Writing: Noble or Selfish?

4 Aug

by Savannah J. Foley


Perhaps it’s the inherent nature of a writer, or maybe it’s just me, but I spend a lot of time contemplating the nature of life and consciousness, and my place/purpose within the world. I wonder if I am a good person. Do I need to be doing more? Such as administering AIDS vaccines to children in Africa, volunteering at a crisis hotline, joining the Peace Corps, becoming a pastor, working as a counselor, or just in general doing favors for others?

Lately I have been concerned about writing. By choosing to be a fiction writer, am I being selfish? Or am I being noble? Are those the only two choices? And what do I do if it turns out that fiction writing is a selfish activity after all? Does it even matter?

Reasons Why Writing is Selfish

Look, I write for myself, okay? I do this because I love it. I’m betting that’s why you do it, too. Why else would you put in the time and effort, and submit to the emotional beating that success requires, if you didn’t love it?

Writing lets me escape. I indulge my fantasies, following my brain on a creative tour of possibilities that I invent. The worlds I create come from me, and I find them pleasing. That’s a little self-indulgent, don’t you think?

And even after the writing process itself is done, I then subject other people to my work, asking for their feedback. Afterward, I impose my creations onto literary agents, some of which don’t appreciate it (others do, but we’ll get to that later), followed by publishers (again, some of whom will not appreciate the submission), then reviewers, bloggers, and finally readers.

I pump up my own career, blog about my projects, and network for the purpose of furthering my popularity/sales.

Me, me, me. I, I. I. My story, my characters, my book, my reviews, my place on the NYT list, my advancement, my career, etc.

You have to admit, it sounds really self-possessed.

Reasons Why Writing is Noble

Now the flip side.

Yes, I write for my own enjoyment. But if I didn’t also write for others, then I probably wouldn’t try so hard to get my stories out there. I and the rest of my contributors came from Fictionpress. No one was paying us to write those stories and post them. We posted because writing was pleasurable, but also because our stories made others happy.

We try so hard to get published because we know that our stories will touch someone’s life. We can give them an escape from their issues, an inspiration to try/do/succeed, and role models to base decisions off of. Along the way, we can educate them about issues and human nature, and create warnings for the future.

Fiction writing is an art, and I believe that our stories can enrich the soul as much as any painting or piece of classical music.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Romeo and Juliet, etc. These books and many more entered our consciousness and created universal truths. They encourage us to rise to a greater level of humanity. In this respect I can say that writing is noble.


Ultimately I think fiction writing as an activity is a mixture of selfishness and nobility. I suppose it depends on your purpose and message, but overall I don’t think that writing should be disdained as a selfish and/or self-serving activity.

Am I a good person because I am a fiction writer? No. Am I a bad person because I am a fiction writer? Again, no. Writing is an expression of the mind, and what we choose to express makes us selfish or noble people. No matter how hard we try, I don’t think there will ever be any fiction writing on the same level of nobility as, say, anonymously curing cancer while simultaneously solving world hunger, but on the other hand, someone’s got to create spiritually-enriching entertainment. I enjoy it, so why not me?

What do you think? Do you ever feel bad for choosing to be a writer instead of a doctor, astronaut, U.N. peacekeeper, etc.? Let’s discuss in the comments.


Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Antebellum is currently out on submissions. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal.


16 Responses to “Writing: Noble or Selfish?”

  1. Arianna Sterling August 4, 2010 at 1:02 AM #

    Wow, to be honest, I never actually thought about writing as being a very selfish thing to do. But now that you mention it, I suppose you’re sort of right. Writing can be a selfish thing to do, because it’s not necessarily getting anyone anywhere…I write because I want to. Then again, if you look at the novel market these days, not even necessarily the brilliant books you mentioned with their universal messages (not that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t one of the greatest things I’ve ever read), but with things like the Harry Potter series or (my least favourite series ever) Twilight, those are getting people to read, aren’t they? And regardless of whether what you’re reading is at the level of…say, Moby Dick or Hard Times, the more you read, the better off you are. So those of us who write are doing people a favour.

    I guess what I’m saying is that it’s 50/50. I certainly don’t consider my writing as grand as the person who eventually discovers the cure for cancer, but it’s doing something, at least, which is more than a lot of people can say.

