The Space-Time Continuum: Why do we write?

This is my latest “Space-Time Continuum” column for the Saskatchewan Writers Guild‘s news magazine Freelance.

Have you ever asked yourself why you write? Or asked your writer friends why they write?

I have. In fact, I literallyasked myself that question in one episode of my ongoing podcast, The Worldshapers (, featuring conversations with science fiction and fantasy authors about the creative process. Back in September, I had my pseudonym E.C. Blake step in as guest host (he has a southern accent, otherwise we sound remarkably similar), and ask me the same questions I ask of my other guests.

We write, I said, because creativity is an innate human trait. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s view, God created humanity in His image, and since God creates things, so do we. Tolkien called this “sub-creation.” As he put it in his famous poem “Mythopoeia” (go read it right now, if you never have), “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”

If, on the other hand, you prefer an evolutionary explanation, we are creative because there is a survival benefit to it: thinking up new ways to do things may make the difference between living long enough to reproduce or dying young. Our ancestors survived because they were creative, and that creativity has been handed down.

On a personal level, though, I said (and still say) that I write mainly because it’s fun. After all, most writers start as kids, and what do kids do? They play. Writers go from building sandcastles in sandboxes to building castles in fantasy realms. Yes, writing professionally is work…but at heart, it’s play.

That’s certainly part of it for author David B. Coe, who also writes as D.B. Jackson (Time’s Children). “For all the struggles, for the bad pay and the poor reviews and all the other struggles, I love, love, lovewhat I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else, I can’t even imagine wantingto do anything else. Every day I get to sit down at a computer and say let’s pretend. What job could be better than that?”

Several authors I’ve talked to say they write because they can’t notwrite, that it’s a compulsion. Joe Haldeman, author of The Forever War, one of the most honoured books in science fiction, says, “To continue writing book after book, you have to have something wrong with you.” He notes some psychopaths become professional killers, so they can make a living from their psychopathology. “Atleast my psychopathology is pretty harmless. I just fill up books with words.”

Bestselling fantasy author Seanan McGuire (the October Dayeand InCryptidsseries), says, if she doesn’t write, she goes slowly out of her mind. “I write because I don’t have a choice. I write stories of the fantastic because those are the stories I fell in love with and I decided that was the genre I was too stubborn to give up on. I write because if I didn’t, I’d probably be dead.”

Coe says something similar: “If I don’t, those voices in those heads are going to keep talking to me, and I’m going to go from being a professional to being an out-patient.”

But that’s at a very personal level. On a grander level, the point I made, about storytelling be an innate human activity, is echoed by others. As Seanan McGuire notes, “Terry Pratchett referred to humanity as the storytelling ape. We shape and reshape our world by telling stories both to ourselves and each other. We point to an open plain and say, ‘What if there was a city there? Let me tell you the story of the city there.’…We chase those stories and we bring them into being because that is what it means to be human.”

“What it means to be human” is also something many writers say they are trying to communicate.

Gareth L. Powell, U.K. author of the Embers of War space opera series, likens it to “building bridges to other worlds.”

He points out that what we think of as the real world is really our own individual, internal world, and as a writer, that’s what you’re reporting on. “Humans are narrative creatures. We all have the narrative of our own lives and we’re all constantly adjusting that narrative…We have a story, it has a beginning and it has an end.”

One of the recurring themes in his own fiction, he says, is “what it means to be intelligent and self-aware and vulnerable.” For him, science fiction “is a lens we use to look at our world and interpret our world and comment on our world.”

Orson Scott Card, bestselling author of Ender’s Game, sums it up best. John Donne to the contrary, he says, “everyman is an island.”

We don’t really know anybody, Card says: even our parents are capable of shocking us by doing something we couldn’t imagine them doing until the moment they do it.

“Every single human we know exists in our mind as a work of fiction,” Card says. “We don’t know people. We know characters. They may be walking around and wearing a skin suit, but they’re just characters in our imagination…What fiction writers promise is, we will tell you a story, andwe will tell you why the people do what they do.”

That, he says, “is the majesty of fiction.”

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  1. Wow. Many years ago, I decided I didn’t know anyone. That included every family member and friend I’ve associated with since I was born. They’ve shocked and awed me many times. These characters are living their reality. My internal world is as real as the external.

    I write because the world beyond what everyone sees speaks to me. I must tell the story of those characters.

    Reading why others write was very interesting. Thank you for gathering their thoughts and sharing them here.

      • on October 15, 2020 at 9:01 am
      • Reply

      You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed the post.

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