May 15th, 2020

Why Do We Write? Artistry, Identity, And Legacy

By Barbara Linn Probst

Writing a book is hard. So is getting published, and so is achieving success as a writer. If that’s true, then why do we do it?

We may have asked ourselves this question, and others may have asked us. It’s not always an easy question to answer! Our reasons can be complex, difficult to articulate, and uncomfortably personal, making us feel vulnerable and exposed. Yet it’s a question worth asking—especially now, when many of us are struggling to find the energy and motivation to keep going. We read editorials about how important books are right now, and how stories have always been a source of comfort and healing and hope. That’s true—for readers. For writers, it’s more complex.

So I asked fellow writers: Why do you write? And why are you writing this particular book? Their responses, together with my own reflections, point to three primary reasons that I’m calling artistry, identity, and legacy. They’re not mutually exclusive, of course. People can write for more than one reason, or for different reasons at different times. As one person noted: “Sometimes it’s to reach out for connection with others, and sometimes it’s for my eyes only.”  

Artistry: the act of writing

Writing is both art and craft. Like painting, sculpture, or musical composition, writing allows us to create something new; like singing, playing an instrument, or acting, it allows us to express our creativity through a vehicle that someone else has provided. Language, rather than colors or sounds, is our tool.

Writing is art because it can evoke emotions and meanings that go beyond the surface of the words themselves. It’s also craft because it requires skills that have to be learned and practiced. While one can argue that some forms of writing, such as experimental poetry, are art precisely because they reject all conventions, conventions and skills are not the same thing, and I think it’s fair to say that good writing requires the development of skill, in one form or another.

As with all forms of artistic expression, people write because they have something they want to convey—a vision, a passion, a need to give voice, that they can’t quite account for and can’t quite control. One person wrote: “It’s a compulsion, brought on by these characters 'knocking on my imagination's door' screaming to be let out!” Writing is an outlet, a release, an itch that simply must be scratched. The story or characters won’t take no for an answer.

For some, it’s not so much a particular story clamoring to be written as it is the more generic opportunity for self-expression and exploration, “because it's such a thrill to compose and play and weave and see what happens.”

There’s a blend of the personal and the impersonal in the artistic process—the joy of the creative experience (a personal pleasure), and the sense of being a channel or vessel through which a story makes itself known (being “called,” in service of the story).

In short, people write for the meaning they derive from the act of writing.

Identity: the state of being a writer

Being a writer is an identity: it’s who I am (or want to be) and where I belong. “Writing stories is all I've ever wanted to do,” and “It’s just who I am.”  As one person put it: “it just feels like my identity. I know, I know, you're not supposed to BE your work, but I'm not sure how to separate it.”

Others wrote about the experience of community, of finding one’s tribe. “I have met ‘my people’ in the writing community. A joyful side-effect of writing a book!”

Being a member of a community—claiming a place, asserting one’s right to the identity that accompanies membership—can, for some, evoke insecurity as well as connection. Do I have the right to call myself a writer? Am I good enough, as good as the others? Writers, regardless of what they’ve published or accomplished, sometimes speak of what’s called imposter syndrome—feeling unworthy and afraid of revealing one’s inauthenticity. It’s tricky because there’s no objective criterion for calling oneself a writer, no license or test, the way there is for calling oneself a doctor.

For some people, the identity of writer only belongs to those who’ve published. Unpublished writers are apprentices, members-in-waiting, hoping for legitimacy and entrance to the community. This is tricky too. Without a clear and common definition, I may think of myself as a “writer,” though my friends and family don’t. Or it can go the other way, as others urge me to claim an identity that I don’t feel I’ve earned.

It’s interesting to note that there are times when the focus on publication actually detracts from the sense of identity as a writer. One person confessed that, after achieving the longed-for goal of publication, “it took me years to come back to the joy of rediscovering the sacred place of writing.”

In short, people write because it’s a way to embrace an identity.