    By the way, I have a question: are you guys planning to do another query week anytime soon that involves more reading of queries sent in by the people who follow this place? I ask because I just wrote part of a query for something I haven’t written yet (and yes, I know very well that you cannot query for fiction with an unwritten novel) and I’ve completely forbidden myself to write a word of the novel itself until I finish the last four chapters of the one I’m presently focusing on. I’d just like to get some input on this specific one that I’ve written, to find out if it’s too long or if there’s anything else wrong with it that I should know about–especially since I sort of wrote it as my vague little form of outline.

    Thanks (and for the record, I love following this site),

    Arianna S.

  2. priscillashay August 4, 2010 at 1:14 AM #

    this isn’t the point of your post, but I LOVE Fahrenheit 451

  3. Armith-Greenleaf August 4, 2010 at 3:55 AM #

    That’s interesting. I’ve thought about it on a slightly different angle: I have no scholastic background on writing at all, which is a big boost for an aspiring writer (when it comes to skills, knowledge and the information and connections regarding the publishing word), instead I’m about graduate from Mechanical Engineering.

    Insert glass breaking sound.

    My profession has steered towards the science area. But I write in my spare time.

    Um, what?

    I started writing at almost the same time I started studing M.E. (actually, a few months before), and from then on it was like a snowball rolling downhill. Writing got bigger and bigger. It’s gotten to the point that I’m currently working on my graduation thesis and I can’t wait to be done with it to be able to write. I find this slightly funny, because they’re such different things (scientists say they use opposing sides of the brain, too.) At the same time it’s… worrying. Strange. I chose a profession that is completely different from this other thing I want to do.

    As a result, I’m more than slightly confused. But at least I have a Plan A and B, heh (trying to look on the bright side, there.)

  4. Rowenna August 4, 2010 at 9:13 AM #

    Great thoughts, Savannah. When I think of whether writing is selfish or noble, I think of the parable from the Gospels of the talents–where a man gives his servants money and some take it and invest it to earn more while the last just sits on it. We all have gifts–if yours is writing fiction, don’t sit on it! Use it, develop it, multiply it. I guess I see myself as having a responsibility to do what I’m good at (or think I’m good at…) because it’s who I am. If I’m going to be honest about who I am, I write. In that way, I guess I see it as neither selfish nor noble–just necessary. 🙂

    Hope that wasn’t crazy-confusing…and not trying to be on a soapbox about my beliefs, just wanted to share where I’m coming from 🙂

  5. Victoria Dixon August 4, 2010 at 9:24 AM #

    I’m so glad I’m not the only person who ponders this question! I have always felt I’m mostly a selfish person and that my writing is mostly a selfish hobby that has some benefits to others. However, I’m someone who tends to see the glass half empty. After all, missionaries like Albert Schweitzer, Dan Buttry, David Livingstone, etc did/do write. So did Ghandi – a peace envoy more than a missionary. Mostly they wrote nonfiction, but there’s no reason to say fiction can’t carry just as great a message of forgiveness, love, peace, etc.

    Maybe our degree of selfishness comes about not because we write, but by what we choose to do with our stories and our lives BECAUSE we write….

  6. tymcon August 4, 2010 at 9:54 AM #

    Yeah, i’m happy writers have the excuse to be inward looking and/or angsty:D
    I’d say the best Author for telling imformation, world facts e.t.c. is Antohony Horowitz. Well maybe not the best, but the best for YA. I have blog post on my…blog, if anybody wants to go check it out about his books. Seriously a god send to make teenage boys think.
    Gahhhhhhh i don’t know wehter i’m selfish or notXD Well i only think your selfish if you tie someone to a chair and force them to critique your work.

  7. Rachel August 4, 2010 at 10:26 AM #

    What I want to do with my life is combine helping others and writing. I want to join the peace corps/work for the U.N., and use what I learn to write stories based on facts. In a way this is still selfish because I guess you could say I’m using what I see for personal gain. But books and writing also gets so much information out to everyone I hope I can actually make a difference. And that’s what writers really want to do, right :)?

  8. Aurora Blackguard August 4, 2010 at 11:01 AM #

    I have to totally disagree with the fact that writing is selfish. Perhaps in a very human way, writing IS selfish but it begs to be said that WE are human so why not be how our nature is? As long as it’s not physically hurting someone. And also, if we writers didn’t write, we’d all probably be masses of boiling, turmoiled emotions and we’d all have bad hair cuts and wear gothic clothing because we’re all so emotional because we can’t express ourselves and basically one day, all that emotion is going to explode on the world! So maybe writing is noble in the way that it saves the rest of the planet from an army of emotionally challenged, insane nutjobs : )

    I love you, writers 🙂

    That’s why writing is not selfish. In a way, I think that NOT writing when it’s our calling, gift and talent would be even more selfish because we HAVE it and we don’t share it with the world. Now THAT is selfishness 😀

  9. Anaiz August 4, 2010 at 11:18 AM #

    Like you said reading is an escape, it’s also an opportunity for readers to grow. If people didn’t write (textbooks) how would doctors learn what they need to know?

