Or do any other art, for that matter, because I think the following list applies to all the arts.
Lest you think I’ve thrown over my writing for narration and producing, let me assure you I’ve been writing.
But why? Narration, in comparison, seems so easy. Why then do I write?
Several articles and bits on the Internet over the past month have put my mind in a whirl, ending with a FB posting by a fellow author on a private FB page that elicited several responses from other authors…all of which I read at 10 p.m. last night (a big mistake).
As you may imagine, I went to bed but could not get to sleep. The gist of her posting had been about our motivations to write, good or bad, mistaken or not. All these things kept me turning from side to side, my eyes wide open, until I finally made a bargain with my brain.
“Brain,” I said, “if you will just shut down for a few hours, I promise to work all this out in the morning.”
There was no immediate reply, so half an hour later, I added, “Please.”
That must have worked because I woke up five and a half hours later, a little bleary-eyed, but grateful nonetheless.
So I’m keeping my end of the bargain with my brain.
This is my list of the 15 reasons I could conceive that cause us to write (or do any other art):
- It’s an addiction…an irresistible urge or need to set fingers to keyboard or pen to paper and create words on a page (or whatever your art entails).
- It’s a calling…and, yes, there is a difference between this and number 1; an addiction is irresistible, while a calling can be resisted or put off, sometimes for days, sometimes months or even years.
- It makes us happy…the very act of creation, in and of itself, whether we get published and see sales or not, brings us joy.
- It helps us organize the disorganized…any creative endeavor entails organizing disorganized matter, whether it be thoughts zooming in every direction through our brain, pictures in our mind that come randomly, etc.)
- It helps us work through things emotionally…whether it’s dealing with trauma, assuaging guilt, or whatever is weighing on us consciously or subconsciously.
- We want to gain acclaim or popularity…either with the so-called literati or the mainstream, or both.
- We want to gain power or a platform…in order to influence others (which is kind of ironic because we authors these days are told to build our platforms first if we want to even be published…of course, we do this by writing on blogs, websites, social media, etc.)
- We want to make extra money…not that we need it, but we could use it to help our families, friends, etc.
- We want to survive economically…now, in this case, we absolutely depend on the money we can make from writing (which is usually next to nothing).
- We want to teach, inform, or help…we use our writing to open the eyes of our readers to history or new ways of doing things, or to share solutions to common problems. (This is where a lot of non-fiction comes in, but it can also include fiction.)
- We want to persuade others to our view…everything from propaganda to persuasive essays (and novels often do this in subtle ways, too).
- We want to hone a talent…because we’ve been taught that only practice makes perfect and if we leave a talent alone, it will be lost.
- We want to find our voice…there is an intrinsic need to not only know who we are but then express that through our art. (This is not necessarily the same as number 1, because some writers are more consumed by story than voice.)
- We want to find our audience…after all, what good is a voice without an audience, even if it’s only an audience of one?
- We want to discover truth…and so often, while engaged in our art, it spills out unexpected, especially to the author, composer, choreographer, artist, actor, director, etc.
Now, having proposed all those reasons, I am certainly open to more. Please comment below if you have any quibbles with this list or any addendum.
The important thing each writer (or artist) must do, I believe, is to check off those items on the list that apply to them and disregard the others. Once we recognize all the different reasons we write, our path to feeling fulfilled by our craft will be clearer. It will become clearest if we can then prioritize our motivations.
For example, if you aren’t concerned about using your writing to survive economically or to gain popularity, then you needn’t worry about marketing or sales. You may be after acclaim, but not popularity…in that case, you’re going to want a traditional publisher (and maybe an MFA), but sales won’t be nearly as important as your voice and skill. Two of the six books shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize have sold less than 4,000 copies.
For me, numbers 1, 7, 9, and 11 don’t apply at all. And I think number 15 is my prime motivator, which is a relief, really, because finding truth has absolutely nothing to do with getting an agent, getting traditionally published, getting on the NYT Bestseller list, or winning awards.
That’s why the account of the Italian author, Elena Ferrante, in the Guardian struck such a chord with me and started all my cogitating about a writer’s motivations. I loved what she wrote in her letter to the publisher about her first book (and they took her on anyway, by the way):
“I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.”
“I do not intend to do anything for [the novel] Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum… I understand that this may cause some difficulties at the publishing house… I don’t want to cause trouble. If you no longer mean to support me, tell me right away, I’ll understand. It’s not at all necessary for me to publish this book…”.
All I can say is “Brava!”
So what are your motivations? Please share.
I am going to try for the next 15 weeks to blog at greater length about each of these reasons, so look for more about writing being an addiction next week.
While I don’t suffer such an irresistible urge, I know plenty who do. If you’re one of them, let me know if you’d like to guest post for me about it.