It’s 2021, but (surprise!) essentially nothing has changed: COVID is still ravaging the United States and no meaningful government aid has arrived. Oh, one thing has changed: a new, more contagious variant of COVID has spread to the U.S. Happy New Year!
During times of crisis, carving out time to write can feel silly, pointless: why do your morning pages when you could be, say, inventing a vaccine? To offer some encouragement, I took a look around the Internet and compiled 33 of our favorite writers’ own words on why they write. You might see some thoughts that can guide you, or you can just take heart in the fact that everybody grapples with this question. Check out their insight below.
Ayad Akhtar, author of Homeland Elegies:
I started to sense that I was avoiding something about where I came from and who I was . . . And I realized that the best way to respond to this growing awareness was just to be still about it and to see what happened. And at some point, I started to turn and look over my shoulder—metaphorically speaking—to see what I had been running from. And at that point, there was this burst of creativity.. . .
I am trying to write to the universal. That is what I am trying to do. Period. End-of-story. What I hope is that by writing from a particular place—that I know and that I find fascinating and that I have a whole lot of love for and problems with—I can open onto the universal. (Center Theatre Group)
Rumaan Alam, author of Leave the World Behind:
I think [Leave The World Behind]’s optimism lies really in that one idea, in communion. The simple, human reality of occupying space together. I’m glad that feels resonant right now. I hope that the novel can be good company in that way. This is a moment that is so baffling and extreme that any insight into the way we are supposed to behave or what we are supposed to do feels really lovely and helpful . . . That moment of interaction with a work of art offers something that even the most comprehensive understanding of the headlines will never be able to provide. It gives us something to hold on to. (Paris Review)
Hilton Als, author of White Girls:
What I am trying to do for myself, always, is honor the delicacy of complication—the idea that people are not really one thing or the other, that there is this amalgamation of all sorts of nerve endings and truths . . . Wasn’t it Blanche DuBois who said “I know I don’t tell the truth, but what ought to be truth.” That’s kind of a great thing for people to know about themselves, that the truth is not an empirical thing; just as the “I” is not an empirical thing. I think that’s what I love investigating the most—how we put ourselves together. (The Creative Independent)
Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half:
Novels simulate the experience of thinking another person’s thoughts. I love television — I watch probably way too much — but when you’re watching TV, you’re not thinking the same thoughts. There’s no other way to do that than reading fiction. As close are you are to people you love, you will never think their thoughts or feel their feelings. That’s something the novel does that other forms cannot. I also appreciate the language of novels, and the fact that novels are a slower way to experience time. In the politically fraught moment we’re experiencing, it’s been refreshing to turn off a screen or step away from a constant influx of insane news.
I don’t want to ignore the moment we’re in, or abdicate responsibility to respond to it, but I don’t even know what a fictional response to Trump would even look like! Writing about black people who have humanity is already pushing back against Trumpism. Just asserting that black humanity matters, black bodies matter, black love matters, and black joy matters. That’s my general project. (The Millions)
Patty Yumi Cottrell, author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace:
I have to feel a desire to write. I don’t know if there’s ever an end goal in mind. But I just have to feel like I really want to do it. I have to feel borderline desperate. And then I want to write. That’s what motivates me. Going long periods without writing, where I’m just doing other things, helps create that feeling of wanting to write . . . I’ve said before that writing for me isn’t therapeutic. I didn’t feel a sense of catharsis or anything like that. But I think I was very bothered by something. You know, this question, it was something I’d been thinking about for years. So it was something that was percolating in my mind. And I guess that’s what drove me to do this.
