Photograph of light on water by Aayugoyal. Licensed under CC0 4.0.
I encountered Joan Didion’s famous line about why she writes—“entirely to find out what I’m thinking”—many times before I read the essay it comes from, and was reminded once again to never assume you know what anything means out of context. I had always thought the line was about her essays, about writing nonfiction to discover her own beliefs—because of course the act of making an argument clear on the page brings clarity to the writer too. She may have believed that; she may have thought it a truth too obvious to state. In any case, it’s not what she meant. She was talking about why she writes fiction:
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means … Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait 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?
These pictures, Didion writes, are “images that shimmer around the edges,” reminiscent of “an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia.” (I know these frightening psychedelic cats, the art of Louis Wain, very well—I saw them as a child, in just such a book, which I found on my parents’ shelves.) Play It As It Lays, she explains, began “with no notion of ‘character’ or ‘plot’ or even ‘incident,’” but with pictures. One was of a woman in a short white dress walking through a casino to make a phone call; this woman became Maria. The Bevatron (a particle accelerator at Berkeley Lab) was one of the pictures in her mind when she began writing A Book of Common Prayer. Fiction, for Didion, was the task of finding “the grammar in the picture,” the corresponding language: “The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement.” This is a much stranger reason to write than to clarify an argument. It makes me think of the scenes that I sometimes see just before I fall asleep. I know I’m still awake—they’re not as immersive as dreams—but they seem to be something that’s happening to me, not something I’m creating. I’m not manning the projector.
Nabokov spoke of shimmers too. “Literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him,” he said in a lecture in 1948. “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story, there is a shimmering go-between.” In this view, it seems to me, the writer’s not the wraith who can pass between realms of reality and fantasy. The art itself is the wraith, which the artist only grasps at. Elsewhere, Nabokov writes that inspiration comes in the form of “a prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack.” In his Paris Review interview, Martin Amis describes the urge to write this way: “What happens is what Nabokov described as a throb. A throb or a glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage the writer thinks, Here is something I can write a novel about.” Amis also saw images, a sudden person in a setting, as if a pawn had popped into existence on a board: “With Money, for example, I had an idea of a big fat guy in New York, trying to make a film. That was all.” Likewise for Don DeLillo: “The scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor—something I see in a vague way. Then sentence by sentence into the breach.” For these writers that begin from something like hallucination, the novel is a universe that justifies the image, a replica of Vegas to be built out of words.
William Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury five separate times, “trying to tell the story, to rid myself of the dream.” “It began with a mental picture,” he told Jean Stein in 1956, “of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree.” He couldn’t seem to get it right, to find the picture’s grammar, or hear it. (According to Didion, “It tells you. You don’t tell it.”) This was part of the work, this getting it wrong—Faulkner believed failure was what kept writers going, and that if you ever could write something equal to your vision, you’d kill yourself. In his own Paris Review interview, Ted Hughes tells a story about Thomas Hardy’s vision of a novel—“all the characters, many episodes, even some dialogue—the one ultimate novel that he absolutely had to write”—which came to him up in an apple tree. This may be apocryphal, but I hope it isn’t. (I imagine him on a ladder, my filigree on the myth.) By the time he came down “the whole vision had fled,” Hughes said, like an untold dream. We have to write while the image is shimmering.
There is often something compulsive about the act of writing, as if to cast out invasive thoughts. Kafka said, “God doesn’t want me to write, but I—I must.” Hughes wondered if poetry might be “a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of.” It’s the fear of discovery, then, that makes poems poetic, a way of telling riddles in the confession booth. “The writer daren’t actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely,” Hughes said. Speaking of Sylvia Plath, in 1995, he added, “You can’t overestimate her compulsion to write like that. She had to write those things—even against her most vital interests. She died before she knew what The Bell Jar and the Ariel poems were going to do to her life, but she had to get them out.” Jean Rhys also looked at writing as a purgative process: “I would write to forget, to get rid of sad moments.” Some reach a point where the writing is almost involuntary. The novelist Patrick Cottrell has said he only writes when he absolutely has to. “I have to feel borderline desperate,” he said, and “going long periods without writing” helps feed the desperation. Ann Patchett, in an essay called “Writing and a Life Lived Well,” writes that working on a novel is like living a double life, “my own and the one I create.” It’s much easier not to be working on a novel—I sometimes hear novelists speak of a work in progress as an all-consuming crisis—but the ease of not working, after a while, feels cheap: “this life lived only for myself takes on a certain lightness that I find almost unbearable.”
