Six-Year-Olds Can’t Comprehend Hemingway

Re-reading over both Orwell and Didion’s well-known essays “Why I Write”, I was struck by a sort of despair.  Both Orwell, who believes that the act of writing about oneself at once concerns the wider public, and Didion, who insists that writers are writers because they “do not think in abstracts”, bring up genius ways of looking at the question, and I don’t dream of challenging their opinion that writing is inherently self-centered because it is as close to fact as opinion can be.  I was struck with despair because all the while I was reading I was disappointed that such greats had chosen to answer that question.  Because when it comes down to it, “Why do you write?” is a presumptuous question.  It yearns to be answered coldly, disdainfully – “because I like to” – and left at that.

Surely, I felt, “why I write” is a question beneath the dignity of answering.  And then I stopped mid-grumble because I realized that my snappish answer of “because I like to” would not only be uncharitable but untrue.  That is when I realized I couldn’t seriously answer the question, and that is where the despair came in.  But the more I think about that question (which is, after all, still foolish), the more I think it doesn’t matter to me why I write.  At least not yet.  To me, the pertinent question is not “Why do I write?” but, “Am I writing, and if not, why not?”.

This is a more telling statement than I’d like to admit.  Simply put, it means I haven’t had the time to work out why I write.  This confession may make some people consider me lazy and ill-motivated.  But some things in life can’t be sought out, and life-experience is one of these things.  To answer now with certainty the question of why I write would produce results as laughable as a six-year-old explaining Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  That’s just the problem with being young, and being in school.  You haven’t had time to become self-centered in an introspective, proportioned sort of way.  And in any case, by virtue of being in school any of this writerly brand of introspectiveness you may have gained in your short years is promptly labeled “beside the point” and beaten out of you.  Sure, you are taught to think critically and to solve problems, but the manner of introspectiveness that I am talking about can only come when you are somewhere remote from everything, either physically or emotionally, after a long bout of experience.

Or so I’ve been told, by a number of credible and greying people who also happen to write.  Not having had vast amounts of experience at writing – real writing, not what Orwell calls “the made-to-order stuff” – I suppose I must content myself with the more immediate needs of becoming good at writing: paper, pen, and a good stack of writing by older, experienced writers.

3 thoughts to “Six-Year-Olds Can’t Comprehend Hemingway”

  1. I think that your alternative question of “Am I writing, and if not, why not?” is a striking one. It implies that you write because you would rather do it than anything else, like writing is your natural state of being. I think this concept is truly at the root of why those who identify as writers, write. Writers may have many ancillary reasons, but this emotional connection to the actual act of writing is perhaps the most important.

  2. I especially like your title and exploration of the idea that “six-year-olds can’t comprehend Hemingway.” It’s interesting how you related it to your lack of ability to define why exactly you write. I agree with you that it’s hard to put a concrete statement on why I write. I write because I like to write. I don’t really understand what you mean by the question “Am I writing, and if not, why not?” You said this means you haven’t had the time to work out why you write, but I don’t really get how these two sentences relate.

  3. After reading this, I would not question why you write. The way you assemble your phrasing and ideas actually came off as a work of literary art in a sense. It seems to be inherently natural to you. It made me think about if I am truely writing and I guess no, not yet. I am following the guidelines and going through the motions of writing.

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