by Isabel Dennis-Muir
I have often wondered what it is that makes me want to write. Why am I drawn to this sometimes pleasurable, often torturous pursuit?
From the earliest discoveries we can see that humans wanted to set down symbols to convey a message. Words are after all just our modern-day equivalent of those symbols. Perhaps our prehistoric ancestors wanted to report to their kinfolk that they had seen a wondrous animal to hunt and eat, or found an ideal spot to make camp.
From those earliest days we know that writing was used to inform. Since then, one of its important roles has been to educate. But at what point did our ancestors decide that words could be used to convey fictional ideas – setting down their imaginative thoughts for all to read?
Fictional writing can influence or inspire, it can provide an escape route from readers’ otherwise challenging lives. It can soothe or stimulate, terrify, or overwhelm. We can guess at some of the emotions that are experienced by the readers –but let’s consider some of the reasons authors are tempted to create their story worlds.
Some of the oldest known examples of fiction are fairy tales. Until recently, we weren’t too sure just how old some of these well known and loved tales might be, but some fascinating research has uncovered evidence that shows they could be as much as 5,000 or more years old. Some of them even pre-date modern languages, having been told in a now extinct Indo-European language.
Reporting on research conducted by Durham University, anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani said Jack and the Beanstalk was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.
Analysis showed Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old and a folk tale called The Smith and the Devil, about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the devil in order to gain supernatural abilities, was estimated to go back 6,000 years. (Read more about the research here.)
Other discoveries have ascertained that the first known author of any work of literature – was a woman! Enheduanna, the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad wrote poems and literature in 2400 BCE which is 4,416 years ago! (See more here.)
So the desire to create fictional story worlds has been around for a very long time, but we can’t ever know why these early authors wrote down their stories. We know a little more about the likes of eighteenth and nineteenth century novelists, Austen, Dickens and the Brontës, but we still have to rely on a lot of guesswork to know what enticed them to provide us with the wealth of stories that continue to be read some three hundred years later.
Let’s consider Jane Austen’s classics. A big subject I grant you, and the subject of many literary theses and analysis. But put simply, through the likes of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and the rest of her work, we are able to understand the nuances of life and the landed gentry in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century. Her work, while fictional, has the power to educate and inform, as effectively as any historical textbook. But I doubt that Jane planned it that way when she created her masterpieces. Historians suggest that she enjoyed reading her work out aloud to her family – perhaps one of her reasons for writing was the dearth of decent books to read!
Jane wrote about the life she knew, but for some authors writing fiction gives them the chance to explore lives and ways of living that would otherwise be outside the scope of their experience. Tennessee Williams took this view, when he explained: ‘Why did I write? Because I found life unsatisfactory.’
Jane Austen had limited success with one of the drivers for writing that is often discussed today – money. In our present day publishing environment it is not easy for an author to be able to earn a living purely from writing fiction. (Unless your name is JK Rowling.) But even JKR didn’t set out to become one of the richest authors in the world. She started out just wanting to write stories. Are there authors whose sole motivation is to make money from writing fiction? I’m doubtful. There are so many other more certain ways to earn a crust. However, we shouldn’t dismiss the fact that his royalties helped Jeffrey Archer managed to survive near bankruptcy following a financial scandal and later his writing helped him to while away two years in prison for perjury. Perhaps this offers us another reason for writing – to alleviate boredom?
Is the process of writing a chance for authors to escape, or do we write because we want to persuade our readers in some way? Martin Luther took this view, when he wrote: ‘If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.’
Stories can certainly influence and sometimes they can predict. Take George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, for example.
EM Forster takes another stance, when he says: ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’ suggesting that his writing enabled him to explore another side of himself, tapping into thoughts that might otherwise remain hidden or obscured.
It’s also interesting to reflect on whether the writing process is enough in itself, providing writers with a chance to revel in that cathartic process of emptying their mind of their imaginings, or whether it is important for the stories to be read.
Virginia Woolf suggested that it was the writing that was important when she noted: ‘So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.’
I can identify with the concept of writing that Annie Proulx, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain suggests: ‘You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page.’
I love playing around with words, while being endlessly frustrated by my inability to find just the right one that will convey that precious thought in my head.
As an avid reader, I am delighted that writers write – whatever their reasons. Now let me end on a thought from that genius George Orwell, who advises:
‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’
If you are a writer of fiction, have you ever stopped to wonder why? Does it feel like an itch that just has to be scratched? Share your thoughts and let us know.