I think writing is an act of generosity and also selfishness at the same time. That’s my understanding of it. It’s selfish in a way of extracting material from your life and using that. For me, sometimes I think of it as a rather self-absorbed and selfish act, but the hope is that it could be seen as an act of generosity in the sense that maybe people will read the book and be moved by it or come to some kind of new understanding of something that they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t read the book. I think it’s both of those things at the same time. Ambiguity is pretty important to me. I think that’s what I’m attracted to in writing. A clear ambiguity. (The Creative Independent)
Don DeLillo, author of The Silence:
Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals. (Harper’s)
I write to find out how much I know. The act of writing for me is a concentrated form of thought. If I don’t enter that particular level of concentration, the chances are that certain ideas never reach any level of fruition. (The Independent)
Natalie Diaz, author of Postcolonial Love Poem:
Why do you think people need stories? We are stories. Even our names are stories. (PEN America)
Writing is an extension of my body. I am seeking the body on the page, even the broken body, even the ecstatic body—even the broken and ecstatic body. I am looking for a field for the body to run in. I am looking for a field where the body might be struck down. I am looking for a field where the body might rest or hide or flee or reap or build a house or set a fire. The body doesn’t want solace—the body wants to be possible. The page has never solved my troubles, but the page has let me know them better, let me know the body of myself better through those troubles. Maybe. (Kenyon Review)
Joan Didion, author of Let Me Tell You What I Mean:
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? (HuffPost)
Akwaeke Emezi, author of The Death of Vivek Oji:
I also wrote [Freshwater] for other people who are where I was. I know that feeling of being trapped in the reality that you’re not allowed to think is real, that everyone else tells you is crazy. What ends up happening is that you just have a bunch of really isolated, really depressed, really suicidal people. It’s not fun. So, if I can help people shift realities a little bit into one that gets them a better way of being, a better quality of life, and helps them feel less choked, then hopefully, it’s gonna give to someone else what it also gave to me. (NYLON)
Danielle Evans, author of The Office of Historical Corrections:
I’m always as a writer interested in the relationship between the personal, the structural, and the really intimate relationship between the personal and the structural. Sometimes that sounds like an abstract or political question, but for me, it’s a question about how we behave and how we make decisions . . .
So, when I’m writing characters, especially when I’m writing women and Black women, I’m aware of people who are aware of power as a thing that has to be negotiated with. I’m aware of people for whom that negotiation informs the most intimate decisions and their most intimate knowledge of self. I’m thinking always about the relationship between that awareness of the world and the way the world works, and the general space of inferiority, the general space of the difference between what we can say or how we feel and what we do. (Lit Hub)
Garth Greenwell, author of Cleanness:
To write a story or a poem or an essay is to make a claim about what we find beautiful, about what moves us, to reveal a vision of the world, which is always terrifying; to write seriously is to find ourselves always pressed against not just our technical but our moral limits. “One beats and beats for that which one believes,” says Stevens. And we do this without any way of confirming the value of what we’ve done, since unlike tobacco farms and coal mines novels and poems have no objective measure of accomplishment; neither the opinion of critics—which is so often wrong—nor our own sense of what we’ve written, which swings wildly by the hour, can offer any sure judgment of what we’ve made. (Lit Hub)
I wanted to push what I could do in writing about sex . . . Sex seems like such an emotional and moral tangle. I wanted to view it from as many different angles as I could in this book. The different kinds of communication that sex can be, like communicating with a stranger or communicating with a beloved; I wanted there to be a kaleidoscopic surveying of sex as human activity and communication in the book. (The Millions)
Sheila Heti, author of Motherhood:
If [a question is] important for me to figure it out, I figure it’s important for other people as well. I’m just like everybody. You just also never know where a subject’s going to take you, so I don’t think the magnitude is in the subject. I think the magnitude is in the approach, and how much you care about it . . . I hope that the book lets the reader experience my thoughts and then their own thoughts, and that my thoughts become their thoughts, and then their thoughts become more clear to them. To me, that’s a kind of help. (The Creative Independent)
Chelsea Hodson, author of Tonight I’m Someone Else:
I’m trying to say what I mean, without any stylistic interruptions . . .
I’m trying to write something so good, so pure, so perfect that I’ll never have to have children; I’ll have created something that can stand in for me, that can live on after me.
I’m trying to whisper something that can’t be spoken aloud: I still think about you . . .
I’m trying to solve the math of my life, so complex it begins to surpass my abilities—X equals me plus my capacity to imagine minus the way I make people fall in love divided by my true nature, my wildness like the lion that bit the actor’s hand. That’s the kind of viciousness that keeps me alive. How’s that for a remainder? I am survival of the fittest, I am what endures when the Earth ends, I am exoskeleton instinct, alive with my own evolution.
