Why We Write

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?

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • joe bissonnette

    what makes writers such rich targets is the tendancy to naval-gazing, and then whining when readers criticize their naval-gazing.

    who would bother to read if the only purpose underlying writing was the affirmation of the writer’s ego?

    what about ideas? psycho-linguists posit that without words we could not have abstract thoughts. words are the stuff of which ideas are made. the best writing is not vain posing but striving to understand, to open up the discussion, to move from the particular to the universal.

    Joe Bissonnette

  • georgie-ann

    i think some writers like to try to solve puzzles,…and some like to express their opinions,…putting it down in printed words causes the thought mechanisms to work differently,…it becomes a more interesting process,…

  • georgie-ann

    but if you only meant professional writers, that could be a completely different “ball of wax,”…i suppose,…

  • R.C.

    My internet connection is reliably back, for the first time in a disabling span of days.

    So, I come here and encounter this, I believe, deeply unfair statement:

    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.

    This must be a reference to The Problem of Pain…except it’s hard to see how it could be, for as a characterization of the book, it’s so entirely wrong.

    Is Lewis’ earlier book “neat?” Yes, in the manner of a pretty well-thought-out defense of the notion that an all-good, all-powerful God is not logically impossible in a world with pain in it.

    Is it “pat?” Not that I can see, at least not in any negative sense. Who could say that, having read it? One does not say something is “pat” where the author, far from being glib, freely confesses his inability to comprehend certain things, and that he is openly speculating in other areas.

    And “smug?!” Unbelievable. One must do one’s absolute utmost to try to read C.S.Lewis’ works — any of them, so far as I can recall — in the most unflattering way, to be able to construe them as smug.

    Mr. Shaw, I am astonished. It seems unlikely, but I almost suspect that someone handed you a book by one of the recent crop of village atheists, with a C.S.Lewis dust-cover accidentally wrapped ’round it, that you should say this.

    It is true that A Grief Observed is a very different book: A memoir of grief, not an apologetic for Christian faith. But A Grief Observed, while it might do wonders for the aggrieved soul who is utterly uninterested in the apologetical question, will do little for the person who is addressing, purely on a rational level, the question “If God exists, why is there evil?”

    And likewise, The Problem of Pain is no good as balm for the wounded soul — but it was never meant to be. As soon use a biochemistry textbook as a wedding-anniversary card!

    It is the accusation of “smug” which really bewilders me. Even in The Problem of Pain, when his duty is to consider coolly and analytically the argument that pain makes against God, Lewis never detectably departs from humility.

    Consider the preface:

    When Mr. Ashley Sampson suggested to me the writing of this book, I asked leave to be allowed to write it anonymously, since, if I were to say what I really thought about pain, I should be forced to make statements of such apparent fortitude that they would become ridiculous if anyone knew who made them. Anonymity was rejected as inconsistent with the series; but Mr Sampson pointed out that I could write a preface explaining that I did not live up to my own principles! This exhilarating programme I am now carrying out. Let me confess at once, in the words of good Walter Hilton, that throughout this book

  • Joe Hargrave

    “Sir, anyone who writes for anything except money is a fool.”

    By the length of my blog posts, for which I don’t get paid, I’m one of the biggest fools on the Internet smilies/smiley.gif

    But I don’t mind, because writing brings me joy second only to music. I don’t put a price on that.

  • Screech The Mighty

    I happen to be one of the “fools”, then. I’d say that there are a good chunk of writers who, like me, write simply because they have a story they think warrants telling, and enjoy telling said stories. And, as I have joked, if I don’t write, then my head will explode. Exploding heads are never a good thing.

    On the subject of injured egos, I think that’s a risk for ANY artist who shares his work with the world. I’m sure that Michelangelo or Picasso paced around their homes angrily muttering that “those people just didn’t get the painting”. Oh, well. Such is life.

    “Better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self.” -Cyril Connolly

  • Mark

    The reference to Lewis in this article reminded me of the movie “Shadowlands.” An interesting and in many respects well-done movie, but it presented the false picture of a smug Lewis, with all of the tidy answers, who was mugged by reality upon the death of his wife. One simply cannot find this picture in Lewis’ writings.

    Of course, we all learn from suffering. Our beliefs are tested. If we are open to grace, they are deepened. But Lewis seemed always to address these important questions with seriousness (and not smugness). I never understood Grief Observed as a departure from Lewis’ prior writings, but a very personal continuation of those writings.

  • Rod Murphy

    1 am writing a book, “Stopping Abortions at Death’s Door”, which will help people to start crisis pregnancy centers and teach them how to do sidewalk counseling in front of abortion facilities. All this to save little, unborn boys and girls from being killed by this legal horror.

    I write for the money but also for the brownie points, that I might get from the Lord, when it is my time leave this mortal coil and I must face up and fess up.