Why do writers write?
Last week, Maria Schneider's popular online writing community, Editor Unleashed, launched an essay competition, challenging writers to write why they write. The top 50 entrants will be published in a free ebook anthology, and the grand prize winner will earn $500.
The answers to the "why writers write" question may have important implications for the future of book publishing. Maria's contest may reveal, I suspect, that writers write for different reasons than publishers publish.
Separately, an even larger writing contest is in full swing this month with nearly 200,000 participants. National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, challenges writers to start and complete a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Last year, out of the 120,000 writers who entered, almost 30,000 completed the challenge.
The prize for winning NaNoWriMo? It isn't money, fame or a publishing contract. The grand prize is a downloadable "NaNoWriMo Winner" badge authors download on the honor system.
In a keynote address at the O'Reilly Tools of Change conference this past February, Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, told the audience many NaNoWriMo contestants never intend to publish their books. Instead, he said, they write for the creative experience of "discovering the novel within them."
Novel writing forces the writer to construct fully realized imaginary worlds where they explore extremes of human feelings, experiences and relationships. Great fiction pulls the reader in with words and stories that can spur vivid imagery in the reader's mind. If a book can move you to laughter or tears, imagine what the author feels while creating it?
Scientist Hans Jurgen Eysenck, in his 1995 book, "Genius: The Natural History of Creativity", provided clues to this question when he investigated the linkage between brain chemicals and creativity. He found that high levels of the brain chemical dopamine, paired with low levels of serotonin, are strongly associated with creative thinking.
Then I wondered, what happens when you're high on dopamine? A year before Eysenck's book, Cornell professor Richard Depue answered the question. He found a correlation between high levels of dopamine and a greater inclination of the individual to "go after goals or rewards, such as food, sex, money, education, or professional achievements."
I'm reminded of a popular '80s TV commercial showing an egg, accompanied by the voiceover, "This is your brain," and then the camera panning to a broken egg sizzling in a frying pan, and the voiceover, "and this is your brain on drugs, any questions?" (Click here to view the video)
I wonder what a writer's brain looks like on writing? For next year's NaNoWriMo, scientists should lock 50 contestants in a room and hook them up to brain scanners and blood monitors to better understand what's happening underneath their cranial hoods. Maybe they'd discover the very act of writing - of being creative - causes the brain to release a flood of euphoria-inducing chemicals.
Since I'm unqualified to answer the "why writers write" question from neurochemistry alone, I turned to Twitter for another perspective. I tweeted the question, "Why do you write?" Of the 16 responses I received, I was surprised not a single writer mentioned financial reward:
peajayar I write because it hurts when I don't.
SFAnderson66 I write to go where I've never been and to share the ride with others.
ShayneParkinson If I go too long without writing, I turn into someone whose company I don't enjoy. I *need* to write.
annthewriter I write because I can't help it. It's as much a reflex as breathing, and equally essential.
Stacy1175 Fiction writing is my passion. I'm free to escape into the lives of my characters while also raising my children.
EFSlattery [I write] to make sense of things.
JohnCali I write because it's what I love to do, it's what brings me more passion and joy than anything I've ever done in this lifetime.
MoriahJovan I write because I can't paint.
ButterflyDivaJJ I write because it's the only way to get my world out of my head and into everyone else's.
michaelaion I write b/c I believe it's the best gift I can give the world & myself. Books shaped my life, & I hope to do the same for others.
nickusborne Because if we didn't write, we'd never stop talking, and would drive our families crazy.
SueQuinn777 Writing's a fully interactive, design-your-own fantasy land. It sucked me into my own personal Matrix. Still lookin for the exit.
kittent I write because I don't like to talk.
elizabethlyons I write because my computer rarely argues with my perspective, rolls its eyes at me, or talks back.
kelindk I write b/c I want to create stories I personally would like to read. There is a lack of the kind I like in the USA. So I wrote.
davidtracey [I write] to make the voices in my head shut up and listen for a change.
Many authors write for deeply personal - dare I say even selfish - reasons that have little to do with fame or fortune.
Writers, after all, are artists, and artists are compelled to express themselves, even if only to an audience of one. This might explain why authors continue to write and publish - both through traditional and self-published presses - even though the prospects for financial compensation are slim.
For some writers, getting published is reward enough. This might explain why so many ebook authors are distributing their books for free. At my company, authors price 20 percent of the nearly 5,000 ebooks we publish at free. These free books account for over 90 percent of downloads.
What does it mean for the future of publishing when ebooks enable millions of endorphin-seeking writers to publish cheap books with abandon, and bypass the editorial filter of literary agents and publishers?
Will it destroy books by polluting physical and virtual shelves with garbage? Or might it unleash a new literary renaissance where millions of authors are given a chance to publish and find an audience?
I vote for renaissance.
Why do you write? Post a comment below, or visit Editor Unleashed to enter the "Why I Write" competition.
Follow Mark Coker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markcoker