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The Nature of Storytelling (or Why Does a Writer Write)


The author Michael Lewis takes us on mental process which narratively describes the urge that makes him write, and how this changes with time.

Writing is a process that takes hold of us in different ways, and this is profoundly individual. Nevertheless there is not a single writer that does not wonder why he writes. And perhaps there is not a single reader that does not feel curious as to the reasons why writers write ––what leads them to imprint a narrative testimony of the things that happen in their imagination.

Exploring this has a hint of psychological voyeurism, and it follows the assumption that perhaps we could do the same if we were to discover what moves writers to take to their pen. Whatever the reason, it is always interesting to understand the creative impulse. Then, why do writers write? For Scott Fitzgerald it was an emotional need for expression; for Susan Sontag an explorative exercise, and for Foster Wallace it was pure fun.

Michael Lewis, one of the finest fiction writers of our times, shares some of his motives in great detail in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do:

There’s no simple explanation for why I write. It changes over time. There’s no hole inside me to fill or anything like that, but once I started doing it, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else for a living. I noticed very quickly that writing was the only way for me to lose track of the time.


I used to get the total immersion feeling by writing at midnight. The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.

As well as confessing the artificial atmosphere in which he could write without stopping, Lewis is moved by the conscious congruence that writing can change ways of thinking, since it can also affect the readers. He knows that there is a moment in life when an author who becomes famous can no longer think of writing as a simple hobby, but in a practice which involves responsibility for an invisible audience.

The reasons I write change over time. In the beginning, it was that sense of losing time. Now it’s changed, because I have a sense of an audience. I have the sense that I can biff the world a bit. I don’t know that I have control of the direction of the pinball, but I can exert a force.

That power is a mixed blessing. It’s good to have something to get you into the chair. I’m not sure it’s great for the writing to think of yourself as important while you’re doing it. I don’t quite think that way. But I can’t deny that I’m aware of the effects my writing will have.

Nonetheless, Lewis addresses the friction that exists between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: inspiration and money. For someone who has risen to fame, the audience’s approval is more and more present, and can even interrupt the genuine pulse.

Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. And they really want you to do it.

That dynamic has the possibility of constraining the imagination. There are invisible pressures. There’s a huge incentive to write about things that you know will sell. But I don’t find myself thinking, “I can’t write about that because it won’t sell.” It’s such a pain in the ass to write a book, I can’t imagine writing one if I’m not interested in the subject.

To conclude, the author offers three simple and essential pieces of advice for those who want to devote their lives to writing:

  1. It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money, find another one.
  2. I took my biggest risk when I walked away from a lucrative job at age twenty-seven to be a writer. I’m glad I was too young to realize what a dumb decision it seemed to be, because it was the right decision for me.
  3. A lot of my best decisions were made in a state of self-delusion. When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.

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