Why Do I Write? I

I often ask myself why do I spend so much time writing. I used to write articles for peer-reviewed psychological journals. I wrote letters in the days when writing letters was about the only way to communicate with anyone.

Now I spend a fair amount of time each day writing e-mails. I also used to write in my journal and I still do a little of that, although now it’s in a Word document on my computer labeled Flash Notes. And I write on my blog once in a while, as well as an essay or two now and then.

Why do I spend so much time doing this? Few people read my professional publications and even fewer read the books, essays, or the blog that I am writing this piece for. So what’s the point, anyway? What is the purpose of all this writing? Why not play chess, instead?

Writing was one of the most frequent themes of the passages I collected in my Commonplace Book. A while ago I pulled together all the passages on each of the most common themes and when I reviewed those on Writing, I noticed that the individuals who wrote the passages I collected gave three major reasons for why they devoted their life to writing.

Several said they wrote to answer a question they had or to better understand some issue. I know I try to do that too. I have a question or an idea that I’d like to write about but I scarcely know where to begin. So, rather that wait for the muse to do her work, I simply start writing about it and sometimes, to my amazement, I end up with a page or two that begins to clarify matters for me.

One writes not because one knows the answer but because one wants to explore the question. J.M. Coetzee

I write to understand as much as to be understood. Elle Wiesel

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want, and what I fear. Joan Didion

The point of writing is discovery. The writer discovers first for himself by moving words around, bringing out surprising new meanings in them through arranging them in never-before-seen combinations. And if he hits upon the perfect combination, a light goes off, and the world will seem a brighter place to him and his readers. Joseph Epstein

That was why one wrote, wasn’t it? To find out why. Jens Christian Grondahl

Andin his eloquent Nobel Prize Lecture where he gave on my count at least twenty different reasons why he writes, Orhan Pamuk said: Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at everyone.

The second major reason the writers gave was that they simply needed to do so, that it was a natural thing for them to do, they didn’t really have much choice in the matter. It is as if these writers write almost reflexively, in the same way they need to breathe.

At times, this basic need is quite familiar to me. I don’t write to make a living or to make known some particular insight or point of view. Rather I write because there’s no other way to express myself and I very much want to do that.

So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself, I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled “file and forget,” and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency. Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare? Why should I be dedicated and set aside--yes if not to tell at least a few people about it? There seems to be no escape. Ralph Ellison

The inexhaustible urge toward self-expression makes it nearly a sure thing that there will always be writers around as long as there is us. David Remnick

In his Nobel remarks, Pamuk also cited this reason. It was the first one he gave in answering the question about why he wrote: I write because I have an innate need to write.