Legacy: the gift of having written

We write for ourselves, because we must, and we write for others. Although there can be a deep fulfillment in the experience of putting ideas and images into words—an experience that’s complete in itself—most writers do want their work to be read. Writing is restorative, healing, profoundly satisfying. But it’s relational too.

Through writing, we hope to touch others, and to continue to touch them after we’re gone. Whether it’s egoism or simply part of being human, we want to make a difference, to be remembered. Our writing is part of our legacy, stamped with our name.

There can be an impersonal aspect to this, as well—the wish to make sure that the story itself isn’t lost, especially if it’s a story about an individual or group that might not be able to tell it themselves. We can be the one to bear witness or bring a forgotten era to life.

In short, people write because it’s a way to leave something behind.

Final Thoughts

Artistry, identity, legacy, or a combination of all three?  

Whether writing is an item on a late-in-life bucket list, an unfulfilled longing from childhood, or something that’s always been part of our lives—we feel its summons. We need to get the stories out of our heads and onto the page, to reach others and be read. As one person put it, the urgency to write “sometimes scares me and at other times gives me wings.”

For me, personally, artistry and legacy are the strongest motives.  I love the process and want to give back to others in a meaningful, enduring way.

What about you? Why do you write? Please share with us down in the comments!

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Barbara

Barbara Linn Probst is the author of much-anticipated Queen of the Owls, published by the visionary, award-winning She Writes Press. Queen of the Owls has been chosen by Working Mother as one of the twenty most anticipated books for 2020 and is the May 2020 selection of the Pulpwood Queens, a network of more than 780 book clubs throughout the U.S. To order or learn more, please visit http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/.

Queen of the Owls by Barbara Linn Probst

A chance meeting with a charismatic photographer will forever change Elizabeth’s life. How much is Elizabeth willing to risk to be truly seen and known?

Click here to read more or to order the book.

Top Photo Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

8 responses to “Why Do We Write? Artistry, Identity, And Legacy”

  1. Gill Otto says:

    Thank you! An interesting and timely summary of issues around our identities and motivation for writing. Good to be reminded of the pleasure and compulsion to write. Writing has always been a huge part of my identity - working on some autiobiographical fragments during Camp NaoNoWriMo, I realized that even before I wrote down my stories, I was a story teller. My childhood drawings were also part of an ongoing story too - they were not just of horses, but of particular (imaginary) horses, with names, in a storm, or stable, I feel kind of unmoored and less of myself when, as now, I cannot write. Wishing you every success with your book - love the title!

  2. barbaralinnprobst says:

    Thank you, Gill! You put it so well. You were always a storyteller, even when you were small. You feel like "less of yourself" when you're not writing. It's clearly a calling. For some, it's a call they aren't able to answer until later in life—when children are grown, for example—yet the sense of a call is very clear.

  3. ecellenb says:

    Wonderful post. I write to be helpful, to teach, and sometimes because the characters won't leave me alone. Life is never dull.

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      Ah yes ... when the characters won't leave you alone! Sometimes the impulse comes from me (as you say, to help or share or impart something) and sometimes it comes from the characters, through me ...

  4. Ken Saik says:

    I love the act of giving birth to something new, then nurturing it and watching it grow. The surprises that one gets from seeing something develop in unexpected ways is like watching a child finds own identify.

  5. barbaralinnprobst says:

    I feel the same way! Witnessing those "unexpected" turns and moments that appear is one of the magical parts of the process for me. They often come to m in the early hours of the morning or in the shower, when my brain is relaxed and I can—just as you say—allow something to be born. I'd almost say that this experience is why I write ...

  6. Jenny Hansen says:

    I'm all about the legacy, and the writing we leave behind. While I enjoy the process of writing (at least a little bit), I much prefer to "have written." The biggest problem for me is I like to be paid for my writing, like fairly quickly. I can do that in my day job, but not in my fiction life. Nothing happens quickly in a fiction life. So, I find myself writing much more non-fiction on a day-to-day basis.

  7. dholcomb1 says:

    It's my calling. I write because I'm compelled to do it. From the time I was a young girl, I've always found writing to be my outlet, my talent, my love.

    denise

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