Eric Arthur Blair took writing very seriously. Not just his own writing, but the theory of writing. He described four basic reasons why writers write:
Sheer egoism – the desire to seem clever and live on forever through their own words
Aesthetic enthusiasm – the desire to create something beautiful
Historical impulse – the desire to record historical events for posterity
Political purpose – the desire to effect change with your words
Eric didn’t think that any of his four reasons outweighed the others. In fact, Eric saw them as warring with each other, and recognized that they would “fluctuate” in importance from person to person from time to time.
But this discovery came near the end of his life. His early life as a writer was less structured. Eric knew from about age five that he was supposed to be a writer, but actively fought against it as a teenager, even though he knew that eventually he would have to give in.
When the Spanish Civil War came along, he couldn’t avoid becoming a writer any longer. Eric was influenced by all the reasons to write, but political purpose was what dragged him back in.
“Looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”
When you consider that Eric – better known by his pen name, George Orwell – wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it all starts to make sense...
Orwell’s Path to Finding His Writing “Why”
George Orwell was the prototypical master at writing fiction with a political purpose. His name is synonymous – a cliché, even – for novels about the dangers of totalitarian political systems. He found his purpose, and went on to write two of the most influential books of our time.
But I think that gap in his writing when he actively fought against it is extremely telling. “Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea (of writing), but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books,” he said.
In other words, Orwell rebelled against his “true nature”, against expectations, and perhaps against his sense of “authority” that he always resented. Being expected to do something is often reason enough to not do it... lol (But you have to wonder, who did Orwell think he was thumbing his nose at?)
Although studying Orwell’s twisty, turny path to writing is all well and interesting, I don’t want to get too deep into a psychological profile of Orwell as a writer. What I’m really trying to get at is that the reasons we write – or don’t write – are always very personal. The important lesson here is that it’s a useful exercise to decide why you write.
Why Do You Write?
We touched on the reasons why we write in my post about setting goals (What’s Your $10 Million Cheque?). But I want to dig a bit deeper here, for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment. I think Orwell’s list of reasons to write is a good starting point. But there are at least three more that I can think of that I’ll add underneath:
For work – in today’s modern world, many of us have to write business letters and reports, not to mention emails and texts
To become a better writer – self-improvement for the sake of self-improvement is never a bad thing
For fun – (I know you saw this one coming a mile away!)
Again, there isn’t any one answer here about why you write – there could be several. And, as Orwell pointed out, priorities can change over time. But here’s the thing. Simply identifying why you write will help you write more. Not only will it act as a motivator, it will also help take some of the pressure off.
This happens due to a very non-writing concept: people are more likely to do something if they know the reasons why they should do it. Giving reasons as part of a request (or a law, or a policy...) is an idea that dates back to at least Plato.
For example, posting a sign that says, “Please keep off the grass.” might be effective. (Or, as the Beatles proved above, it might not…) But posting a sign that says, “Please keep off the grass so that it can grow and thrive and make our campus beautiful!” will be more effective. Do you want to stay off the grass? (No! It looks like a great place to sit!) Do you want to keep our campus beautiful? (Yes! Of course I do!)
There is something similar at work when you decide why you want to write. Saying that you want to write is not enough – even you may not believe yourself! Saying you want to write because you want to play with words, write something beautiful, and have fun will make your desire to write much more concrete in your mind. And as we’ve also talked before, sometimes your mind is your own worst enemy when it comes to putting up roadblocks to writing!
In short, giving reasons for requests helps get us all on the same page. On a personal level, identifying and solidifying your reasons for writing will help you and your mind get on the same page, too.
Key Takeaway: Finding and stating the reasons you want to write – no matter what those reasons are – can help you commit to writing more easily. It also helps take off some of the pressure. Too often we lament, “Why am I doing this?” when we get stuck. Having an answer is yet another way we can push through the hard times.
What Am I Missing Here?
Do you have reasons to write that I haven’t listed here? Let me know in the comments below! Then, scroll on down to Simon Sinek’s short video on “How to Find Your Why”. It’s a more general approach to finding your purpose, but it may help you connect to your own personal reasons for writing.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
Funny, I wrote a piece answering this exact question back in March. I can see parts of all the reasons you mention, but for me it comes down to this: I write to explain the world to myself, and in so doing to connect with others. Here’s the piece: https://tompendergast.substack.com/p/explaining-myself-to-myself-and-to?r=ofba&s=w&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
As soon as I read this post, I made my list of "why" I write. As I struggle at this time to sit down and write, I often contemplate why I "should". I hope by reminding myself how much joy I get from playing with words and sentences and structure and ideas (aesthetic enthusiasm) I will return to the fun of writing and the rush of excitement when a piece takes hold. Thank you for the prompt in yet another fabulous blog post.