Some writers write in the name of Art in general—James Salter for instance: “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.” Eudora Welty said she wrote “for it, for the pleasure of it.” Or as Joy Williams puts it, in a wonderfully strange essay called “Uncanny the Singing that Comes from Certain Husks,” “The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve … something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness—those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.” Is that somethingness the wraith, the shimmering go-between? Or a godlike observer? “The writer writes to serve,” she writes, “that great cold elemental grace which knows us.”
Though Faulkner felt a duty toward the work that superseded all other ethics (“If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies”!), he also found writing fun, at least when it was new. David Foster Wallace, in a piece from the 1998 anthology Why I Write, edited by Will Blythe, agrees: “In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun … You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off.” (He’s not the only writer in the volume to describe writing as physical, almost sexual pleasure; William Vollmann claims he would write just for thrills but also likes getting paid, “like a good prostitute.”) But once you’ve been published, the innocent pleasure is tainted. “The motive of pure personal fun starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked,” Wallace writes, and the fun “is offset by a terrible fear of rejection.” Beyond the pleasure in itself, the fun for fun’s sake, writing for fun wards off ego and blinding vanity.
For every author who finds writing fun there is one for whom it’s pain, for whom Nabokov’s shimmerings would not be benign but premonitions of the suffering. Ha Jin said, “To write is to suffer.” Spalding Gray said, “Writing is like a disease.” Truman Capote, in his introduction to The Collected Works of Jane Bowles, and perhaps a particularly self-pitying mood, called writing “the hardest work around.” Annie Dillard said that “writing sentences is difficult whatever their subject”—and further, “It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick.” (Annie Dillard says such preposterous things—“Some people eat cars”!) It’s fashionable now to object on principle to the idea that writing is hard. Writing isn’t hard, this camp says; working in coal mines is hard. Having a baby is hard. But this is a category error. Writing isn’t hard the way physical labor, or recovery from surgery, is hard; it’s hard the way math or physics is hard, the way chess is hard. What’s hard about art is getting any good—and then getting better. What’s hard is solving problems with infinite solutions and your finite brain.
Then there’s the question of whether the pain comes from writing or the writing comes from pain. “I’ve never written when I was happy,” Jean Rhys said. “I didn’t want to … When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write.” Bud Smith has said he’s only prolific because he ditched all his other hobbies, so all he can do is write—but “people are probably better off with a yard, a couple kids, and sixteen dogs.” Here’s Williams again: “Writing has never given me any pleasure.” And then there’s Dorothy Parker, simply: “I hate writing.” I love writing, but I hate almost everything about being a writer. The striving, the pitching, the longueurs and bureaucracy of publishing, the professional jealousy, the waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen that might make it all feel worth it. But when I’m actually writing, I’m happy.
Didion borrowed the title of her lecture “Why I Write” from George Orwell, who in his essay of this name outlined four potential reasons why anyone might write: “sheer egoism” (Gertrude Stein claimed she wrote “for praise,” like Wallace in his weaker moments); “aesthetic enthusiasm” or the mere love of beauty (William Gass: “The poet, every artist, is a maker, a maker whose aim is to make something supremely worthwhile, to make something inherently valuable in itself”); “historical impulse,” or “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity”; and finally “political purpose.” This last cause was what mattered to Orwell. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936”—he was writing this ten years later—“has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.” He considered it “nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”
I’m unsure if Orwell meant that avoiding moral subjects was an unthinkable error, or a true impossibility, in the sense that one can’t escape the spirit of the age. Was any post-war novel, any novel written or even read in 1946, a war novel ineluctably? Kazuo Ishiguro has said he never writes to assert a moral: “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.” But having a moral, a didactic lesson, and being moral are different. Writers might try to avoid an argument and fail, even if it is less a thesis than an emergent property, a slow meaning that arises through cause and effect or mere juxtaposition. Ishiguro’s novels, in the course of unfolding, do triangulate a worldview. John Gardner would say, if the work is didactic, that means it’s too simple: “The didactic writer is anything but moral because he is always simplifying the argument.” (He also said, hilariously, “If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller. Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in.”) The book can also stand in as an argument for its own existence. Toni Morrison wrote her first novel to fill what she saw as a treacherous gap in literature, to create a kind of book that she had always wanted to read but couldn’t find—a book about “those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls.” Her ambition was not to make white people empathize with black girls. “I’m writing for black people,” Morrison once said, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me.”
