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Why Do Writers Write?
By Jennifer Edelson
October, 2006, 15:30

Curious about why writers write, I recently embarked on a quest to find the golden egg of psychoanalytic writing theory. In this vein, and hoping to find something completely Freudian (and thus amusing), I mined old textbooks, pop-culture theory, metaphysical best-sellers and the Internet. I went looking for a paradigm, something like: we write to rid ourselves of a suppressed need to expel our egomaniacal inner selves, without risk of personal recompense.

The analytic me wanted a sort of Occam's Razor approach to understanding a writerís drive. An "all things being equal, the simplest explanation is probably correct" kind of reason. I thought maybe if writing is deterministic, if our urges are born, and then fostered by a biochemical, or a biochemically driven, deeply psychological imperative, maybe some of us (ehem) can stop wondering if weíre really meant to do it.

Iíve always thought writers are a little off. Myself included. But turns out, according to several theorists, for once, I may not be imagining the neurosis. Seems "crazy" (and I donít mean it pejoratively) might actually be a common ailment among writers, one that may act as a creative catalyst.

Apparently, roughly one percent of the population has a mood disorder (manic-depression and clinical depression are the most common). But the prevalence among writers looks to be disproportionately higher. In the early 1970s, psychiatrist Nancy C. Andreasen of the University of Iowa College of Medicine set out to explore the relationship between mental illness and creativity. She examined fifteen writers at the top of their class from the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and compared their data to information compiled from other, non-writing students matched for age, education, and sex.

Andreasenís data concluded that ten of the studyís writers had histories of mood disorders, compared with only two from the comparison group. Two of those ten were also diagnosed as manic-depressive (bi-polar), and almost all reported mood swings, including manic or hypomanic (mildly manic) states.

Andreasen continued her study over fifteen years, and in the October 1987 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, reported that forty- three percent of the writers she sampled over time, had some degree of manic-depressive illness, compared to ten percent of the non-writing sample.

In 1983, University of California at Los Angeles psychologist and professor Kay Redfield Jamison questioned forty-seven of Britainís top artists and writers about their mood and psychological treatment history. Thirty-eight percent answered that they had sought treatment for a mood disorder; a rate roughly thirty times that of the general population. Of those responding, creative fiction and nonfiction writers experienced mood disorders with the greatest frequency, and poets topped the list, with half reporting psychiatric intervention for depression and/or mania. Almost two-thirds of the playwrights surveyed had also been treated for a mood disorder. Comparatively, only thirteen percent of all visual artists queried had been treated.

Ten years later, Jamison wrote a book called Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament detailing her years of research, which argued that manic-depressive illness birthed some of the best prose written between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Jamison claims that as much as fifty percent of all artists, writers, and composers may be manic-depressive.

Anyone remember Psych 101, that old nature or nurture debate? Well, researchers still havenít proven whether mood disorders trigger creativity, or vice versa, much less any concrete correlation. But Redfield and other researchers believe that mood disorders potentially jump-start the imagination, especially when it comes to writing. And an active poll at, showing that 33% of all responding writers live with manic-depression, seems to bolster at least, that the two are somehow related.

Itís a real chicken or egg debate. Maybe we are slaves to biochemical and psychological imperatives, driven by our genes and not so much our environment to write. But take the information with a grain of salt. Because plenty of people have mood disorders who canít write to save their lives. And if even 40% of all writers have a mood disorder, that still means 60% write for or are motivated by other factors.

For now, Iíll leave you with this. Twentieth century Viennese psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, who coined the term "writerís block," opined that regardless of a writerís normal outer appearance, a writer is "entirely surrounded by neuroticism in private life." Bergler claimed, "I have never seen a Ďnormalí writer," and theorized that a writer writes because "the megalomaniac pleasure of creation . . . produces a type of elation which cannot be compared with that experienced by other mortals" (italics his).

Hmm, maybe for a couple of months at least, I can stop over thinking my motivation, and approach writing from a more Darwinian place. Crazy? Moody? Megalomaniacs? Maybe, but born to it or not, with that kind of spot-on send up, who can blame us.

Writerís Note: Certain books and movies may cast a romantic light on depression and mania, but mood disorders are deadly serious. If you think you have one, there are qualified people in every country that can help.

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Jennifer Edelson is a former practicing Minnesota attorney, now regular IN columnst, freelance writer and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest refrigerators in the Twin Cities. Jennifer can be emailed at:

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