It’s a common response to the big “why” question. I hear it all the time. I’ve used it myself once or twice.
“I write because I have to.”
But unless someone is pressing your fingers to the keyboard, it’s simply untrue. Even for those of you who are facing a looming deadline. You don’t have to meet that deadline. Really, you don’t. Yeah, you’ll ruin your editor’s day, and you could theoretically lose your publishing deal, but no one is forcing you to give up binge-watching “Jennifer Jones” in order to finish chapter sixteen – the one where that thing happens you haven’t yet thought of that makes the whole novel work.
No one is forcing you to write. Not your muse. Not your mother. Not your editor. Not your existential angst. Not some insuppressible gut-level compulsion. (You should see a therapist about that. Or a gastroenterologist.)
Writing is always a choice.*
Then why write? Don’t answer that. It was a rhetorical question. For you, I mean. It’s not rhetorical for me, because I’m going to give you the correct answer. Two, actually.
Here’s the first. The writer-focused answer:
To find out what happens.
Some of you will get this right away. (You can stop reading now.) Others will mumble, “Oh, I already know what happens.” Hmm…really? Maybe you’re one of those oh-so-organized plotters and you have bullet points describing every little thing that happens from page one to The End. Cool. I’m happy for you. But that doesn’t change my answer.
You didn’t know all that plotstuff when the idea for your book fell into your head, did you? No, you didn’t. Plotting is at its core an exercise in “finding out what happens.”
See? Told you.
But that isn’t the only reason “to find out what happens” is the right answer. You also write to find out what happens to you, to your life as a writer, hell, to your life in general. Will this novel make sense? Will it be “the one”? Will it find an audience? Will you grow as a writer? Will you become besties with Stephen King? Will you change the world? Will you give up writing altogether?
There are a million discoveries waiting for you as you write…and some of them are actually about the story.
I said there were two correct answers to the “why write?” question. Here’s the other one. The “reader-focused” answer:
To help me go places. By “me” I mean specifically me (I’m selfish that way), but also metaphorically all of the “me’s” – the readers.
A well-told story can take readers to places they might not otherwise be able to go. I don’t just mean physical locations – though I can’t imagine any other way I’ll get to Mars. I’m mostly talking about emotional places. Heartbreak. Hope. Love. Despair. Wonder. Loneliness. Belonging. Joy. Those places.
Some of us [raises hand] struggle to feel things in the real world. Maybe that’s because we’ve suffered more than our fair share of feelings and numbness is the only safe place left [hand still raised]. We still want to feel – after all, that’s what makes us human – but the cost in the real world is too high. That’s where you come in. Your story gives people like me a safe place to feel. The emotions we experience when reading fiction are just like those we experience in real life, but much more affordable.
You could look at it this way: when you write, you are providing a much-needed service for the feeling-impaired.
The bottom line is ultimately quite simple: You don’t have to write. But you probably should.
*I put an asterisk at the end of that sentence so you would look down here for an exception to the rule. Because you are the exception, right? Well, I don’t have an exception for you. Sorry. You’ll have to work that out on your own.