This was a question I asked myself every day–not before writing, but after. I’d look at what I produced and blanch at the fact that it didn’t turn out like I wanted and think, Why am I doing this? Then I realized that if I only ask the question afterward, then the reason I do it is simply because that’s what I tend to do when I’m not actively trying to do other things. This essay though offers a wider range of reasons.
So many of the famous statements of intent have to do with a sense of outrage at the world. George Orwell put it like this: “I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” Here’s William H. Gass: “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” But anger doesn’t always carry the muse. Flannery O’Connor: “I don’t know what I think till it is written, which is as good as the answer, the writing itself.” Certainly John McPhee doesn’t write out of a sense of outrage, but rather a hope for new discoveries and by not being bored by anything in the world. But if you poll writers not as accomplished as these—those struggling, or even struggling to wring royalty checks out of their small press publishers—many reasons fog up the glass containing them, but the underlying reason they write is a desire for attention. People want to be heard. One writes to be counted, even to be counted higher than others. Outside of gabbing, writing is the most respected and inflammatory pastime, though certainly less well compensated—it generates a conversation between ourselves and others without the need for another person to be there. And if we are writing to be counted, it is inevitable that there is a lot of discounting going on. Society is uneven, a few have too much, and too many have too little. How do we square this? Everyone knows life is unfair, but bringing a little beauty into the world is a small progressive step.