Why Write? On Motives for Writing

Here’s a common misconception not listed in the Wikipedia article: A novelist’s ultimate goal is to publish a book. I suppose getting published could be a goal for some novelists, but it seems to me a lot of people think the chief end of a novelist is to publish a book, and somehow that justifies their existence.

If I say in public, “At the moment I’m currently writing a novel,” I won’t be surprised by a response similar to, “Make sure you send me a first edition when it gets published,” along with, “Why don’t you give me your autograph now so when you’re famous I can sell it on eBay for easy money.” I’ll laugh at the sarcasm, but what’s irritating is the implied assumption that I’m working towards being published and famous, that my motivation is a want for success.

You can imagine an author sacrificing night and day for fictive nonsense, constantly infusing caffeine into his system to keep awake, feeding on hopes of getting published and becoming a success. When he tells you, “I’m a fiction writer; I’m currently working on a novel,” you can hear the underlying pride that speaks of future fame and riches. But if this is his motive to write, he’ll either remain a failure or become a miserable success.

In an essay on fiction writing, Flannery O’Conner discusses the difference between someone who is interested in being a writer, and someone who is interested in writing. The first is interested in publishing something, and if possible, making a “killing.” They’re interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed and successful. That’s their motivation, but it’s a motivation that will never be fulfilling.

David Foster Wallace was an author who, severely depressed, committed suicide in September 2008. He once said in an interview that for a long time his motivation to write was his want of becoming published and successful and gaining recognition. Eventually he did get published and became a success and received recognition, but he realized none of the success he experienced gave him any happiness. He came to the conclusion that his writing was pointless, because achieving his only goal brought him no joy. He started thinking: “If the whole reason I write doesn’t make me happy, then why am I writing?”

If you ask a writer, “Why do you write?” he will most likely reply with something like, “Because I have to, I don’t have a choice.” Maybe to us that’s the most unsatisfying answer, but maybe to them it’s the only conceivable one.

But the question seems to be a mystery. If not to be published, if not to become famous, if not to be successful, what would drive a writer to write? Why would any sane person stay up to indecent hours struggling miserably over sentences and word choices? (Though I suppose one could argue that no writer is sane.)

The only satisfying answer I’ve found is this: that for a writer, telling stories is a part of who he is. It’s a God given talent and a God given desire, and he should write for His pleasure, and also for his own. He won’t find happiness in his work any other way. It’s the difference between the man who is interested in writing, and the man who is interested in being a writer. The first is motivated by a love for storytelling. He will be content with his accomplishments and content to accept whatever rewards they may or may not bring. To him publishing is secondary. It serves only as a means through which he can share his work, so that an audience of readers might also experience and enjoy his fictitious creations.