Why do writers write?

The other day, I was challenged by a friend to answer the question of why authors write.  He maintains that “pain is the reason that authors write. All stories must have a conflict (pain) or a series of conflicts to resolve or else there is no story.”  He added that authors write because of “the pain of not being published, the pain of not making a living or the pain of not feeling worthy.  Insecurity is pain.  Good storytellers have to tap into the pain of the characters in order to ‘color’ their personality and make them real.”

He and I have been around this in subsequent conversations and frankly I don’t agree and I don’t “get it.”  I think people write for many reasons (one of which might be to get rid of their pain): they have a story to tell, they have information to impart, they have an experience they want to share, etc.

I found this link on the subject, which adds to the discussion.

I would be very interested to know what you think.  Why do you write?

21 Responses to Why do writers write?

  1. Simon says:

    If suffering pain and conflict was what made people write, everybody would write, and not everybody does. Judging by my own experience and what I’ve heard from other writers, the compulsion to write is a personality aspect. Writers would be writers whether their lives were happy or sad, whether they were confident or insecure, and whether they had personal experiences they wanted to share or not. Pain doesn’t make people write. Being a writer makes people write. It’s just a thing you’re born with.

  2. Lisa Marie says:

    I write because I have the raw talent for it. When I first went to university, two colleges courted me, pursued me and handed out merit scholarships, and one of them made writing a focus. So I studied the craft and eventually made a career out of it. At the time, there were still opportunities in print journalism that paid fairly well. Although that’s no longer true – gone are the days of $1 and $2 a word – it’s still good work when I can get it. I view creative writing as an extension of what I already do – a way to expand my career so I can supplement my income. As far as having a story to tell, of course I do; however, from strictly a business angle, I also know that it has to be a story that others want to hear, will relate to, will be moved by in some way. :)

  3. Mark Henry says:

    Because Jim says I have to or he won’t send me checks?

  4. Tammy says:

    I don’t think you have to be a tortured soul in order to be a great writer. Writing makes me happy and if it didn’t then there would be no point in doing it. Sometimes the ideas just overflow and I have to write them down just so I can clear my head. Plus nothing is more satisfying then having people enjoy the world you created.

  5. I agree with Simon.

    I write because I have to. The stories bubble up, the ideas form and I need to create a playground for them.

    My first novel stemmed from a thought, “I want to write a story that makes people giggle.” This book is a comedic mystery.

    My second ms came from the intention, ” I want to write a story that makes every teenage girl grip her heart and wonder if it’s going to burst out of her chest.” This novel is a YA romance time-travel thriller.

    The motivations are slightly different. (Hah!)

    Thanks for the post, Jane.


  6. I started writing as a child to preserve memories. I forgot things quickly and thoroughly, and I was afraid I’d lose my memory completely. Then I found out I had a talent for writing, and it became a passion. I’ve written to soothe pain before, but that’s rarely the reason. Mostly, I write because I fall in love with characters I create in my mind, and I can’t stand the thought of no one else getting to meet them. Tomorrow I would probably have a different answer. There are so many reasons to write.

  7. Because psychiatric drugs don’t always make the voices go away.

    That and I’ve always felt the need to tell stories, and I’ve finally
    found writing to be a good way to do that, after trying film,
    video, video games and the like.

    I like spending time in other worlds, with interesting people who
    do interesting thing. I like combining experiences, personality traits and
    motivations to bring someone to life. And I like sharing my ideas with
    other people…and especially getting positive feedback from them.

  8. jseliger says:

    I agree with the “many reasons” hypothesis and wrote a longish post on the subject: “Why unpublished novelists keep writing: why not? An answer as to why this one does.”

  9. I write because I love the English language! I love exploring it, tinkering with it, and figuring out the line between rule-breaking and just-wrong. I’m fascinated by grammar, structure, spelling – all that good stuff.

    Oh, and another reason for my writing is a reason for my reading: meeting characters. People in other worlds that grow and change and evolve. People I wish I knew in real life. People that, by the end of the novel, feel legitimately real. What’s better than making friends?

    And, in the last twelve months or so, a huge part of writing for me has become the writers I’ve met on the internet. I’m constantly astounded by how supportive, energetic, diverse, nice, and all-around awesome the writing community is. Even through the tough process and the long haul, optimism reigns supreme. Love the positive vibes.

