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Why do you write?
Understanding your motivations can provide a solid foundation for writing during times of despair.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the potential impact of so-called ‘artificial intelligence’ such as ChatGPT on the literary world, in particular, the potential for AI-generated spam to drown out works by real human beings. Since then, I’ve had a number of interesting conversations with people in publishing and tech about these tools and the ways in which they can be abused.
I have to say, it has left me feeling quite depressed. It feels like the best time to have begun taking my writing career more seriously was 20 years ago, when advances were still reasonable and AI still the stuff of science fiction.
But it has also made me think about why I write.
For me, writing is an expression of a fundamental part of my personality. I know that I’m quite good at it. I know that I’m much happier when I’m writing. But most importantly of all, I know that I enjoy the entire process. I enjoy everything from having the initial idea to working up a first draft, through editing to sending it out into the world to be read. I love analysing other people’s work, whether that’s books, film or TV, and thinking about how they achieved the effect they were going for. I love thinking about character and plot and story mechanics and structure.
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Really, I love the whole nine yards. There’s nothing about writing that I don’t enjoy. It doesn’t matter that sometimes it’s like pulling teeth or that I sometimes I feel tremendous self-doubt, because I will always come out of the other side just as in love with writing as I always was.
I get the impression, though, that for a lot of people the aim is not to write but to have written. Given their druthers, they’d prefer to skip to the end, to the bit where they present their book to the world whilst fanfares play and everyone tells them how fabulous they are.
This is somewhat supported by the stat from a decade ago that 81 per cent of Americans want to write a book. That’s about 200 million people who think they’ve got a book in them. A more recent study found that 15 per cent of Americans had started writing, 6 per cent got to the halfway mark and 8 per cent have finished. I suspect that a large chunk of the 85 per cent who have not started writing are people who’d very much like to have a book with their name on but aren’t so keen on the process of actually writing it.
Another class of author for whom LLMs are attractive are those who are trying to publish books at a tempo that would crush most of us. There are self-published authors on Kindle who are writing and publishing full-length novels within 49 days, from conception to publication. That is a ludicrous schedule, and yes I know Barbara Cartland wrote a book a week, but she had amanuenses to take dictation and someone to edit her (short) manuscripts before they even went off to the publisher. If you’re under the kind of pressure that these high volume writers are under, LLMs are going to look attractive, to assist at the very least.
I suppose I’ve been wondering if my stubbornness to hand craft everything I write is just idiocy. It’s true that, if given an easy way to do something and a hard way, I will always choose the hard way. Is this resistance to, even rejection of, LLMs on my part merely me taking the hard way? Or is there something more?
I don’t write to have written, I write to be read. Sure, it’s a nice feeling when you can wrap up a book or short story, but that comes from knowing that you produced the best work you could, that you expressed an idea that was uniquely yours in a way that only you can. But, for me at least, the majority of my motivation comes from the hope that my readers will enjoy it. Being read is a fundamental part of my writing process. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I feel that there’s a social contract between writer and reader, or storyteller and listener, that goes back eons. I promise to write the best story I can, and you promise to give it a fair chance. And I feel that using an LLM breaks that contract because it would not me writing anymore, it would be an algorithm. It has no heart or soul to put into its writing; it’s just a giant autocomplete.
When I read about LLMs and think about how they put writers’ livelihoods at risk, it does make me wonder why I bother. Why do I put so much time and effort into what I’m writing? Is there going to be anyone, anyone at all, who will care?
I have felt quite disheartened the last couple of weeks. But then last night I did some work on my current script and reminded myself that I do, indeed, love writing. And if I love what I do, perhaps that love will come through in my words and, somehow, reach my reader. That would be worth it, wouldn’t it?
Ultimately, I think it’s important to know why you write. What is it that really motivates you? What gets you excited when you sit down to write? Because when you hit a slough of despond, knowing why you write can help you pull yourself out of it.
Understanding your foundational why? gives you a way back to yourself, to your purpose, to your writing. And there’s no writer alive who doesn’t occasionally get lost and need to find their way home.