Do humans feel the need to write because of a deep-seated survival instinct? Is it simply the way our brains are wired? Or is it just fun? The real answer depends on whom you ask.
by Edward Willett
Have you ever asked a writer why they write? Have you ever asked yourself why you write?
I have. In fact, I literally asked myself that question in one episode of my podcast, The Worldshapers, where I talk to other science fiction and fantasy authors about the creative process. Not long after I started it (a while ago now; it’s up to Episode 105), I had my pseudonym E.C. Blake step in as guest host (oddly enough, he sounds exactly like me, but with a southern accent) to ask me the same questions I ask of my other guests.
“We write,” I said, “because creativity is an innate human trait.” One answer was given by J.R.R. Tolkien. In his view, God created humanity in His image, and since God creates things, so do we. Tolkien called this “sub-creation.” As he put it in his famous poem “Mythopoeia” (you can read it here, if you never have), “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”
If, on the other hand, you prefer an evolutionary explanation, then there must be a survival benefit to being creative and telling stories: thinking up new ways to do things, and telling stories about the failures and successes of others, may make the difference between living long enough to reproduce or dying young. Our ancestors survived because they were creative and that creativity has been handed down.
On a personal level, though, I said (and still say) that I write mainly because it’s fun. After all, most writers start as kids, and what do kids do? They play. Writers go from building sandcastles in sandboxes to building castles in fantasy realms. Yes, writing professionally is work … but at heart, it’s play.
Other of the authors I’ve interviewed agree. Author David B. Coe, who also writes as D.B. Jackson, told me, “For all the struggles, for the bad pay and the poor reviews and all the other struggles, I love, love, love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else; I can’t even imagine wanting to do anything else. Every day I get to sit down at a computer and say ‘let’s pretend.’ What job could be better than that?”
If you prefer an evolutionary explanation, telling stories about the failures and successes of others could make the difference between living long enough to reproduce or dying young.
Several authors I’ve talked to said they write because they can’t not write, that it’s a compulsion. Joe Haldeman, author of The Forever War, one of the most honored books in science fiction, told me, “To continue writing book after book, you have to have something wrong with you.” He noted some psychopaths become professional killers, so they can make a living from their psychopathology, and added, “At least my psychopathology is pretty harmless. I just fill up books with words.”
Bestselling fantasy author Seanan McGuire’s response was that if she doesn’t write, she goes slowly out of her mind. “I write because I don’t have a choice. I write stories of the fantastic because those are the stories I fell in love with, and I decided that was the genre I was too stubborn to give up on. I write because if I didn’t, I’d probably be dead.”
Coe said something similar: “If I don’t, those voices in those heads are going to keep talking to me, and I’m going to go from being a professional to being an outpatient.”
But that’s at a very personal level. On a grander level, the point I made about storytelling being an innate human activity is echoed by others. As McGuire noted, “Terry Pratchett referred to humanity as the storytelling ape. We shape and reshape our world by telling stories both to ourselves and each other. We point to an open plain and say, ‘What if there was a city there? Let me tell you the story of the city there.’ … We chase those stories, and we bring them into being because that is what it means to be human.”
“What it means to be human” is also something many writers say they are trying to communicate in the stories they write.
Award-winning U.K. writer Gareth L. Powell likened it to “building bridges to other worlds.” He pointed out that what we think of as the real world is really our own individual, internal world, and that’s what you’re reporting on as a writer. “Humans are narrative creatures. We all have the narrative of our own lives, and we’re all constantly adjusting that narrative … We have a story; it has a beginning, and it has an end.”
One of the recurring themes in his own fiction, Powell said, is “what it means to be intelligent and self-aware and vulnerable.” For him, science fiction “is a lens we use to look at our world and interpret our world and comment on our world.”
Orson Scott Card, bestselling author of Ender’s Game, perhaps summed it up best. John Donne to the contrary, he said, “every man is an island.”
We don’t really know anybody, Card pointed out; even our parents are capable of shocking us by doing something we couldn’t imagine them doing until the moment they do it. “Every single human we know exists in our mind as a work of fiction. We don’t know people. We know characters. They may be walking around and wearing a skin suit, but they’re just characters in our imagination … What fiction writers promise is, we will tell you a story, and we will tell you why the people do what they do.”
That, he says, “is the majesty of fiction,” and trying to achieve or experience that majesty is both why we write … and why we read.
Edward Willett is a freelance writer and performer in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. He is the award-winning author of more than sixty books of science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction for readers of all ages. Edward also hosts The Worldshapers podcast, featuring interviews with science fiction and fantasy authors about their creative process.
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