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February 27, 2005

The Why of Writing

Charlie Stross, whose Accelerando you should have already pre-ordered because it's just that good, goes into some detail as to how it is he's able to write (short answer: life experience and luck) but is mystified as to the reason why he writes, and says: "If you find it, be sure to tell me?"

Well, Charlie, from my point of view, the answer is obvious: You write to entertain me. Perhaps this is not an existentially compelling reason, and if I am suddenly hit by a train you may be left in the lurch. But I feel confident that there will be numerous other people just as happy to have you write to entertain them as well. So you're covered. And isn't that a relief.

I am happy to say I do not have Charlie's difficulty in answering the question as to why I write. I write for the following reasons, which I present in no particular order:

1. I write because it's fun.
2. I write because I get paid.
3. I write because I'm pretty good at it.
4. I write because most other jobs I could do constitute actual work.

Chronologically, these reasons appeared in the following order: 3,1,4,2 -- Early on I realized I had the facility for writing, then I realized it was fun, then I realized I should probably get as good as I could at it because I didn't much like the idea of having to do anything else for a living, and then I managed to convince someone to pay me for it. These days all of these reasons are in play, in varying percentages at any one time.

These reasons don't answer the question of why I, of all people, should be able to write both professionally and with relative ease, which may be what Charlie was aiming at. As to that, well, who can say? Some people are naturally athletic, and a subset throw fastballs. Some people are naturally musically apt, and a subset play a mean guitar. Some people naturally have a facility for self-expression, and a subset exhibit that through writing.

I suspect I was born with a gift for writing; I don't spend much time worrying about the provenance of the gift, since that seems a little like tempting fate. I'm just glad I have it and I work to develop a measure of craft to go along with that gift. That way if the gift ever gives out (and who knows? It might), I'll have craft to fall back on.

But again, I don't spend all that much time dwelling on the philosophical aspects of why I write. Mostly I just write to have fun. And to make mortgage payments. But mostly, for fun.

Posted by john at February 27, 2005 08:23 PM

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Tracked on February 28, 2005 10:32 AM


Shina Laris | February 27, 2005 10:40 PM

Your answer as to why you write is so succint, yet so true as well. Do you mind if I copy it?

Most writers do write first either because they like it or because they're just good at it; I know I first wrote because I like to write, and I had something to write about. Later, I became better at it (merely competent), but #2 and #4 are yet to come. :)


John Scalzi | February 27, 2005 10:59 PM

Quote away --

Patrick | February 27, 2005 11:47 PM

I just started a new alternative journal, "A Stop at Willoughby," and my first entry gives the story behind my "why" of writing.




Jeff Porten | February 28, 2005 12:29 AM

I seriously doubt you were born with a gift for writing -- more likely, you were born with a certain amount of imagination and a creative impulse. The "writing part" that you were born with is that in your first cracks at bat at stringing words together, you were good enough to receive the admiration of your audience, which then led to a virtuous cycle.

But I think it's self-evident that 15-year-old Scalzi can now write like 35-year-old Scalzi only due to a great deal of hard work. It's just that some of that work felt like play to you.

I say this only because I lived it. I frequently get paid for my writing, but I get paid by the hour, and so we call it "consulting" rather than "writing". None the less, when it takes me an hour to solve a computer problem and another hour to write up what I did to fix it in the King's English, half of my pay is from my writing. If I couldn't write, I wouldn't get paid -- and I wouldn't be anywhere near as good as I am at my job, since explaining what I do is where most of my peers fall down on the job.

What's interesting is that since it's been 10 years since I wrote my last book, I want to do "more writing" -- even though my daily output is probably on the order of several thousand words a day.

John Scalzi | February 28, 2005 12:59 AM

Jeff Porten says:

"I seriously doubt you were born with a gift for writing -- more likely, you were born with a certain amount of imagination and a creative impulse."

Well, and this is why I wrote: "Some people naturally have a facility for self-expression, and a subset exhibit that through writing" (thenceforth shortened to "gift for writing" for brevity's sake). However, I wouldn't be entirely surprised to find that there was some innate predilection for symbolic expression, since I know at least a couple of my direct-line ancestors had the writing bug, and I found out about that fact only after I had started writing myself. And Athena is already exhibiting a strong writing sense, although in her case she sees her father writing on a daily basis, and I'm sure environment is playing some role there as well.

Patrick | February 28, 2005 12:41 PM

An interesting debate. Patrick O'Connor wrote an article about the mental components that comprise creativity.

I've put my two cents on the issue and a link to the article in my blog, "A Stop at Willoughby."


Thumb | February 28, 2005 01:30 PM

"4. I write because most other jobs I could do constitute actual work."

HA! Speaking from experience, I always tell people that behind every professional artist is someone who was willing to do almost anything to avoid real work.

Bob Sassone | February 28, 2005 03:21 PM

Thought everyone might be interested in John's answer to this question a few years ago, in the very first issue of my online mag Professor Barnhardt's Journal (along with other writers):


John Scalzi | February 28, 2005 03:59 PM

Ah, I'd forgoteen that. The answers then and now are pretty consistent, although I mentioned the ego-gratification aspect in more detail in the PBJ missive.