Only one writer in the Blythe anthology, a magazine writer named Mark Jacobson, claims he does it “for the money.” (“What other reason could there be? For my soul? Gimme a break.”) No one in the book claims they do it for fame, though the luster of fame is tempting, distracting. In a TV documentary about Madonna that I saw many years ago, she said she always knew she wanted to be famous, and didn’t really care how she got there—music was just the path that worked out. This is not so different from Susan Sontag, who was also obsessed with fame from an early age. Plath too made such confessions in her diary. Capote often said he always knew he would be rich and famous. I think the wish for fame is reasonable, since practically there’s not much money in writing unless you are famous. For most the rewards are meager. As Salter writes, “So much praise is given to insignificant things that there is hardly any sense in striving for it.” The thing about success, good fortune, and maybe even happiness is this: You can see that there are people who “deserve” whatever you have as much as you do but have less, as well as people who “deserve” it less or equally and have more. So, at the same time, you want more and feel you don’t deserve what you have. It’s a source of anxiety, guilt, and resentment and troubles the very idea of what one “deserves.” In the end I believe you don’t deserve anything; you get what you get.
I’ve been collecting these theories of why writers write because so many writers have written about it. I love reading writers on writing. I love writers on their bullshit. During the first year of the pandemic, I started listening obsessively to interview podcasts. At first this was strategic. I had a book coming out, and I thought of them as training; I thought they would help me get better at talking about my own book. But I was also lonely. I wasn’t going to readings or parties, and I missed writers’ voices. The practice has diminishing comforts. After a while most writers sound the same, and some days, after bingeing on writers, I can start to feel pointless, interchangeable. Faulkner said he disliked giving interviews because the artist was “of no importance”: “If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us.” (And yet he named himself as one of the five most important authors of the twentieth century; there are limits to humility.) Some days I think the very question is banal, like photos of a writer’s “workspace.” They’re all just desks! Why write? Why do anything? Why not write? It’s the same as the impulse to make a handprint in wet concrete or trace your finger in the mist on a window. What you wrote, as a kid, on a window was the simplest version of the vision. Why that vision? Why that vision, and why you?
Tillie Olsen, in her 1965 essay “Silences,” called the not-writing that has to happen sometimes—“what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)”—instead “natural silences,” or “necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation.” Breaks or blocks, times when the author has nothing to say or can only repeat themselves, are the opposite of “the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.” The unnatural silence of writers is suppression of the glimmer. This is Melville who, in Olsen’s words, was “damned by dollars into a Customs House job; to have only weary evenings and Sundays left for writing.” And likewise Hardy, who stopped writing novels after “the Victorian vileness to his Jude the Obscure,” Olsen writes, though he lived another thirty years—thirty years gone, gone as that novel in the apple tree. She quotes a line from his poem “The Missed Train”: “Less and less shrink the visions then vast in me.” And this same fate came to Olsen herself, who wrote what she wrote in “snatches of time” between jobs and motherhood, until “there came a time when this triple life was no longer possible. The fifteen hours of daily realities became too much distraction for the writing.” I read Olsen’s essay during a period in my life when stress from my day job, among other sources, was making it especially difficult to write. I didn’t have the energy to do both jobs well, but I couldn’t choose between them, so I did both badly. Like Olsen, I’d lost “craziness of endurance.”
James Thurber said “the characteristic fear of the American writer” is aging—we fear we’ll get old and die or simply lose the mental capacity to do the work we want to do, to make our little bids for immortality. Of late I’ve been obsessed with the idea of a “body of work.” I’ve gotten it into my head that seven books, even short, minor books, will constitute a body of work, my body of work. When I finish, if I finish, seven books I can retire from writing, or die. But how long can the corpus really outlast the corpse? I heard Nicholson Baker on a podcast say his grandfather, or maybe some uncle or other, was a well-known writer in his day and is now totally unknown. Unless we’re very, very famous, we’ll be forgotten that quickly, he said, so you might as well write what you want. I think about that a lot. Since I don’t have children, I have more time to write than Tillie Olsen did. But I don’t have that built-in generation of buffer between my death and obscurity. At least I won’t be around to know I’m not known. DeLillo again: “We die indoors, and alone.”
That year when I walked so much while listening to writers that I wore clean holes through my shoes, I kept asking myself why I write—or more so, why my default state is writing, since on any given day I might be writing for morality, Art, or attention, for just a little money. (I can’t go very long without writing, though I can go for a while without writing something good.) I think I write to think—not to find out what I think; surely I know what I already think—but to do better thinking. Staring at my laptop screen makes me better at thinking. Even thinking about writing makes me better at thinking. And when I’m thinking well, I can sometimes write that rare, rare sentence or paragraph that feels exactly right, only in the sense that I found the exact right sequence of words and punctuation to express my own thought—the grammar in the thought. That rightness feels so good, like sinking an unlikely shot in pool. The ball is away and apart from you, but you feel it in your body, the knowledge of causation. Never mind luck or skill or free will, you caused that effect—you’re alive!
Elisa Gabbert is the author of six collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently Normal Distance, out from Soft Skull in September 2022, and The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays. She writes the “On Poetry” column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared recently in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and The Believer.
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