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Why do we write?

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Jean Mittelstaedt

on 15 October 2014

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Transcript of Why do we write?

Why do we write?
Right now, make a list of five reasons why you think human beings write.
Early writing - why
Since the earliest days of prehistory, human beings have felt the need to record.
From the cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira,
to the cuneiform of Mesopotamia
to the Phoenician alphabet
to Chinese tortoise-shell writing
and Japanese calligraphy,
humans have used writing to record knowledge, information, lore, stories, religious texts and beliefs, descriptions, business transactions, and more.
But why did we start writing to begin with? Why did we feel the need to make these things permanent?
Were we trying to invoke the spirit of the Bison to ensure a good hunt?
Was it because we didn't trust the merchant who we bought grain from?
Did a king want to communicate with a fellow king to avert a war and saw a letter as a more effective solution than trusting an oral message to an envoy?
What is known is that writing started first as simple pictures which then evolved from a literal record to representing abstractions and ideas. From there, people started using it to represent actual words and, eventually, the individual sounds of a language. So writing went from representing a picture of something to representing the sounds we created to name that something. Writing still does this, actually. Some writing systems, such as Chinese, represent sounds, words, and ideas.
An interesting side note: Most early people were illiterate. They neither read nor wrote, even the leaders. In fact, in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, people called scribes trained for years to learn how to read, write, and record information accurately. These people kept records and wrote letters. Because of this, they exerted a tremendous power in their societies. People paid them to read and write!
In fact, reading and writing didn't become more common for ordinary people until medieval and Renaissance times, when book copying and printing and the production of paper made writing accessible to them.
Modern writing – why
to Egyptian hieroglyphs
Nowadays, we write letters, notes, emails, shopping and to-do lists, memos, reports, essays, blogs, texts, tweets, journal entries, Facebook status updates...
We're writing different things than our early ancestors, but has the reason why we write changed at all? Canadian author Margaret Atwood was asked to give a series of lectures in England in 2000. She subsequently wrote a book called Negotiating with the Dead: a Writer on Writing (2002). In it, she details all the reasons for writing that she has collected from different people over the 40-odd years that she has been a writer:
"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 please myself. To express myself. To express myself beautifully. To create a perfect work of art…To make money so my children could have shoes. To make money so I could sneer at those who formerly sneered at me. To show the bastards…To spin a fascinating tale. To amuse and please the reader. To amuse and please myself. To pass the time, even though it would passed anyway" (xx – xxi).
Many writers are asked about their views on writing. Popular American author Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), "Writing is refined thinking" (131).
American writer Madeleine L'Engle says, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children." Her first novel, "A Wrinkle in Time," was one such story. She had been a writer from early on to cope with her unpleasant childhood, and she never stopped writing—because she needed to keep writing. Most writers share this view.
American writing teacher Donald Murray has an interesting thought about writing that perhaps our ancestors would agree with—and that we often forget. In his essay, "The Maker's Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts" from Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers (2000), he says, "A piece of writing is never finished" (165).
Is writing itself ever finished?
American writer Anne Lamott has written a number of books, some about writing and some more personal. In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing And Life (1995), she talks about her little brother's report on birds that was due the next day and that hadn't been started yet. He lamented to his father that he didn't know how to get through such a large project. His father replied, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." Hence the title of her book.
She goes on to discuss how someone goes about writing, and perhaps why. She says, "Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started" (7).
So let's get started.
Some questions to consider:
Why are you in this writing class?
Why does the college make you take writing?
What will you do with writing in other classes?
Why do we need writing in the Real World? When will you ever use it?
Why do you write?
What is your process for writing, if you have one?
Full transcript