What Motivates These Seven Famous Authors To Write?

writer trying to emulate famous authors

What does it take to go beyond the ordinary and enter that special realm that elevates a written work? These famous writers have some insights.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Many books deal with the craft of writing, outlining literary techniques, plot devices, character development, story pacing, and so on. Fewer titles, however, delve into the heart of writing. What does it take to go beyond the ordinary and enter that special realm that elevates a written work to a memorable experience, one that lasts through multiple readings and makes an impression that lasts a lifetime?

I’ve collected insights and inspirational quotes from some of my favorite authors, who are (or who have been) masters of the art of writing, reaching the peak in their field. It’s noteworthy that they struggle with the same challenges — the same doubts and misgivings — that many of us have when embarking on a project, be it a short story, novel, or essay.

Margaret Atwood — Writing motivated by a fear of death

On Writers and Writing by Margaret Atwood, a collection of essays compiled from a series of lectures she gave over a span of several years, invites readers into the labyrinth. Atwood says, “Perhaps I have reached the age at which those who have been through the wash-and-spin cycle a few times become seized by the notion that their own experiences in the suds may be relevant to others.”

Atwood raises an intriguing hypothesis, proposing that all narrative writing is motivated by a fear of (and fascination with) mortality and the desire to make a journey to the world of the dead and bring something back. In a chapter of the book titled “Negotiating with the Dead,” Atwood says:

All writers must go from now to once upon a time; all must go from here to there; all must descend to where the stories are kept; all must take care not to be captured and held immobile by the past. And all must commit acts of larceny, or else reclamation, depending how you look at it. The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more — which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.

John Steinbeck — Wrestling with self-doubt

The question “Is this work any good?” seems to be perennial. At a highly successful phase in his career, with a string of best-sellers on his resume, John Steinbeck (at age 66) started the novel that became The Grapes of Wrath. All his past successes did nothing for his confidence. Around halfway through his work, beset by devilish problems from every direction, Steinbeck said:

My whole damned life is tied up. Most people would like it tied up. And maybe I do. My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right.

Needless to say, Steinbeck finished the book, which went on to garner multiple awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National Book Award for Fiction.

Some harsh criticism was leveled at the book at the time it was released, given the political climate of the day. Steinbeck’s travails are chronicled in a diary made during the writing process, Working Days: The Journal of The Grapes of Wrath, including extensive background material and commentary by editor Robert DeMott. The period that Steinbeck lived in Los Gatos, CA, represents a story in itself and the tasks that had to be managed in bringing the book to life have the feeling of an epic journey.

Kurt Vonnegut — Living through apocalyptic events

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five grew from his experiences as a prisoner of war who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden firsthand (as one of the few survivors, sheltered in an underground slaughterhouse). His thoughts about creating that novel are shared in Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style by Suzanne McConnell, a student of Vonnegut’s at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She became a lifetime friend of the author and compiled much of his advice on writing in this one book.

Vonnegut was generous to fellow writers and clearly valued the work accomplished within writing communities (such as the Iowa Writer’s Workshop). McConnell repeated a definition of heaven and hell that Vonnegut had given in the classroom: “In hell everyone is chained to a dining table laden with food, each trying but unable to eat. In heaven, it’s exactly the same. Except in heaven, the people are feeding each other.”

Vonnegut’s essay, “How to Write with Style,” offers a pithy, yet human perspective on the important points of writing well, captured in this article in The Marginalian. The first of his eight rules for great writing is classic: find a subject you care about.

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

Anne Lamott — Becoming conscious as a writer

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott turns up regularly (and justifiably) on lists of the best books about writing. It is partly instructional — with an abundance of advice on the craft of writing — but also spiritual, though not in a religious sense. It is more about the energy and ecstasy of tapping into that internal fountain of ideas and experiences and somehow bringing it alive with words.

In the final chapter, titled “The Last Class,” Lamott says:

Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.

Octavia Butler — The virtue of persistence

A visionary in many ways, Octavia Butler found success in the male-dominated genre of science fiction. Her achievements include receiving a MacArthur Fellowship for her work that incorporated ideas from African and African-American mythology and spiritualism. Her two-book series, Parable of the Sower, won the Nebula Award, and her time-travel novel, Kindred, depicting life on a 19th-century plantation, has been made into an original TV series by Hulu. Numerous other novels by Butler have addressed key societal issues, including environmental crises, racism, and xenophobia.

In an article for LitHub, Vanessa Willoughby summarized the best of Butler’s writing advice. Like Vonnegut, Butler saw tremendous value in writing classes, saying:

I recommend that they [aspiring writers] take classes because it’s a great way to rent an audience and make sure you’re communicating what you think you’re communicating, which is not always the case, and I recommend that they forget a couple of things. Forget about talent. I recommend that they go to the bestselling lists and see who else doesn’t have talent and it hasn’t stopped them, so don’t worry. Forget about inspiration, because it’s more likely to be a reason not to write, as in, “I can’t write today because I’m not inspired.” And the most valuable characteristic any would-be writer can possibly have is persistence. Just keep at it, keep learning your craft and keep trying.

Jeff VanderMeer — Finding your core of creativity

Jeff VanderMeer has earned recognition and worldwide fame by carving out imaginative approaches to speculative fiction. He offers a path for writers looking for ways to tap into their own innate creativity in Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.

VanderMeer provides this advice in Wonderbook:

For some writers, these additional moments of “eureka” may never match the impact of those initial moments when the story first opened up to them — even though that spark can become a kind of sustained chain reaction. Indeed, writers usually find it easier to talk about technique, perspiration, and the long slog rather than inspiration. And maybe there is some truth to that approach. A lot of your days are spent slogging through the forced march necessary to complete a work of fiction. You can’t be inspired every day, just like you can’t be madly, deeply, insanely in love every day. But how such moments manifest as you move through the world and the world moves through you defines the core of your creativity.

Ray Bradbury — What does writing teach us?

In Zen and the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury answers the question, “What does writing teach us?”

First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.

— — —

A common theme can be found among the thoughts of the authors highlighted in this piece: If you’re not enthusiastic about some aspect of your prospective story — the lead character, the theme, the period, the convoluted mystery woven into the storyline, the humor — why write it? An underlying passion for the subject is the cornerstone of writing excellence.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. A terrific compilation from a broad swath of advice. I particularly appreciated Octavia Butler’s:
    “Forget about talent. I recommend that they go to the bestselling lists and see who else doesn’t have talent and it hasn’t stopped them, so don’t worry. Forget about inspiration, because it’s more likely to be a reason not to write, as in, “I can’t write today because I’m not inspired.” And the most valuable characteristic any would-be writer can possibly have is persistence. Just keep at it, keep learning your craft and keep trying.”

  2. I identify most with the VanderMeer quote. The stories and stories within the stories come to me in “Eureka!” moments. From there, I consider myself a reporter with the luxury of not remaining dispassionate, explaining how these people in these works get from the start to the finish, how one event feeds into another, and how their expectations are deceived by the reality of their lives and world. I write because I am addicted to all of that.

  3. What a great bunch of words. I relished each author’s insights. My journey works like this:
    As we do for others life takes on value. I believe we have the obligation to share our journeys. What our lives are about is important. In this, and at its core, writing is an act of love.

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