Why I Write

By Ray E. Boomhower

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James Salter (1925-2015): “The only thing left will be…what is written down.” Photograph courtesy of Flickr.

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
—George Orwell

“Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.”
—Octavia E. Butler

“I write to understand as much as to be understood.”
—Elie Wiesel

“Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”
—Gloria Steinem

“Something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die. You have to go through that.”
—James Baldwin

“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written.”
—William Faulkner

“What is the ultimate impulse to write? Because all this is going to vanish. The only thing left will be the prose and poems, the books, what is written down.”
—James Salter

“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.”
—Vita Sackville-West

“Sir, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
—Samuel Johnson
Ray E. Boomhower is senior editor at the Indiana Historical Society Press, where he edits the quarterly popular history magazine Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. He has also written biographies on such notable Hoosiers as Gus Grissom, Ernie Pyle, Lew Wallace, and May Wright Sewall. Boomhower’s book John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog was recently published by Indiana University Press. He is now working on a book about the World War II writing from the Pacific by Time and Life journalist Robert Sherrod.


  1. I once wrote for money. I wrote for the high. I wrote for ego, for a shot at the great big wheel of fame. I wrote because that meant I got to tell the lawyers and salesmen of my acquaintance that I was a writer. I wrote because people who are smarter than me told me I was pretty good at it. I wrote to get out of real work. (Since rewriting is real work, sometimes I wrote to get out of rewriting.)

    I wrote for an editor’s smile. I wrote because people would say “I read what you wrote.” I wrote because sometimes people would say “I wish I was a writer.” I wrote because words matter. Because they’re there, and their spelling and correct usage was important.

    I wrote because it got my unpretty face on television. I wrote for television because I got more money for fewer words, my handsome children got educated, and my beautiful wife and family had shelter and food provided by a husband who wrote.

    I wrote when my hand got farther from the outrider horses of the merry-go-round and I could no longer reach the brass ring dispenser. I wrote when I felt my limitations were permanent, my future finite, my most dream-worthy goals unreachable. I wrote when I felt the slippage. I wrote as a pitcher might continue to pitch when a late-in-life sinker arrived in time to replace his heat. (For me, that was Google, the answer to a lazy-researcher’s prayer.)

    And now I still write when there is no money to be made, there is no need to write, there is that big number next to my name that declares to the world that I need toil no more. I write now that the easy chair is an entitlement, the pressure is off, the race is mostly run, the readers moved on, the fresh streams of talent in place.

    I write now because…because…because…because goddamit I still love to write.

  2. Jack Limpert says

    John Corcoran got published by the Washingtonian because he could write funny—about one in 100 writers, sometimes it seemed like one in 1,000, could consistently write funny. He then got paid well by television stations in Washington, Boston, and Los Angeles because they also thought he had that gift. I think he wrote because he loved to make people smile.

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