I’m trying to outline all my contradictions . . . (Lit Hub)
Kazuo Ishiguro, author of Never Let Me Go:
I’m not looking for any kind of clear moral, and I never do in my novels. I like to highlight some aspect of being human. I’m not really trying to say, so don’t do this, or do that. I’m saying, this is how it feels to me. (HuffPost)
Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man:
Often I’ll have a feeling which is sometimes a sad or desperate or some kind of unresolved feeling, and I’ll marry it to some detail from the world, and those two things combined kind of set me on a course for writing a story. I don’t know what it’s going to be about. For example, I wrote down a few things the woman behind me on the plane said. She was talking about someone who was housesitting for her and the bird had escaped and she was describing how to catch the bird and what to do with it, and just little things she said, like, “Were you watching the house when Gabriel, the dove, escaped?” and it was like these little things which, in and of themselves, it’s like I’m not just interested in people’s dialogue, but that kind of loaned to some really personal thing in myself. That’s kind of where energy comes from for me… Yeah. (Bookslut)
Raven Leilani, author of Luster:
E.L. Doctorow talked about the way he writes, and it’s like you have a car on the road, and the headlights illuminate three feet of what’s ahead of the car. He writes what’s in those headlights, and he keeps going as he drives. And that is 100 percent how I write. I admire writers who start a project and are like, I’m trying to do this, and I know how this is working—but for me, it’s kind of like an exorcism, in some ways . . . one reason I love writing and painting when I can is that I literally feel like I can disappear for a moment.” (Elle)
“I wrote [Luster] for Black women. I wanted to write a character where room is made for the unruly. I wanted to write against respectability. Every Black woman I’ve spoken to about this book, the thing we end up talking about is, “I fucked up a lot. I was thrown a lot of detours.” I think it’s important to allow Black women leeway to stumble. (The Rumpus)
James McBride, author of Deacon King Kong:
You write a memoir for the same reason you write a song — to help someone feel better. You don’t write it to show how smart you are or how dumb they are. You’re trying to share from a sense of humbleness. It’s almost like you’re asking forgiveness of the reader for being so kind as to allow you to indulge yourself at their expense. (Electric Literature)
Toni Morrison, author of Beloved:
Writing for me is thinking, and it’s also a way to position myself in the world, particularly when I don’t like what’s going on . . . I knew I always was compelled to do it, but I didn’t know how essential it was to me. I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, “Well, I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.” It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing. (National Endowment for the Arts)
Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Death in Her Hands:
I think every novel is a rite of passage . . . there seems to be a karmic force in my imagination where even if I threw something away, it would just come back. Like maybe I wanna try to throw this away and not write this, but it would just resurrect itself in a new form. I can’t really get away.
Writing projects feel a lot like if you had a guru and the guru was manipulating you so that you would have to live through certain experiences in order to learn a lesson, but the guru could have also just told you outright, “Here’s the thing you need to learn.” But you wouldn’t learn it unless you spent three years suffering, you know? In a way, I know that I’m the one writing it, but I don’t know if really I’m the one. I believe that there’s a higher power in charge of the imagination.
. . . I feel inspired by the idea that a novel could wake someone up and resonate in a way where they would put the novel down and be like, “Well, shit. How do I go back to lying to myself about X? Because I’ve just seen myself really differently.” That’s what I love about art. (The Creative Independent)
Haruki Murakami, author of 1Q84:
I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on The System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist’s job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories—stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness. (Jerusalem Prize)
George Orwell, author of 1984:
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. 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. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us . . . [But] all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. (Orwell Foundation)
James Salter, author of Light Years:
Gertrude Stein, when asked why she wrote, replied, “For praise.” Lorca said he wrote to be loved. Faulkner said a writer wrote for glory. I may at times have written for those reasons, it’s hard to know. Overall I write because I see the world in a certain way that no dialogue or series of them can begin to describe, that no book can fully render, though the greatest books thrill in their attempt.
A great book may be an accident, but a good one is a possibility, and it is thinking of that that one writes. In short, to achieve. The rest takes care of itself, and so much praise is given to insignificant things that there is hardly any sense in striving for it.
