with the world, which lacks the ambition and ego needed to make writing truly crucial to the reader.

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7 comments

  1. literarymarge

    Very interesting reflection on human nature. I did the exercise myself and I must admit I got 4 inward reasons and 2 outward ones. All this was unconsciously done since I wrote these down without knowing what will be the result/the next step. May I suggest something though? I agree with you that if you are too self-centered, you won’t obviously be able to reach out for the others, but on the other hand, in my case for instance, couldn’t it show a lack of self-confidence? I mean, I feel like I should try to trust myself first and believe in/realise what I’m capable of achieving before even thinking of bringing joy and happiness to people, because what if I don’t? I should try and see what I can do before hoping for something I’m not sure I will be able to do.
    I don’t know if any of it makes sense to anyone but me? ^_^

  2. randomyriad

    I haven’t done this in a while. It’s a good question to answer every now and then. This is what I got today:
    When I write for writing’s sake, I write as exploration, to see what I will say. Most of my mind, that part of my existence that thinks, is a mystery to me and writing helps me gather evidence about what I am up to in the vast uncharted territory that is my semiconscious and unconscious, pre and post conscious process. Writing is a process that helps me, and is usually inadequate at, shedding some light on what is going on in the shadows. If I am being honest in my writing process, I usually come out with some interesting theories and clues as to where my thinking is headed and maybe a little bit of an idea as to my motivations for doing what I do in my life. Sometimes I am just having fun with words. Words are fun and interesting, and I like to play with them sometimes, but that adds to my ability to use them in more serious ways as well. Writing is a way to make a model of something that can’t be put into words, like making a model of DNA. DNA does not actually look like the model, but the model is a very simplified representation of the structure and process of DNA. Writing is like that for me, a process that illuminates, and sometimes confuses, parts of my living thought that I do not completely understand. This paragraph Is a good example of what I am talking about. I usually end up back where I started with a little more insight, but more questions than when I started.

  3. tnysgrl

    The answers I come up with are as follows
    1. I write to calm my self when I write about my feelings it helps to calm me down.
    2. I write to express my love for something or someone
    3. I write because I want the world to now who I am and how i have become the person I am. ( I feel it would be an inspiration )
    4. I writ to explain my feelings towards people/things
    5. I write because i am wanting to become a writer.
    6. I write for me!

    I do not know which side i would be on left or right?

  4. ghostwriterstories

    Your ideas are very interesting. When you asked us, your blog readers, to reflect on why we potentially write and to find six reasons for which, I didn’t feel the need to jot them down. I’ve been writing since I was twelve years old, nearly eight years now. Over these years I’ve reflected very much on why I write and to who I’m writing for. I believe I may be writing more for myself rather than the reader but i do still like to keep the reader in mind. I write for myself for these reasons;

    I’m constantly finding new ideas and feel the need to write them down

    I adore reading more than life itself so writing is also a large part of my life

    Writing gives me an overwhelming joy next to painting/drawing

    I can share my chaotic mind with the world

    I can share ideas and morals and thoughts with the world

    And most importantly, I can test my intellect and create beautiful or devastating worlds. I can let my imagination take hold and run free through my finger tips. In writing the world holds no one, it has no bounds or limits. Writing is the ultimate freedom a person can have, even if no one reads it.

    My writing may not be the best, but that just means it can grow over time. Everyones’ writing ability never stops growing just like a person never stops maturing. These are the reasons I write. And the reasons I’ll never quit.

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