IN NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD (Cambridge University Press, 2002), a book about writers and writing, Margaret Atwood records some of the reasons why writers write. The catalogue she provides, she tells us, is composed from the words of writers themselves, taken from newspaper interviews and autobiographies, for example, and/or from diaries, journals, correspondence and the like, or from conversations she’s had with writers (or reports by others of conversations they’ve had with writers). In addition some of the statements are taken from fictional writers—all of course written by writers—although in works of fiction these are often dressed up as painters or composers and other artistic folk:
‘To record the world as it is. To set down the past before it is all forgotten. To excavate the past because it has been forgotten. To satisfy my desire for revenge. Because I knew I had to keep writing or else I would die. Because to write is to take risks, and it is only by taking risks that we know we are alive. To produce order out of chaos. To delight and instruct (not often found after the early twentieth century, or not in that form). To please myself. To express myself. To express myself beautifully. To create a perfect work of art. To reward the virtuous and punish the guilty; or—the Marquis de Sade defense, used by ironists—vice versa. To hold a mirror up to Nature. To hold a mirror up to the reader. To paint a portrait of society and its ills. To express the unexpressed life of the masses. To name the hitherto unnamed. To defend the human spirit, and human integrity and honor. To thumb my nose at Death. To make money so my children could have shoes. To make money so that I could sneer at those who formerly sneered at me. To show the bastards. Because to create is human. Because to create is Godlike. Because I hated the idea of having a job. To say a new word. To make a new thing. To create a national consciousness, or a national conscience. To justify my failures in school. To justify my own view of myself and my life, because I couldn’t be “a writer” unless I actually did some writing. To make myself more interesting than I actually was. To attract the love of a beautiful woman. To attract the love of any woman at all. To attract the love of a beautiful man. To rectify the imperfections of my miserable childhood. To thwart my parents. To spin a fascinating tale. To amuse and please the reader. To amuse and please myself. To pass the time, even though it would have passed anyway. Graphomania. Compulsive loggorrhea. Because I was driven to it by some force outside my control. Because I was possessed. Because an angel dictated to me. Because I fell into the embrace of the Muse. Because I fell pregnant by the Muse and needed to give birth to a book (an interesting piece of cross-dressing indulged by male writers of the seventeenth century). Because I had books instead of children (several twentieth century women). To serve Art. To serve the Collective Unconscious. To serve History. To justify the ways of God toward man. To act out antisocial behaviour for which I would have been punished in real life. To master a craft. To subvert the establishment. To demonstrate that whatever is, is right. To experiment with new forms of perception. To create a recreational boudoir so the reader could go into it and have fun (translated from a Czech newspaper). Because the story took hold of me and wouldn’t let me go (the Ancient Marnier defense). To search for understanding. To cope with my depression. For my children. To make a name that would survive death. To defend a minority group. To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. To expose appalling wrongs or atrocities. To record the times through which I have lived. To bear witness to horrifying events that I have survived. To speak for the dead. To celebrate life in all its complexity. To praise the universe. To allow for the possibility of hope and redemption. To give back something of what has been given to me.’
She could have added ‘Because I could do no other’.