The Burn

What drives you to write? It’s a simple question but one many of us never actually explore. Although we often plan and plot every last twist and turn of our latest stories, right down to the protagonist’s smallest facial twitch, very rarely do we sit back and question why we are even writing at all. Writing is an obsession and there has to be something lying dormant within us which spurs us on. What is it that motivates us to commit pen to paper – what’s your burn?

The burn is a concept that has to be credited to the excellent Sam North, author and lecturer at the University of Exeter. He describes this burn as a kind of concentrated energy inside all of us – poets, playwrights and story-tellers alike, we all have a motivating fuel that burns away and compels us to write, and write relentlessly. These fuels vary from writer to writer and sometimes they overlap: you can be driven by two, three or four of these fuels.  There’s no rule saying you must only work to one.

So what are these fuels that burn away? Well according to Sam North, they number seven and look something a little like this:

1. Entertain

The most common and often the most lucrative fuel, many of us desire to write because we want to entertain our readers. This fuel relies on the power of narrative – expect excellent storylines, charismatic characters and unexpected twists in stories written by those seeking to entertain. Crime Thriller, Fantasy and Romance are the by-products of this brand of creative energy and often the writers who write with this fuel in mind are the ones who top the best sellers’ list.

Think: Charlaine Harris, Dan Brown, George Pelecanos

2. Sensory Bliss

This is an obvious fuel for poetry but it applies to short fiction as well. This kind of writing is driven by the desire to create beautiful, eloquent fiction which soothes and charms with its potent linguistic power. Plot takes a back-seat behind elaborate word-play with an almost musical quality.

Think: Alan Hollinghurst

3. Political Change

These writers have a desire to propagate political change and this is reflected in their narratives. For many authors, such pursuits are as relevant today as they ever were and their inspiration is drawn from their own political agendas. Allegory is a common device – George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a perfect example of a book with political motives at its core.

Think: Robert Tressell, Mikhail Bulgakov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

4. Therapy

Nowadays, we are encouraged to explore our feelings and express our internal hurt in order to aid the healing process. With this in mind, many people turn to writing as a form of therapy and confession. You only need to google the words ‘writing’ and ‘therapy’ to discover a wealth of websites and online communities dedicated to healing the soul through storytelling. You can even do an MSc course on ‘Writing with therapeutic purposes’. The trick is to avoid being dull and too self-pitying; no-one wants to listen to the bore at the party, moaning about their miserable problems. When written with a lack of self-indulgence, however, therapeutic writing can lead to successful, poignant books.

Think: Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt

5. Humour

Writing to make people laugh is an arduous task. Often people who are the funniest in real life are the least funny on paper. Comedy is often derived, not from witty dinner-party anecdotes, but from what is wrong with the world. Humour is difficult but there is something admirable about a person who writes to make people laugh: in these modern times of stress and misery, it’s wonderful that there are still those people out there who want to help us forget the bad and focus on the happier things in life.

Think: P.G Wodehouse, Jasper Fforde

6. Portrayal of Truth

This fuel sees the writer act as a painter, using his pen to portray a vision of the world as he sees it and show his readers the truth. Many of us are motivated by a desire to expose the realities of a world and, often, some of our best work comes from personal experience. This fuel brings to mind the famous rule – write what you know.

Think: Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck

7. Confront the Abyss

Oh, that eternal question – what is the meaning of life? A question mulled over by many a literary type, this final fuel is better described as a desire to confront the abyss and make sense of it all. These stories use concrete imagery to create a vivid picture in the reader’s mind, as well as complex metaphors to help us figure it all out for ourselves.

Think: William Golding


So, into which category do you fall? Do you write to make someone laugh or as an exploration of your own personal feelings? Do you even agree with Sam North’s categories at all? Personally, I mostly write to entertain but I’d rather like to give the sensory bliss category a go. Perhaps next time I start to write, I’ll bear sensory bliss in mind and focus on my use of language rather than character: by changing my ‘fuel’, I could find a whole new writing style, one that might suit me even better.  Indeed, whether you agree with Sam North or not, I believe that finding the key to understanding what fuels our creative minds can only be a good thing – it’s powerful knowledge that, if harnessed correctly, can lead to our very best work.

Briony Wickes

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