What makes writers write?

Stroll with Nicole

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Nicole Law searches inside and out to explain her desire to put pen to paper.

Reading about writing is sometimes a sobering experience. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the best-selling Nigerian author of titles such as Purple Hibiscus and We Should All Be Feminists, delivers some powerful advice on the writer’s craft.

“When I teach writing, I tell my students that it is not so much about ‘write what you know’ as it is about ‘don’t write what you don’t know’. A subtle difference, but with the latter, one’s work is not constrained by the narrowness of personal experience.”

I considered my own writing – fiction, long-form articles and poetry – and realised that most of what I write is drawn from personal experience or interest. There is a sense of immediacy and proximity to my writing. For me it is a medium to communicate lived experiences via narrative and to convey deeper truths. This is where I am comfortable – the known world and the emotions and experiences associated with them.

And yet, within this comfort – and this could seem paradoxical – the texts I write create a vulnerability, a window into my inner psyche. Perhaps that’s why I marvel at confessional-style poetry, non-fiction memoirs and personal letters. I understand the writer and the world he or she inhabits through their writing.

I have found writing to be a deeply cathartic process. The age-old saying is that ‘true art is borne of pain’ and I think that is largely correct. Writing gives voice to sometimes unutterable thoughts and helps us move through the spectrum of human emotions – a way to process events which have affected us profoundly or in small ways.

The writer possesses the freedom to zoom in and out of a story, to broaden or to narrow, to drop a detail discreetly or to expound in earnest.

That sense of liberation is why most writers write. There’s something about being the creator of a mini-universe.

Man writing and thinking

You can fashion a world which mirrors and expresses the chaos in your own life. Or you can make one where all ends well, even though that might not have happened to you, where people get right what you have got wrong. You can mock the society around you or imagine a better one. The options seem endless.

Yet, there are also writers who prefer to maintain a degree of separation between the self and the created work. That led me to think about the second line of Chimamanda’s advice, which I promptly decided to ignore.

Recently, therefore, I challenged myself to start writing about what I ‘don’t know’. I decided to write poetry about the effects of colonialism in South East Asia, its visible effects in colonial architecture, and even about inequality.

It was a process of self-doubt, continuous revision and a nagging fear that I was doing a disservice to a subject matter of which I had no personal experience. I did extra research, combed national archives, found photographs of old houses, and still it seemed like I didn’t know enough. Some friends reminded me that writing in itself need not be a historical retelling – that history itself could be a starting point for creativity.

Most historical fiction or even our favoured fantasy genre novels are not firmly grounded in factual accuracy – the specificity of a story lies in the hands of the writer.

I persisted and wrote a piece on the black and white bungalows – colonial houses built in Singapore in the pre-war era. While I ‘didn’t know’ the exact details of what life was like in those times, the abundance of information I had assembled gave me enough to piece together a narrative from my own imagination.

And this led me to think beyond my own limited perspective. Not only can writers, as said above, create imagined worlds at will, but they can also add their own touches to already existent realities and be inspired by broader socio-cultural themes.

This is of course risky. The writer might faithfully or less faithfully represent the past, present and future. Their insights might offer a rich contemporary interpretation of their theme but their prejudices might also distort and misrepresent it.

Writing on paper

The writer also possesses the unique ability to give voice to persons who may ordinarily not possess the necessary means to do so. Writers act as agents of change and social justice, or recorders of collective memory. We may not have lived in a particular era or have had first-hand knowledge of events that transpired, but we are moved to tell the stories of others.

The fate of many writers – journalists, fictionists, poets – is often grim in despotic political regimes because they bring to light a deeper undercurrent of injustice and oppression through character, plot, and the sheer power of words.

Joan Didion, herself a renowned essayist, penned an essay with the title, Why I write. She says: “When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges.”

Writing for many is just that – an image in our mind burning an imprint that we simply need to get out of our system.

It is bringing to birth the blur, the painful drawing into light of something only darkly seen within us, like the shock of coming out of an unlit room into the blazing sunlight.

The ‘why’ of writing is varied – for some it’s to topple regimes, for some it’s a refuge for a wounded soul, while others write to make us feel uncomfortable. The ‘why’ compels the writer to keep writing, despite the many inner voices which whisper, ‘why not?’.

Why do I write? I write because the act of giving meaning to words, arranging them in a particular order, is in itself an act of communion with the world around me. I write to make sense of the world I live in and to paint a tiny part of the kaleidoscope of human experience.


Enjoy Nicole Law’s writing? Click here to read last week’s edition of Stroll with Nicole in which she offers insights into the world of dating and relationships.


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One Reply to “What makes writers write?”

  1. Lisa says:

    Excellent advice by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie indeed. 🙂

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