  10. Tami Veldura says:

    I don’t think that all writing stems from pain. I’ve had an amazing life to day, no regrets, no hardship, not a whole lot of struggle at all. If pain = writing then it must not require a lot of pain. Do papercuts count?

    Joking aside, I write, and I’ve always written, because not writing is cruel and unusual. If there’s pain anywhere in the equation it’s when I cannot write. Stories, characters, worlds, plots develop inside me like chicks in an egg and when it’s time to hatch I MUST find a way to let them out. It’s a compulsion, like some of the folks here have said.

    Now I’m not comparing my experience to the actual medical compulsion to write (I’ve seen that, it’s scary) but it’s something much like that at a lower intensity. Things will build and build until I need to write them down, napkins and lipstick will do, just to get them out of my head!

  11. Lance Parkin says:

    If we turn it around and ask ‘why do readers read?’ I think the idea that it’s all about pain begins to look a bit silly. Are readers meant to be sadistically enjoying the writer’s pain, or masochistically enduring it themselves? I have read books that have felt like the author was trying to punish me, but I don’t think it works as a grand unified theory of writing or fiction.

    The idea of writing as therapy doesn’t really appeal to me, either as a producer or a consumer. I have given standing orders to my friends and family that if I ever write a novel about a writer struggling with his second novel then they’re to beat me to death and burn my computers.

    I read to find out stuff, to learn, to see the world in new ways. And I suppose that means I write to teach, or at least to play with and pass on some of that information. But I’d resist the idea that all my reading or all my writing was some sort of educational exercise.

  12. Jenni Wiltz says:

    I think it’s a sense of longing, but not necessarily pain. I’ve had this conversation with my husband, who also writes. Before we got married, we each wrote stories where people longed for connection with a significant other. When we found that for ourselves, we wrote different things. Now, most of my work is about women who want to connect with an identity and a place. The romantic longing is rare, mostly because I’ve passed out of that life phase. In essence, I write so my characters can seek for (and maybe find) what I haven’t yet.

  13. What Simon said. Professional writers don’t write for catharsis or to relieve pain. They write to communicate, to educate, to entertain, and to inspire their readers. Yes, I “have to” write but I love the process — the first draft, the rewriting, the rewriting again, and then the line editing of my own work before I submit it. For me, writing is part art and part craft and a wonderful reason to get up in the morning.

  14. EEV says:

    Hi Jane!
    Sometime ago I did a post about my own journey, from reader to writer. http://eevs.blogspot.com/2011/04/how-words-hooked-me.html
    I guess the most unified opinion here is that we write because we feel like writing. And honestly this talk about pain sounds to me like a superficial psychoanalysis of the writing process. There’s much more to it. Some of us even do it only for the pay check (and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a profession, after all).
    I’m glad you “get” that we writers have many reasons to write – thanks!

  15. Catherine Whitney says:

    Curiosity drives me to write. I want to know the whole story, how things feel, what people think, the truth in every situation. Early on, I became bored with my own stories, and was drawn to work as a book collaborator and ghostwriter. Suddenly I had access to the whole world. I could write from the perspective of a judge on the bench, a diet doctor, a company CEO, a politician, a marriage counselor, an actress, a naturopath, a civil rights lawyer–there was no limit. I once even wrote a book for a real ghost–a dead boy who was speaking through his mother. Every project has been a process of discovery.

    In my work I am part journalist, part archeologist, part psychologist, part manager, part empath. The process is the thing for me, and the actual writing is the icing on the cake.

    People always say that writing is a solitary endeavor, but my writing life is intensely social, with the voices of my subjects chattering in my head, speaking to me on tape, and buzzing me at all hours to drop new pearls of insight like midnight gifts. Their passion inspires me. All they need are the right words.

    The people I work with are often quite different from me, but I always look for the thread of commonality at the basic human level, and then tease it so that the voices can be translated, and perhaps enhanced, when I begin to write. There are lucky times when I feel as if we are joined in thought, although the experience is usually a lot messier. I like the messy times, too.

