It’s a simple question, and I’m pretty certain that if you were able to invade enough homes without being arrested to rustle up a group of 50 writers (we’re not generally a wild roaming species, you see), you would get 50 different answers to that very simple and innocuous question.
‘Because I want to’, ‘Because it pays my bills’, ‘Because I have a story to tell’, ‘Because I want to make people smile’, ‘Because I want to be remembered’, ‘Because it’s my passion’, ‘Because it’s what I’m good at’, ‘Because it gives me a feeling of accomplishment’, ‘Because I like it.’
Lots of reasons, lots of different answers. Are any of them right, or wrong? Or maybe more right than the others? I don’t think so. On an individual or personal level, why people write is personal and thus correct no matter the reason, and I am simply glad people do want to write.
Where I think the question gets genuinely interesting is when we apply it to our entire species, all at once.
Why do people write? What is it about humanity that we have felt the need to tell stories for such a long time?
Sure, go back far enough and storytelling was both a way to pass on information, remember events, and bring people together in a time before organized media. Stories had a ‘use’, with a physical outcome (stories of Ulrik the Great Tracker told to teach his grandsons how to find food for the tribe, that sort of thing).
But what about fantasy stories? And why are we still telling them now, when we don’t have a measurable need for that sort of information any longer?
I think the answer is simply that after so long, we are built to digest the information given in story form better than any other method save for personal experience and it fulfills something in us that is both ephemeral and supremely important to what it is to be human.
In terms of gravitating towards stories to aid memory and learning, we can consider that it’s a known fact that advice or information given in rhyme is retained more consistently and people are more likely to agree with it than if its stated more blandly. For example, the old advice about poisonous snake colors: ‘Red by yellow kills a fellow, but red by black is a friend of Jack’ is something most people have heard and can recall. It’s certainly more memorable than ‘venomous snakes are often mimicked by non-venomous species, so you should not touch snakes colored in bands of red, yellow and black, but snakes of red, black and yellow are harmless’.
In terms of the second part, and fulfilling something more ephemeral, I think it is worth looking at how we differ from other very intelligent Earth species. Animals like elephants and dolphins are known to be very smart, going so far as mourning the dead, or deliberately seeking out substances to get ‘high’. (No, I’m not kidding. Read about dolphins and puffer fish here. They even ‘puff, puff, pass’, you can thank my husband for that horrible joke.)
Yet, in spite of this clear intelligence and the social bonding these animals possess, they do not have the ability to leave long-term records of their thoughts in the form of written stories.
I’m not discounting the possibility that maybe some of those squeaks and trumpets are storytelling for these animals or some similar communication equivalent, I really don’t (and can’t) know seeing as I am lacking in a degree in Elephantese, but even if they were able to tell each other stories, they are creatures sadly limited to the old word of mouth tales of our much earlier ancestors.
Uniquely of all species, humans have brains to think the stories up and the limbs and tools to write it all down. We can literally transpose our thoughts and ideas, our personal perceptions and memories, onto a surface that can outlast our own selves, connecting people of the past and future as well as connecting the private thoughts of one individual to another.
That is an incredible, and special, thing. It gives us a capacity for learning and understanding beyond any other animal, and most importantly… helps us empathize.
Ultimately, I think that is why we write, as a species. We have a capacity to connect with each other through words that is unparalleled on this Earth, whether we write down knowledge, imaginings, or experiences. We have the drive to share, and to receive, the thoughts of our fellow man. Even those who choose not to read and prefer movies, painting, photographs, are responding to that same base programming that makes us seek out the physical representations of other people’s thoughts. It’s interesting, and all grain for the thinking mill.
In this way, fantasy is as viable as scientific journals or personal accounts – it is still linking us to other people, and pushing us to think about what could be, and how others perceive our world. True, fantasy often uses the framework of escapism, either to explore an idea in a vacuum away from reality, or to illustrate a point in a way it could not be handled by more ‘mundane’ writing, but it’s still calling out to that ‘human’ element we all have that is hard to put into words. It is still working on that core part of us that remembers the useful snake rhyme, or how Ulrik became the greatest hunter.
Because I have a story to tell, like thousands before me, and because it makes my heart sing, especially if I make someone else smile. I write because it lets me connect with others, and share my deepest thoughts without stumbling over myself.
I write because I like it… and I hope, if you ever read my stories… you will like them too.