Professor Wu's Rulebook

Why we write

A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light

At one point or another, it seems as though nearly every significant writer in history has tried to address the question of why writers write. Some suggest the impulse to put pen to paper is down to a desire to better understand one’s own self; for others, it is the desire to understand the world, other human beings, reality. For some, writing is redemption. It is a means of freedom. Others, meanwhile, simply write for the fun of it.

Of course, there is – and never could be – a single answer to this question. Yet it nonetheless mesmerises us – partly, perhaps, as a piece of psychological voyeurism, as well as because it seems so hopeful and enticing a prospect that, by garnering a slight glimpse of the innermost drivers of great writers, maybe – just maybe – we might be able to replicate their workings and their motivation in our own work.

In this article, we attempt to highlight certain writers and their views on writing motivation.

George Orwell: Four universal motives of writing and creative work

George Orwell: Photograph: Public Domain

Orwell’s 1946 essay Why I Write begins by detailing his less than idyllic childhood – absentee father, school mockery and bullying, and a profound sense of loneliness – and proposes that such early micro-traumas are essential for any writer’s drive. He then lays out what he believes to be the four main motives for writing (full version here):

“(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Ray Bradbury: Writing is joy and celebration


Bradbury’s remarkable keynote address at the Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea brims with an invaluable reflective view on why you should write. It’s a simple mantra, really, because it’s about fun:

“Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say “Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…”, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else. […] I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. ”

Watch the full address here:

William Faulkner: Man is so amazing and beautiful that the writer must put it down on paper


In May 1958, Faulkner read from his favourite novel, The Sound and the Fury, at an event open to the general public. After the reading, he answered questions from the audience. The surviving recording is of questionable audio quality but makes up for it in the utter depth and richness of insight into the author’s views on writing and the project of art:

“You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race.

The writer is so interested — he sees this as so amazing and you might say so beautiful… It’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man — frail, foolish man — has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way… some gallant way.

That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.

[…] I’m writing about people. Man involved in the human dilemma, facing the problems bigger than he, whether he licks them or whether they lick him. But man as frail and fragile as he is, yet he will keep on trying to be brave and honest and compassionate, and that, to me, is very fine and very interesting — and that is the reason I think any writer writes.”

Isabel Allende: Writing is an obsession

Isabel Allende - Register files
Isabel Allende – Register files

Celebrated Chilean American author Isabel Allende has famously spoken about writing “gave some sort of order to the chaos of life” after experiencing personal tragedy (her daughter, Paula, died in 1992). Indeed, she insists that storytelling is rooted in personal experience, and is, in so many ways, an obsession:

“I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.”

Susan Orlean: Writing feels like magic


New Yorker staff writer and journalist, Orlean, has previously noted that the first rule of writing is that “you have to simply love it, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.” Yet she goes further when reflecting on her own writing motivation:

“Writing gives me great feelings of pleasure. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. It’s very physical. I get antsy. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying. When it’s working and the rhythm’s there, it does feel like magic to me.”

Italo Calvino: writing is becoming part of a collective enterprise


From his collection of letters (1941 – 1985), Calvino often addresses the motivation beneath his attempts at poetry, fiction – and even letter writing:

“Personally, I believe in fiction because the stories I like are those with a beginning and an end. I try to write them as they best come to me, depending on what I have to say. We are in a period when in literature and especially in fiction one can do anything, absolutely anything, and all styles and methods coexist. What the public (and also the critics) require are books (“open” novels) that are rich in substance, density, tension. […] One writes most of all in order to take part in a collective enterprise.

[…] The fact is that I have always been more a writer of short stories than a novelist, and it is second nature to me to close — both in formal and conceptual terms — even a story that remains open; to condense into a short narrative space all the elements that give a sense of completion to the story. However, I do not mean by this that I am in favor only of short time-spans — or rather, there is no doubt that we are living in a period in which time has been shattered, there is no room to breathe, no possibility of foreseeing and planning ahead, and that this rhythm is imposed on what I write — but ideally I believe more and more that the only thing that counts is what moves in long, very long time-spans, both in geological eras and in the history of society. Trying to work out the directions in which these things are moving is very difficult; for that reason I feel more and more incapable of understanding what really is happening in a world which does nothing but prove each model wrong. “

Joy Williams: Writing is fumbling around in the light


In her beautiful essay, Uncanny Singing That Comes From Certain Husks, Williams considers the impetus for writing with equal parts insight, irreverence, and that blend of anguishing ambivalence and convulsive conviction so characteristic of the writer’s mind.

“It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole, of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process. Writers are like eremites or anchorites — natural-born eremites or anchorites — who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place. Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with works, mere works, phantoms?


A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. This, unsurprisingly, is not enough. (Making contact with the self — healing the wound — is even less satisfactory.) Writers end up writing stories — or rather, stories’ shadows — and they’re grateful if they can but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough. […] A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”


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