Why do People Write? Intrinsic vs. extrinsic

Writing has two major driving powers, one of which is:

  • Convincing others to read

Accurate portrayal of people with books in comfy chairs.

I know that people sometimes say that you should write because you’re expressing emotions and because stories are threatening to tear you apart if you don’t write them. That writing is purely individual and from the heart and soul.

For a large measure, that’s true. Getting to the root of it, however, there’s not much point in writing something if someone isn’t going to read it.

Not to externalize the inherently intrinsic nature of writing, but it’s true.

Even if the only purpose to writing something is so you yourself can read it, the idea is that we’re writing for something or someone. We can write to entertain, to divulge truths, to record events, to illuminate new perspectives, or just to create something that can be felt.

I always wrote as a way to express emotions that I couldn’t otherwise articulate. This came in the form of bad poetry and worse fiction in earlier years. Did I write for others? Not really. Or at least, I didn’t think so at the time.

Which is totally fine! You don’t need to understand how something works in order to be a part of it. You can write for whatever reason you want, but if you’ve actually written it down, then it’s for something.

Maybe an Alzheimer’s patient records her fondest memories for when she can no longer recall them on her own. Maybe a man transcribes his younger adventures to inspire his son. Maybe a teen writes a poem to try to decode the abstract. Maybe you’re writing to try and produce the next bestseller. Maybe you’re writing to understand a tragedy. Maybe we’re writing to make our loved ones smile.

For a long time, I wrote because it was how I could communicate. Childhood can be beautiful and scary. As a child, I read to escape life, and I wrote to try to understand it.

Over time, my love of language developed. I went back and forth from grammar nazi to maker-upper-of-words. I oscillated (dramatically) from “Poetry is infinite” to “Words are hard.”

A word that is both difficult, abstract, impossible, and infinite.

When I was in high school and decided to write a book and finish the first draft before graduating (did it with two days to spare!), I struggled with the concept that I wanted to write books, but not the kind of books they made us read in school. Sure, literary fiction could be powerful and magnificent, but I wanted fun and dramatic.

I wanted to write something that could let someone else escape for a little while.

At some point, my nephew started reading the first book I wrote and he called me up on the phone.

“Auntie Becky,” he said. He spoke in that distracted way kids do on the phone when you can just tell they’re infinitely distracted by absolutely everything else in the room.

“Yes, Nephew?” (I actually do call him nephew now and again.)

“So, I had this, um, assignment for class, and I wrote a story, and I wanted you to read it.”

My heart in excited knots. “That sounds awesome! I’m totally stoked. Was it fun?”

His mom tells me later on the phone: “He was excited to tell you most of all. He had a choice of assignments, and he picked the writing one. How does that make you feel, miss writer?”

How can I articulate an answer to her? I figure I ought to try (being a writer who wants to articulate things for a living).

So here it is:

I feel complimented and pressurized.

Realizing I have an actual impact on the upbringing of a tiny human who will one day be taller than me… it makes me feel like I’m in a pressurized round-bottomed flask (chemistry moment!) and that at any moment, the glass cork will shoot off in an expression of glee, fear, excitement, and pride. At the same time, the rounded bottom makes it hard to get a solid footing, like I’m slipping up a stage to accept a certificate or like I can’t quite reach the top. So, congratulations, Eldest Sister. You and your son have trapped me in a flask (in the best possible way) where I feel the inexplicable slipping and explosive sensation that what I do actually matters, and that makes it scarier and more thrilling than ever.

The thought that Nephew was writing things, and he wanted me to read, and I had somehow inspired him? PROOF THAT HUMANS ARE AWESOME CREATURES CAPABLE OF OBSERVATIONAL LEARNING AND ART AND AWESOMENESS, AND PEOPLE AFFECT EACH OTHER IN SUBSTANTIAL, BEAUTIFUL WAYS!

I realized that writing isn’t just about hoping other people will read, it can also inspire them to write!

And to me, writing is pretty much the coolest, niftiest, fulfilling thing EVER.

Nephew revealed to me the second reason people write:

  • Convincing others to write

This pretty much made my brain go crazy and start trying to figure out what I really wanted from my writing: who I was writing for and why.

So, when I started writing The Nameless Queen in last November, I decided that I wanted to make people smile (and maybe cry, if the moment calls for it).

Nameless 9

Homemade fake (bad) book cover!

My nephew started reading NQ as soon as I started writing it. Or rather, I read it to him. Which is beautiful in and of itself. My nephew and his mother (my sister) sprawled out on the bed to hear the first chapters of the book I’d started.

Nephew lay beside me (at times almost on top of me), pointing out typos or when I’d read something different than what was on screen.

Interrupting the narrative, I’d explain that it’s a first draft, and as I read it out loud I’ll notice mistakes and correct them. Or: Yes, Nephew, I know that the screen says green, but I’m changing it to purple. Yes, because purple is my favorite color. Now shush.

The beauty of the moment isn’t lost on me. The power and excitement and humble gratitude I feel when I see them enjoying something I’ve written is overwhelming at times (a lot of the time).

At the same time, I depend on them for those pieces of invaluable encouragement and belief.

Dear past versions of my family (and potentially future versions as well):

Sorry for writing bad poetry and worse fiction. But in order to improve at anything, you have to suck at it first and then be stubborn enough to try to suck less.

Sincerely, Current-day Rebecca

So for all of you out there searching for a reason to write, look no further than yourself. YOU are the type of person who read books, devoured books, got lost in books, and celebrated books. YOU are the type of person who then was inspired to try your hand at creating, forging, and building new worlds and words. YOU are the person who spends time, effort, energy, emotions, soul, and spirit in the creation of stories and art.

If you’re lucky, and if you’re stubborn, you can write for the hope that someone like you will read your work and feel just as inspired as you were when you wrote it.

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5 thoughts on “Why do People Write? Intrinsic vs. extrinsic

  1. Pingback: Why we Read and Write | words — and other things
    • When I was in college, I realized that a lot of my love for English was based my simple love of language itself. In learning Spanish (moderately), I realized that language is a universal beauty instead of culture-specific. 🙂

    • I’m always surprised at the reasons people give when I ask them why they like writing. People are always capable of being insightful and thoughtful if they simply take the time to think about it first 🙂

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