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Why Do Writers Write?

Much of my experience as a writer, editor and publisher suggests that many people write out of a compulsion to do so. They may not write often (though they often wish that they could) and they may not write much (though they are usually desperate to write more) but the impulse to write seems to have a largely unconscious source. They simply feel that they ‘must’ write. Not being able to do so for whatever reason is a kind of pain to them.

It is as though, for many, there is a maelstrom of ideas and emotions which exists within them bursting to escape. For some it might be less dramatic, but there is a feeling among many writers that they must exercise a capacity to try to capture something in words. Sometimes there are elements of commercialism involved - some think of writing as being a relatively easy way of making a living, as ‘all you have to do is write stories’ - but in practice writers motivated by purely commercial aims are few. By far the majority of writers and wannabe writers of my acquaintance write because they feel that they will explode on some level if they do not do so.

Putting ideas on paper makes them more concrete and keeps them from fading, which is perhaps part of it. Expressing things that are important is also a way of forcing close observation and analysis. Writing for some may be a painful process of regurgitating past experiences and seeing them in a new light; for others, the act of writing is fun, it produces a kind of joyful relief or release, it’s like exercising a part of the mind which doesn’t often (in many cases) get exercised. Propelling one’s innermost thoughts out of the mind and into a form of words is for some a kind of spiritual experience.

Comparing writing with day-to-day living for a moment, I personally sense that it is a way of re-cogitating life which is quite different from the ways in which we are usually expected to perform. Daily living demands from us a high degree of focus: we have to ‘pay attention’ to our surroundings and the needs of those around us, in family life and in the workplace; we have to feed and rest our bodies as well as move them from place to place; we have to think about actions and consequences and we have to plan for future events or lack of events. In other words, our thinking and behaviour are to a very large degree determined by the external world.

When we sit down to write, though, part of what happens is a temporary setting aside of all of that. We have to have pen and paper, or a keyboard, and a space in which to work, and we shouldn’t be ravenously hungry or distracted by the external world, but apart from that, our ‘paying of attention’ to the outside reality becomes less compulsive. It is the internal world to which we can direct our gaze.

And what a world we find, once we begin to look. Here is a strange reflection of the world in which we spend most of our time: in the internal world, it seems that we have made imprints or moulds of things, not physical, perhaps not composed of energy at all, but real in their own way. Here are people we know, not as they are in the physical plane but our picturing of them; here are places, but with importances adjusted; here are emotions, almost tangible, almost characters in their own right. We catch dialogue taking place without words; we perceive interaction without necessarily ‘seeing’ anything. This world appears, upon inspection, to have its own laws and maxims, like and yet unlike those of our outer existence. We can imagine, instantly; we can delight in or utterly reject great wonders and great horrors. Here, it seems, our attention is not a medium that is pulled and pushed by solidities but an actual player, a participator in events: rather than moving at another’s behest, as in daily life, here in the inner world many things move at its whim.

Victorian butterfly collectors used to run through fields with nets to catch their specimens, and writers are like them in this internal plane: they move around enchanted, but attempting to capture glimpses of the place using nets made of words. Some stumble almost blindly and fail to emerge with anything of consequence, others reappear having trawled treasures from the deep.

In those senses, a book is like a butterfly collection or a treasure hoard salvaged from an abyss, containing glimpses of beauty that do not entirely belong in the outer world to which they have been brought. A good story is a glimpse into another level of existence. Even a ‘realistic’ story - i. e. one which means to show us an image of the world we live in to one degree or another - has been coloured or shaped by an otherworldly magic to become the thing called a ‘story’ at all.

If writers didn’t feel the impulse to write, the universe inside us would remain dark, hidden and unexplored. Our existence would not only be deprived of wonders, but denied access to a kind of freedom that is a significant part of being alive, if not the whole of it.

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