In the end, writing is like a prison, an island from which you will never be released but which is a kind of paradise: the solitude, the thoughts, the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you for the moment understand and with your whole heart want to believe. (Lit Hub)
George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo:
We all get into [art] for that very grandiose reason of wanting to break somebody’s heart or do some really beautiful thing. Those actually require some radical decision-making at certain points in the process. (Writer’s Digest)
The result of [the] laborious and slightly obsessive process [of writing] is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining. And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual. (The Guardian)
Danez Smith, author of Homie:
I write when I feel called to language. When I haven’t felt called for a while, I show up anyway to see what happens. I used to write every day. Not anymore. I try to touch words, mine or others, every day. That’s often books and poems and interviews. Sometimes it’s writing, sometimes reading, sometimes editing, sometimes listening. As long as I am actively living in or alongside language, I think I am in process. Sometimes the task at hand is to live, to witness . . . [People need stories] because we need to prove that we exist. (PEN America)
Susan Sontag, author of Against Interpretation:
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent. . . This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgement. (At The Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning)
[Writing] is lunacy. . . You have to be obsessed. People write me all the time, or get in touch with me about “what should I do if I want to be a writer?” I say well, do you really want to be a writer? It’s not like something you’d want to be—it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed. (92 Street Y)
Douglas Stuart, author of Shuggie Bain:
Because of my upbringing I felt so much like an impostor that I wrote in secret, and told no one (other than my husband)…Men from the west coast of Scotland are not known for revealing their tenderer feelings. Fiction allows me to make sense of things I am unable to express in other ways. It took 10 years to write the novel because I felt such comfort in the world I was creating. (The Guardian)
Brandon Taylor, author of Real Life:
You wrote a novel so that people would believe that you knew your own mind . . .
These words you wrote in order to change the character of your life, these words you wrote in order to tear a little hole in your universe so that you might escape through it, these words which you wrote in order to tell a story like the one you’ve always wanted to read. It is not the you that is now. It is a different version of yourself, and so it is a kindness to yourself. (Lit Hub)
Jeannie Vanasco, author of Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl:
I write primarily to think through my obsessions. (Lit Hub)
Bryan Washington, author of Memorial:
Having the chance to try and build another world and to occupy it, even if only for a little while, that’s a gift. It’s a challenge to become a photographer of whatever world it is that you’re attempting to recreate, irrespective of whether it’s one that you’ve lived in or maybe one that you’re not so intimate with. But it’s fun. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t do it. (The Guardian)
Colson Whitehead, author of The Nickel Boys:
I grew up wanting to be the black Stephen King. I think the darkness of the world is terrifying. Some of my books try to find the humor or optimistic avenues we can take to deliver ourselves from the darkness. I also explore things that terrify us—you know, true monsters. For me, a zombie is a person who’s stopped pretending. They look like your loved ones, but they’ve dropped the veil of humanity to reveal themselves to be the monster that they’ve always been. If you look at the kind of brutalities I’m writing about in The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, human beings are pretty terrible. What do you do with that fact? How do you find hope for the future, when so many of us are compelled and driven by our worst natures? Not to be too bleak . . .
I write books because of where I am emotionally, I write books because I have an intellectual question I’m trying to figure out, and it is rare for me to do two books in a row that are directly about racism and our institutional failures. But before that I wrote a book about poker, and now I’m writing a crime novel. So I’m not sure if there’s a trend. I have no idea what the political purpose will be inside of me; I’m trying to fulfill my own artistic needs, and hopefully they will make enough sense to other people that they’re worthy of reading. (The Nation)
An Yu, author of Braised Pork:
I write because spoken language often fails me. When feelings are said out loud they become less accurate, somehow. I can only hope that some readers feel the same way too. (Lit Hub)
Charles Yu, author of Interior Chinatown:
I see someone else, standing on her island. She’s waving at me. Or is she? I don’t know. I’m over here on my island, and she’s over there on hers . . . And now here I am, a little less alone, because I see her over there, and she sees me. I wrote myself out of the room and now I will write myself off of this lonely little island, write more clouds into the sky and pour words into the ocean, and maybe, if I’m lucky, write myself a bridge across that ocean, to that island over there, to meet another person, to tell her the idea I have been holding in my head. (National Writing Project)
Jenny Zhang, author of Sour Heart:
Whether it’s poetry or short stories, [I’m writing] because I am really consumed with some question or series of questions grouped under the same obsession. I keep writing until I’m sick of exploring that question . . . I think that every writer should have a question they can ask that there is no end to the pursuit of. Every writer should have questions big enough and pressing enough and multi-faceted enough and unanswerable enough that they occupy their entire life, however long or short it is. (The Creative Independent)