    • Savannah J. Foley August 4, 2010 at 11:24 AM #

      That was why I specified ‘fiction writing’. I’m not sure if the creation of fictional stories is noble or not. In non-fiction I think the issue is more clear-cut, but the fact still remains that ultimately a lot of books cause benefit to the writers, which may invalidate their nobleness.

  10. Landon August 4, 2010 at 12:01 PM #

    Great post! I agree with more or less everything, in that it’s a little noble and a little selfish–but it doesn’t seem much like a black-and-white matter to me.

    Really good food for thought–thanks!

  11. Gaby da Silva August 4, 2010 at 1:26 PM #

    Funny, how everybody here agrees that reading makes you a better person!

    Now, I think that too. I believe that reading is good.

    But SO many great people I know, people with college degrees and nice, humanitarian jobs, open a book about once or twice a year. They believe reading is boring and not even Twilight changed that for them. Are they, as human beings, worse than those who do read?

    More food for thought!

    This article surprised me a but, but I think you did a wonderful job, Savannah! Let’s also remember that writing is the perfect activity to mix with charity. You can always write while saving the whales, helping the poor or rallying for LGBT rights.

    Or look for the international youth scholarships, and go pick oranges in some poor Chinese village. You’ll help people AND get plenty of ideas, I warrant.

    (unless you’re in need of money. They I suppose you better get a job.)

  12. Schneider August 4, 2010 at 5:21 PM #

    To be honest? Not at all. It is often fiction that inspires people, that encourages their intellect, that prods their curiosities–literature drives the world, has done so for a long time. Centuries ago, writers were the great, driving forces of the world; they furthered thought and forced people to ponder themselves and their natures. What could be less selfish than that?

    But that aside, I’ve come to the resolution that to enjoy life we must be selfish a little every now and then; and if doing what I love is selfish, I will be selfish for every one of the days I have left to live. 🙂

    (Though, incidentally, I plan to be a physician who writes on the side anyway. :p)

  13. authorguy August 4, 2010 at 5:24 PM #

    You’re starting with something of a false premise, that if something is done for your own benefit it isn’t also being done for the benefit of others. You write, you enjoy it. Because you are like other people, the odds are pretty good they will enjoy it too. A selfish writer is actually one who doesn’t enjoy their own work, who simply write to an abstract demographic, trying to make money selling their books with no reason to think anyone is enjoying it at all.

    Marc Vun Kannon

  14. samanthabina August 4, 2010 at 6:49 PM #

    This is a really great post, Savannah. And I don’t think writing is selfish at all. You’re doing what you love, and I don’t think that makes a person selfish. And as you pointed out, our own enjoyment only benefits others. So I’d say writing is pretty far from selfishness, period.

  15. lene August 4, 2010 at 7:58 PM #

    Wow that’s quite the question. As far as I am concerned I’ve always thought that writing was something I had to do, like breathing or eating without really thinking about a career in the business. Earnestly I am a shy creature whom would rather chop her arm off instead of submitting her own work to anyone. Ages ago my father forced me to submit my novel in a contest and I did that only to shut him up, sure that the summary was crap and none would read it. A couple of months afterwards I found out I was among the 25 chosen by the jury. I was 23 back then. By the little I discovered about publishing world (that here in italy i guess is a lot smaller)I guessed that none would publish my novel the way i had written it.
    Ten years later I couldn’t agree more. Italian is a tricky language with so many verbs and a complicated punctuation which I totally ignored following my guts and the feelings i achieved while writing. Ten years after i can easily say that my novel was crap, to many grammar mistakes and even more clichès. And I am still stunned that someone thought it was worth giving me money cause it really wasn’t.That really made me think about the criteria used in choosing what deserves to be published.I’ve read a huge amount of books lately,some of them recomended here and i can say that none of them stuck me like an huge piece of work. Surely they were all enjoiable but in the end they made me think “what’s the point?” Holy crap this one long comment sorry if i got carried away. The whole point of my babbling is that writing is not something you choose it chooses you, those who look for praise or popularity online are simply not real writers. You write because you enjoy it and if someone likes your work the better, if not still you have done what you needed to.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: