1. To satisfy creative impulses. For bestselling novelist Isabel Allende, stories begin inside her head and then grow onto the page: “Each story is a seed that starts to grow and grow. When I start writing a book, I have no idea where it’s going.” Allende says she has difficulty separating her real life from the lives of her fictional characters. “I carry the story with me all day, all night, in dreams, all the time,” she says.
Bestselling Novelist Jodi Picoult speaks of hearing her characters’ voices in her head as she’s writing. She calls this “successful schizophrenia” because “I get paid to hear those voices.” Like Allende, Picoult doesn’t always feel in control: “Characters seem to pick their own paths. They have an agenda that I don’t even know about.”
2. Because it's hard. George Orwell compared writing a book to “a long bout of some painful illness.” Sebastian Junger, author of "The Perfect Storm," describes his hardships as a young freelance writer: “In a decade of writing I might have made five thousand dollars. I learned what it feels like to work and work” for almost no reward.
Memoirist Mary Karr agrees, recalling how she overcame similar financial struggles: “For the five years I was teaching in the academic ghetto around Boston [doing stints at Emerson, Tufts, and Harvard], I couldn’t live on my earnings.” But she kept going.
3. For Money. Bestselling author Michael Lewis (“Moneyball”) has achieved a level of financial success that few writers ever reach, but even that comes with a price: “When I started, I was paid nothing. . . . Now I’m paid vast sums for the worst crap. That’s a reason to write now that I didn’t have before.” Writers are like everyone else -- they need to pay the rent and feed their families, just like plumbers and bakers.
4. For self-fulfillment. Joan Didion says her goal is “to find out what I’m thinking . . . and what it means.” For Allende, writing is a matter of survival: “I’m unemployable. What else would I do?” Novelist Jennifer Egan writes because it allows her to live a double life “without destroying my marriage.” So intense is Egan’s immersion that “[s]ometimes I forget I have children, which is very strange.”
Mystery master Sue Grafton began writing because of anger during a difficult divorce. As Maran explains, “Grafton found herself fantasizing about murdering, or at least maiming, her soon-to-be ex-husband. . . . [S]he turned those fantasies into a novel.”
You need not be a fan of all of the 20 writers interviewed to enjoy this absorbing look into the literary life. “Why We Write” is also filled with practical tips on writing, surviving, and thriving. My favorite tip comes from the pragmatic Ms. Picoult: “There is no muse. It’s hard work. You can always edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.” Ultimately, we write because it's a compulsion that drives us.