Professor Wu's Rulebook

The agony of the untold story: why do writers write?

Stephen King

The question of what motivates great writers to write has been discussed by writers and critics for decades. Italo Calvino said that he wrote “to give vent to my feelings and because I like it”, and that “one writes most of all in order to take part in a collective enterprise.” Meanwhile, George Orwell suggested the motivation for writing came from “a mystery” that the writer was trying to uncover. David Foster Wallace simply said it was “about fun”.

As readers, we often wonder what it was that compelled writers we admire to tell their stories. According to some studies, 30% of writers “write to educate, influence and help others”; 2% did it for “exposure and fame”, 2% did it for “curiosity” and 13% did it simply because they “had to” – as though there were no other option for it.

The statistics, of course, will only get you so far. What is interesting is to see how they correlate with some of the well-known thoughts and musings on this topic from famous authors. Here, we might begin to understand why some authors feel as though there is no other choice open to them but to write and to tell their stories.

Think of the words of the magnificent Maya Angelou, for instance, when she says that “there is no greater agony than bearing some untold story inside you.”

Here, we can begin to explore that central conceit, that the supreme animating force of the writer may be the irrepressible impossibility of not writing.

This is something picked upon by James Baldwin, who described the need and urgency of writing as “Something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die.”

This, at first, seems to bear so much similarity to Angelou’s quote that a common concept of the pain of not writing seems to be developing. Yet Baldwin also notes – in an interview with George Plimpton, founding editor of the Paris Review – how writing is also about clarifying one’s own thoughts and consciousness:

“When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”

This bears more correlation with the idea of uncovering the “mystery” George Orwell spoke of; yet it also falls into the categories of “curiosity” and a desire “to educate” (even if the only person being educated in this instance is the writer, the idea of self-discovery and self-education through writing still therefore plays a vital motivating role for authors).

For further evidence that the desire for self-discovery is a powerful motivating force for writers, think of the NaNoWriMo competition, which challenges writers to start and complete a 50,000 word novel during the month of November.

Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, has said that many entrants to the contest never intend to publish their books. Instead, they write for the creative experience “of discovering the novel within them”.

Just as great literature explores new worlds, new ideas, new feelings; and ultimately the depth of what it is to be human, so too, it seems, does writing provide a tool for exploration. As Harper Lee said: writing “is a self-exploratory operation that is endless.”


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