Why I Write, and Why I May Not Have a Choice in the Matter

Sometimes I find myself dispirited, unsatisfied with my writing and wondering whether I should waste my time with it at all. It is not likely that it will ever find its way into the public eye, and even less so that it will have any sort of effect on the world. After all, there are thousands upon thousands of other would-be novelists and poets out there. The practice of writing becomes a rather egotistical undertaking when one considers the multitudes of hopeful writers there are. What right do I have to assume that I have something more important to say than they?

The answer, of course, is none. I am fully aware of this, but I continue to write; this leads me to wonder what my real motivation is for writing. Seeing as I have already given up on changing the world with my work, I can assume that it is a more selfish, personal reason. This could be any number of things: to express myself, to communicate my ideas, for the simple joy of stringing together words on a page.

George Orwell

George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” details what the author asserts to be his motivations for setting pen to paper. First, Orwell explains to his reader that he has had a penchant for writing since he was practically a toddler. He admits that he was a lonely child, and that writing came as a kind of remedy to his loneliness. Orwell was constantly composing stories in his head, as he puts it: “I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind.” This is certainly familiar to me, and I’m sure to many who feel the need to write. I remember being a small child, bored at a restaurant and one of the only children in a room full of adults. A waitress bent down and asked me cheerfully what my name was. “Emma, said Emma,” I quickly replied, accidentally vocalizing the story I’d been internally writing.

Orwell says, “I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside.” But, he does not proclaim this habit to be his reason for writing. Instead, he gives his audience a list of much more mature, rational motives. These were formulated after he had completed his lonely childhood and are as follows:

  1. Sheer egoism.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm.
  3. Historical impulse.
  4. Political purpose.

These are all very fair and seem to cover most of the reasons for writing that I can imagine. Indeed, Orwell asserts that every writer embraces these objectives to some extent.

However, I am not entirely satisfied with them because they are altogether too logical. What Orwell describes as “a kind of compulsion from outside,” and what I feel as a need to write despite all sense telling me not to, cannot be explained by such a rational list of aims. I believe Orwell recognizes this as well; he writes:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

Clearly there is something else, some indefatigable impulse that forces us to write, and write again.

temporal lobe
The temporal lobes, in case you were wondering where the culprit resides.

Here I have brought myself to a familiar topic. It is often said that true writers have to write. In her book The Midnight Disease, Alice W. Flaherty examines this idea from a neurological standpoint. She writes about several reasons why a person’s brain might feel the need to write. In most extreme cases, a writer may have hypergraphia, which is increased motivation to write caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. According to Flaherty, the author Fyodor Dostoevsky is believed by some to have been hypergraphic, as evidenced by his “spells of altered consciousness, his mood swings and their free-floating feeling of doom and ecstasy, his religious and philosophical temperament, his altered sexuality, and his overpowering desire to write.”

Of course, it isn’t as if all writers are affected by this extreme condition; Flaherty offers other explanation for those who might not be affected by hypergraphia but feel the need to write. She asserts that many writers, and specifically amateur ones, “are suffering from something: bereavement, illness, exile, ‘narcissistic injury’ to self-esteem, adolescence.” This suffering can trigger “limbic system and temporal lobe activity through their roles in emotion [and] increases the desire to write and communicate.”

This would perhaps explain Orwell’s need to write from a young age; his self-described loneliness could certainly be seen as injury in his adolescence. It might be the cause of his mystery compulsion and my steadfast, illogical desire to write. It might be a hard concept to accept− that my writing is more chemical reaction than noble purpose. On the other hand, it is rather amazing to think that authors such as Dostoevsky and Orwell not only wanted to write, but were compelled to by their own brains as if by an outside force. It lends their stories an element of inevitability and fate.

What do you think? Why do you write?

Check out Elise Petracca’s “Why We Write” below! It deals with a similar topic and might be interesting to read with Flaherty’s ideas in mind.