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Why Write a Book?

So many novels are published every year that logic says adding to this is wrongheaded. Yet there are probably as many reasons to write as there are books...

Do we need any more books? There are so many books that we could never read even a fraction of them, even if we spent all our waking hours reading. We read so much more than books; we are inundated by texts: websites, newspapers, text messages, emails, social media, and so much more. In this context, what’s the point of books anymore? To entertain, to explain? To opine, perhaps? To convince, to convert, to console? We can have AI compose text for us, so why bother to write?

Who will even read the book you write? Americans read, on average, a dozen books a year. But that average hides the fact that 28% of people didn’t read any books in 2016, the year a Pew Research survey was carried out. In some countries people read a lot more - in Iceland, the average is 28 books per year, and if you’re reading this article, your reading stats are probably well above the average as well. (And so is your TBR pile.)

With all the books that are published in all the languages of the world - it’s estimated that 4 million books are published each year - is there really a need for one more? It’s a bit hubristic to think that one’s ideas deserve to be printed, published, and sold. That your words and your thoughts have merit and value. That the story you have to tell will resonate with others, and that anyone will even remember it after they’ve finished it and moved on to the next book.

There are so many great writers that are still to be read: Shakespeare, Molière, Goethe, Calvino, Kundera, Kafka, Camus, Dumas… I know, all dead, white men, except one. (Do you know which one wasn’t white?) Don’t forget The Tale of Genji, the 11th century novel by lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu. And the many great women writers, such as Mantel, Atwood, Morrison, Munro, Ernaux, several of them Nobel laureates. All of these authors have written extraordinary books, books that could change lives. So why add your thoughts to libraries and bookstores with so many great books waiting unread?

There’s really no logical reason... But for many people, there is a desire, a drive to tell a story, to share feelings or opinions, to leave a mark on the world. Not everyone wants to read the classics. There’s a time for Jane Austen and Henry James, and there is a time for Stephen King and Jodi Picoult. Mysteries and romance novels provide entertainment, but also enhance our understanding of the world and of other people. They help develop empathy, they show us people in different situations, with different lives than ours, and let us imagine “what if?” We travel with characters in fiction, we learn from authors of non-fiction, we live side by side with the subjects of biographies, and we look over the shoulders of people as they write their journals, diaries, correspondence, and memoirs.

In 1985, the French newspaper, Libération, asked 400 authors around the world, “Pourquoi écrivez-vous?” - Why do you write? Some authors sent wordy replies, but Samuel Beckett responded, “Bon qu’à ça.” In the true Beckettian spirit, this could be translated two ways: either, “All I’m good at,” or, “All I’m good for.” Take your pick. Either way, his reason was valid: it was what he did, that’s all.

Alberto Moravia replied to the questionnaire, saying, “I write to find out why I write.“ This is a fortuitous echo of a statement made by the photographer Garry Winogrand, who said, “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.“ Both of these comments suggest that the creative process was a discovery of the self. The process of writing can be a key to answering questions about the very existence of the writer; and the process of photography can show the photographer how something works when it’s isolated from its surroundings, in a four-cornered frame.

Perhaps writing a book, any kind of book, is a form of catharsis, a way in which an author can put themself into another mind and think like someone else. When wearing that mask, it is possible to say things differently from what the author says in everyday life. The costume of the author and characters opens up the possibility of unconscious expression, unhindered by habits and convention.

Many people think “they have a book in them,“ without realizing how much work it is to write a book. And when novices think about writing books, they immediately think about publication. For many people, the ideal book is the one they write for themselves; maybe they don’t need to publish it. Maybe they just need to write it, then share it with a few friends and family, and be content that they have completed a long project.

You may want to keep a journal that is just for you. For some people this is a way to keep a record of their lives; for others, a place to try out ideas. From this journal, you may be able to extract elements that can be a germ of a book.

You may spend months, even years, without any guarantee of selling your book, and making even one dollar, but you still write. Because it’s what you do. Because it’s the way you let your subconscious speak to you. Because, like gardening, you cultivate ideas. You may never even show your writing to others.

So go ahead, write that book. For you, for your friends and family, or for posterity. Write in your spare time, whether you want to be published or not. What’s one more book? It’s a love letter from you to the world.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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