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12/28/2011 09:09 am ET

Writers Wednesday: Famous Authors On Why They Write

From Writer's Relief staff:

All writers hit a slump sometimes. Life distracts. Momentum peters out. It happens.

Here’s what fuels the fire for these successful writers. Which of these “why I write” manifestos sounds most like you?

JOAN DIDION: I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

NEIL GAIMAN: The best thing about writing fiction is that moment where the story catches fire and comes to life on the page, and suddenly it all makes sense and you know what it's about and why you're doing it and what these people are saying and doing, and you get to feel like both the creator and the audience. Everything is suddenly both obvious and surprising…and it's magic and wonderful and strange.

STEPHEN KING: You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair, the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

GEORGE ORWELL, in his essay “Why I Write,” offers four specific motives for writing. We’ve abridged them a bit here:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.
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Orwell’s theory on what drives writers is a bit dry. And, actually, we think there may be some things missing from it (we’ll leave it to you to decide). Nevertheless, when we read this, it forced us to take a hard, merciless look at our own motivations; in other words, it forced us to be a bit more objective rather than emotional. And that’s a good thing.

WHERE DOES YOUR FIRE BURN?
We wanted to pass three challenges on to you. These challenges are meant to help you pinpoint where your fire comes from (rather than having some hazy notion of passion that can desert you on an overcast day). We hope this will help illuminate your process in a new way.

FIRST: If you had to order Orwell’s motivations in order from most relevant to least relevant for your particular writing process, how would you do it? You may be surprised.

SECOND: Ask someone who knows your work to read Orwell’s four motivations, and then ask that person to put them in order in relation to your writing. (CAVEAT: If you think this second challenge could damage your process, don’t do it. But if you think it would be interesting to know how other people determine how your work is focused, then go ahead!) You may want to bring this to your next writing group for an interesting discussion.

THIRD: Write your own “why I write” paragraph (like those above) and share it. Or post it next to your writing space for future reference when the coals start getting a little cold. Who knows your own reason for writing better than you?

Question: Why do you write?

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