  16. Kerry Gans says:

    I don’t write from pain – although I do find that any pain I am feeling does migrate into the story in some way. I write because I have always written, from the time I was in grade school. The stories I write are, I believe, my version of dreaming, because I find that I do not dream (that I remember) when I am actively writing. If I stop writing for a length of time, however, I dream–and I remember.

    There must be something in the air about this topic, because it is also addressed here: http://wp.me/p1llSZ-4r as well as in the other excellent articles cited above.

  17. Herbert Hart says:

    As a songwriter, I have poured a lot of pain into some beautiful melodies and cried my eyes out while doing so. In contrast, I just completed my first novel and I have never had so much fun in my life. It was exhilarating, and no, I don’t live in cave. Writing enables me to take any experience from my life, painful or otherwise, and use it in whatever way I want. I fabricated, expanded upon and even told the truth once in awhile. I felt completely free. There it is; to me, writing is an imaginative pathway to complete and unfettered freedom. Now, if that were to involve a cheque or two…

  18. Suzanne L. B. says:

    I have a merciless inner narrator. She never shuts up. I could be brushing my teeth and a description of the activity leads down a path toward a time, a place, a person who’s an amalgamation of people I’ve met or passed on the street or with whom I’ve shared a train.

    Writing it down makes me feel a little more normal that my mind works this way.

  19. Elena Azzoni says:

    I’m a little late in answering because I’ve been avoiding writing. Having just finished my first book, I have been giving this topic a lot of thought lately. The answer for me is quite simple: When I don’t write, I don’t feel good. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with not writing, using my favorite new excuse: “I just finished writing my book!” I am getting the same results I always do when I haven’t written for a while: I’m not happy. So it’s not that I write because I’m miserable, I feel miserable when I don’t write. I guess I’ll get to work on my next book. (You win, Jane).

  20. Writing = pain, pain = writing is not what I believe Jane’s friend is attempting to root out. He/she is likely attempting to examine and identify the little pin point in a person’s psyche and heart that generates the impulse to create, ruminate, explore.

    George S. Kaufman defined the well-made play (or story): a cat got into a tree; the cat cannot get out of the tree; everybody in town tries to get the cat out of the tree; finally, the cat gets out of the tree. Simple equation: conflict drives the story. Conflict is the absence of euphoria but the root of action. Conflict (a form of pain) must be present to tell a good story. So, pain drives the story and, by association, pain drives the writer. A writer, in my opinion, does not need to actually feel the pain, imagined or real, to write but hopefully understands where the words, characters, thoughts, creations, are coming from.

    Pain (in its emotional form) stems from need, lack, desire to create something good, bad, wonderful, the best. Have any of our bloggers above felt desire for someone so much that you developed a little pain/euphoria (emotional, physical or mental) every time you see or hear their name? And that name could be any one of a thousand characters you have created, right? In this case, pain is ecstasy for the process of developing the characters. If the characters are absent pain, then they are generally not very interesting characters.

    I think writer’s write because they have something to say…and if they don’t say it, they will feel uncomfortable. I’m not talking about pain from a cut, pain from a stubbed toe, pain from a lost letter: I’m talking about the pain of loss, the pain of success, the pain of letting go, the pain of not succeeding, the pain associated with fulfillment….yes, even feeling fulfilled can be full of pain.

    Pain is an important part of animal life, vital to healthy survival. In his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, biologist Richard Dawkins grapples with the question of why pain has to be so very painful. He describes the alternative as a simple, mental raising of a “red flag”. To argue why that red flag might be insufficient, Dawkins explains that drives must compete with each other within living beings. The most fit creature would be the one whose pains are well balanced.

    Writers write to find balance. Balance cannot be found unless one is out of balance, or in the process of finding stability. The stereotype of the writer tearing up pages, tearing out hair, drinking to excess, burning their books or sitting in their quiet place …that’s not what I believe Jane’s friend is driving at. Pain is the reason people buy things: they have a void and it needs to be filled, or they fill it by socializing, writing, dancing, partying…buying things.

    But curiously, if you read the blog responses above again, most everyone is writing about some form of pain, or anxiety, or discomfort, or curiosity (which is a form of pain because it comes from not being satisfied with what one already knows)…it is not simple elation. Pain is an urge, and like all urges, it must be satisfied. Like writing.

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