Why do writers write? Is it, as Edward Gibbon claimed , to seek immortality, or is there some other reason?

Charlotte Bronte said that she wrote because she could not help it. George Orwell put it more strongly when he said that “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” And R.L. Stine, writer of “Fear Street,”, said in an interview that “People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.”

These answers don’t satisfy me, any more than Enid Bagnold’s “Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”

Closer is Natalie Goldberg’s “Writers live twice.” But closest of all is George Orwell’s “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.”

As a writer about science, I would put it more simply. I write for three reasons:

First because it is the best way for me to understand things for myself that I regard as important.

Second because I have an in-built urge to share that understanding.

Third (and most important) because I believe that science matters as a part of our culture – a part that has been inaccessible to far too many people for far too long. Edward Gibbon believed that writers are seeking a form of immortality. My underlying desire is not to achieve immortality for myself, but to contribute to the long-term preservation of the thin thread of developing understanding that runs through our history, and which is worth more than all the politicians, war-mongers, power-mongers and money-grabbers put together.

Len Fisher (age 73)

Share This