It seems somebody one day had the bright idea of asking Samuel Johnson whether he wrote for money. It’s easy to imagine that great man of letters and lexicographer of the late 18th century puffing up like an angry blowfish as he replied, “Sir, anyone who writes for anything except money is a fool.”
As a writer who unblushingly takes money for what he writes, I’ve often used that line myself. After all, it embodies a certain crude truth: Professional writers need to make a living just like everyone else. Moreover, for those of a religious turn of mind, the words of the unjust steward here come into play: “To dig I am not able, to beg I am ashamed.” (That’s Luke 16:3, in case you forgot.)
All the same, as an explanation of why people write, monetary motivation barely scratches the surface. In fairness to Johnson, I strongly suspect he was merely joshing his interlocutor in suggesting otherwise. Herewith, then, are another writer’s thoughts on why people take the trouble to write.
Not long ago, someone with whom I was having this discussion described an obviously well-to-do writer we both know as “needy.” I got the point at once. At bottom, I agreed, most writers write for approval. It’s a deep-seated craving for affirmation that gets them started and (usually) keeps them at it.
As explanations go, I think that’s a pretty good one. I’ll return to it in a minute, but first some other explanations also come to mind, not in place of but in addition to that one.
Obviously, for some writers, there’s a religious motive at work — living out your vocation, giving glory to God, serving your neighbor, and so forth. Truly, this is very important to some people who write. But watch out — commendable as it is, the religious motive is dangerous for a writer because it easily leads to the sins of pious superficiality and superficial apologetics.
In his early years, for instance, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote pious, pretty, but eminently forgettable verse. Consider this from a little poem called Heaven-Haven (subtitled “A nun takes the veil”) that dates from around 1865:
I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.
This has a certain charm, but, as Teresa of Avila or Thérèse of Lisieux might have pointed out, it’s also an appallingly sentimental view of religious life and light years removed from the awful power of Hopkins’s own late sonnets (e.g., “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”) written as a Jesuit priest.
Then there is the case of C. S. Lewis, whose apologetical works include a neat, pat, smug treatise explaining — or, more precisely, explaining away — the meaning of suffering. Only much later, after the death of his wife, did Lewis apparently learn what it really meant to suffer, and it was only then that he was able to write about it (in A Grief Observed) with conviction and truth.
Let us return, though, to the thought that what moves most writers to take up writing in the first place is really a deep-down desire for approval. The fact that so many writers appear to have had unhappy childhoods involving absent or unloving parents, brutish schoolmates and teachers, and the like provides biographical support for the idea. But supposing it’s so, writing for publication is an uncommonly chancy way of trying to gain approval.
Nearly every writer, I suspect, is familiar from painful personal experience with the bad review or the sneering letter to the editor that doesn’t merely say, “The person who wrote this stuff is wrong,” but feels obliged to add, “and he or she is a jerk for having written it.” The quantity of ad hominem abuse heaped on writers for the offense of attempting to entertain, uplift, or simply inform is truly astonishing. And think: Here’s someone who’s put his trembling ego on display in the hope of earning a kind word and has gotten the back of a reviewer’s or letter-writer’s hand instead.
Things have gotten worse in the Internet age. To the old standbys of sarcasm and personal nastiness, the world of the blogs has added the tools of anonymity and haste, enabling people who’ve barely skimmed what the writer wrote — and largely missed the point — to savage him with impunity.
Lively, free exchanges of ideas are great. Pertinent criticism is always helpful. But spleen-venting at someone else’s expense, without even the courtesy of supplying one’s name, is an execrable practice. (In case you wonder, my skin has gotten pretty thick after all these years. But I remember the days when personal attacks in response to things I’d written in good faith really did hurt.)
Joseph Epstein, in one of the delightful mini-essays on the lighter side of the literary life that he writes for The Weekly Standard, quotes a writer who remarked, “The rare editions of my books are the second editions.” It’s a touch of dark humor that other writers can appreciate.
But don’t worry. Writers will go on writing — and they will do it in whatever the medium of the future turns out to be, whether it’s some new digital gizmo or scratchings on a cave wall. The desire for approval, as well as the other motives mentioned here, guarantees that. And whatever the media world of the future is like, the threats to the bruised, sensitive egos of the writers also will persist. Writers are asking for it, aren’t they?