Classic Women Authors Ponder the Question, “Why Write?”

Anaïs Nin in Wrap

Those of us who scratch out sentences and paragraphs that we hope to turn into publishable prose have often paused to ponder the question, “why write?” When it goes well, it can all-consuming, like a passionate love affair. But when the going gets tough, or when self-doubt creeps in, “why” can become “what’s the point?”

Here, five classic women authors weigh in on questions related to the existential “why” of writing—for whom are you writing, and for what purpose? As in all matters of art, there’s no consensus here. George Sand seemed to believe that one writes to shine a light for others.

Edna Ferber took the opposite view—she wrote to please herself (or so she said). Anaïs Nin offers yet another view—you write not for yourself or others, but simply because you have no choice. Like all good questions, this one has no one, easy answer.

Why do you write? Is it a question worth pondering, or is it best not to dwell on it, as Zora Neale Hurston suggests at the end of this post? Personally, my favorite is Flannery O’Connor’s terse yet telling response to this eternal question: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

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Write to enlighten others

One writes for all the world, for all who need to be initiated; when one is not understood, one is resigned and recommences. When one is understood, one rejoices and continues. Therein lies the whole secret of our persevering labors and of our love of art. What is art without the hearts and minds on which it pours? A sun which would not project rays and would give life to no one. — George Sand (1804-1876)

George Sand quote on writint


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Write to please yourself

This is certain: I never have written a line except to please myself. I never have written with an eye to what is called the public or the market or the trend or the editor or the reviewer. Good or bad, popular or unpopular, lasting or ephemeral, the words I have put down on paper were the best words I could summon at the time to express the thing I wanted more than anything else to say. —Edna Ferber (1885-1968)

Edna ferber quote on imagination and inner life

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Write to fulfill a deep inner need

You don’t write for yourself or for others. You write out of a deep inner necessity. If you are a writer, you have to write, just as you have to breathe, or if you’re a singer you have to sing. But you’re not aware of doing it for someone. This need to write was for me as strong as the need to live. I needed to live, but I also needed to record what I lived. It was a second life, it was my way of living in a more heightened way. — Anaïs Nin (1903-1977)

Anais Nin and her Diaries


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Write to express the voice within

“I write only because
There is a voice within
That will not be still.”

Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)

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Sylvia Plath quote

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Or, is it best not to ask why write?

“Perhaps it is just as well to be rash and foolish for a while. If writers were too wise, perhaps no books would be written at all. It might be better to ask yourself ‘Why’ afterwards than before … There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.” — Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

Zora Neale Hurston quotes


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