When asked that question, Isaac Asimov famously replied with: “For the same reason I breathe.” I love the implication of necessity his response evokes: I write because I will not survive if I don’t. I write because it is my life source. When I did my first SCUBA diving course, I found breath to be complicated. To my surprise, on my first dive, I panicked, unable to comprehend how I could breathe under water. My instructor touched his chest in a signal: just breathe. But I couldn’t, I couldn’t understand how breath worked, how I could get it to my lungs. I was pretty certain I was going to die (spoiler: I didn’t.) Breath seemed, for the first time ever, impossible. Like happiness, it becomes problematic when focused on too carefully. And like happiness, it requires certain conditions. Breath rarely requires effort, but it does require readiness, fitness, calm.
In the years since, I’ve asked many writers this same question: why? Why do we do it? Why write? Sometimes, the responses are, effectively, wails of despair: “Right now, with a book coming out, I don’t know why I do it. Why do I?” For the brilliant British writer, Jill Dawson, the answer is clear. “Fiction is my first language. It’s how I understand the world.” More than breath, in other words, it is also blood, also heart, also brain.
Is writing an end in itself, as simple as breath? Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, thought that the aim of life is eudaimonia, wellbeing or flourishing, which seems, to me, to be different from our general contemporary life goal of mere happiness. Can the writing life achieve that state of eudaimonia? For me, yes. If I am not writing, I am not flourishing. This feels biological. But it isn’t the case for everyone. And nor should it be.
As Annie Dillard said (in The Writing Life) of writing a novel, “There’s no call to take human extremes as norms.” For most people writing is instrumental; a means to another, more pressing end:
- writing to persuade
- writing to explain
- writing to entertain
- writing for pay
- writing for academic research points
For many, writing is seen as a path to fame and fortune. So, for example, J.K.Rowling is celebrated not as a writer, as such, but as a celebrity. This is the dominant media view of writing – the New York Times bestselling author is queen. In this case, success is the meaning and end of life, the only real road to eudaimonia, while the actual writing is merely a necessary chore to be carried out along the way. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes in painful detail the process of delivering an introductory talk to new writing students, explaining that it’s not about success, it’s about the story; it’s not about fame but about deep reflection; not about publication but about getting to the truth.
In other words, she told the new writers, it’s about the writing itself. As she descibes it, the students listened attentively and then, as soon as she finished her passionate speech, five students asked the burning question: ‘So, how do I get an agent?’
I can’t tell you why to write. I can tell you why I write. At the very start of our time together, I asked you to spend a few minutes asking yourself why you write. Now, nearing the end of your first Immersion program, I invite you to revisit that same question. Now, with six weeks’ worth of words in your folio, ask yourself again: why write? Why do you need to write? Why do you need to write this particular book or story?
And what will keep you going?
A moment of farewell…