Why Do Writers Write?

The psychology behind the pursuit of a literary life is not precisely clear.

Posted Feb 14, 2018

With rejection and criticism so much a part of the literary experience (and the fact that the income of the average American writer hovers around the poverty line), one has to wonder if writers have at least a streak of masochism in their genetic makeup to choose it as their profession. “Why does anyone consent to the emotional, financial, spiritual, and even physical contortions that are necessary in order to lead the writer’s life in America today?,” asked Kelley Cherry in Writer some years back, fully aware that it couldn’t be about the money. As well, much patience is required to receive any form of external reward from writing as reviews and royalties typically come long after one has started writing a book. Rather, Cherry proposed that, despite all the reasons not to choose it as a career, writers are driven by a primal urge to tell people who they are. Readers necessarily have some sense of the identity of the writer whose work they choose to peruse, lending an existential dimension to the endeavor. Writing is thus a means of becoming more human, she posited, as good as any explanation for going down what is ordinarily a difficult path.

Over the years, theory upon theory has put been forth regarding the rationale for writers doing what they do. At its most basic level, some have argued, writing is about someone sharing something with someone else, making connection a key component of the pursuit. The possibility that a book or perhaps just a single sentence or phrase can be deeply moving or at least interesting and informative to a reader is a prime motivation for writers to keep on writing. Through their work, writers have the potential of having a bond with far more people than they can in real life, a perspective that recasts writing from its accepted view as a solitary and lonely exercise. “Writing links writer to reader, reader to writer, and reader to reader in a marvelous way,” observed Melannie Svoboda in America, shifting the concept of the profession from an expression of individual creativity to a builder of relationships. 

Writers with the most profound takes on the art form have been quick to challenge the notion that writing is a difficult if not agonizing act. For them, writing is a liberating force, and something that is instrumental in allowing them to, as the Army ad slogan went, be all they can be. Jane Yolen, for example, found writing to be a joyful experience, so much so that a day without working left her feeling uncomfortable. Like actors, novelists often find themselves “inside” their characters, making the former miss the latter if they are not around them for some time.  Writing can also serve as a therapeutic release, Yolen, a prolific author of books for children and teenagers, believed. “Authors get to parade their neuroses in public disguised as story,” she explained, delighted to get paid for working out her hang-ups through her work instead of having to spend time and money on the proverbial couch. “Writers get to treat their mental illnesses every day,” Kurt Vonnegut once said, like Yolen and no doubt many others finding their profession to be an ideal means of maintaining a sense of psychological wellbeing. 

It is Erica Jong, however, who has offered what is perhaps the simplest and most compelling reason why writers write. “The truth is we write for love,” she stated in 1997, only that able to counter the labor-intensity, skimpy financial rewards, and harsh criticism that typically come with the territory. Writers love writing because it offers them the chance to say what they think, the author of Fear of Flying and a slew of other books believed, something even many rich people envied.  Since she was a child, writing had made Jong feel “centered and whole,” a gift that made it understandable why writers were happy to give their work away for such little compensation. “Do it for love and you cannot be stopped,” Jong advised other writers, as powerful a rallying call for the profession as one could imagine.