Why They Write

When reading both George Orwell’s “Why I Write” and Joan Didion’s echoed work of the same name, I found something peculiar and a tad bit, well, fun. Before those rolling their eyes over this impossible statement blow a head gasket in disbelief, let me explain. The act of reading their articles was still a chore, but their works still prompted a few responses that I found enjoyable.

When scanning their accounts of what and how writing deeply affected and fueled their lives, each time I recognized a reason for writing the author and I shared, I realized I was grinning. I can say with total conviction that academic reading rarely, if ever, prompts me to grin while reading it. Instead, I mostly picture myself as Gandalf in the film The Fellowship of the Rings, stern and concentrated features upon my face as I sift through dusty tomes.

This was not the case. As I read lines such as…

“From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer…I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books” (George Orwell).

…I found myself thinking, Hey now, that’s pretty much what I’ve been realizing the past four years of my life. And then Orwell delves into his early work pumping out poetry like a machine, and any trace of a grin was wiped from my face.

I don’t have any issue with Orwell talking about how poetry affected him and grew him as a writer, it’s just that I can’t relate to it. I guess that first paragraph had started me hoping that every reason  I had for writing he would share. This was not the case, nor was it very likely. His account on the self-narration of his life came fairly close, and although I didn’t find myself doing the same, I could relate and appreciate this habit. The way in which he broke down the motivations of writers seemed clever, if not complete, and the “sheer egoism” trait seemed to be spot on for most writers today.

Although I found much of Orwell’s account interesting and yet alienating (again poetry and his reverence for wordplay), it was Joan Didion’s focus on the “pictures in a writer’s mind” that resonated the deepest. I loved the way she walked the reader through the initial inspirations of her writings, and how often she didn’t even know much more than a character’s name and their location before she began a story. Somewhere I once read a quote by J.K. Rowling where she said something along the lines that the story of Harry Potter jumped into her mind fully formed. When working on my own prose, or dreaming up what I hope will be my first complete novel, I often become discouraged when I have gaping holes in the plot, or when I have only a series of scenes in my mind, with nothing tying them together. Joan Didion’s words made me realize that perhaps not all writers were as lucky as Rowling to have a story jump into their heads complete and with a bow on top.

I was surprised to read Didion’s point that the structure of sentences is informed and governed by the picture or scene in a writer’s head. The way she likened sentence structure to artistic camera angles was a “wow” moment for me. I had never thought about sentences like that, and it made me realize that perhaps I should.

Much of what I read in Orwell and Didion’s articles wonderfully put into words much of what I have always thought. As no two writers are alike, there were influences and reasons for writing that I couldn’t relate to, but I could at least try and appreciate. Either way, it’s nice to read about two people that acted on their deep-seeded impulses to become full-time writers, and they only strengthened my desire to write seriously and diligently in the near future.

3 thoughts to “Why They Write”

  1. Firstly, kudos for the LOTR reference, so much respect for that and the fact that that image made me laugh. Anyway, I liked how you discussed the fact that it’s OKAY to not have a full-fledged story instantly pop into a writer’s head like it had for J.K. Rowling. Much like you and Didion, I find that I come up with these wonderful, imaginative ideas for a story, only to realize that there are major holes that I don’t know how to fill or how to add information in order to make my ideas more understandable for readers. I certainly agree with the fact that the beginning of Orwell’s account was much more relatable than the second half. As an only child, I understand the need to create stories for mere entertainment. However, once he got to the portion regarding poetry, he also lost me. You’re not alone!

  2. “When working on my own prose, or dreaming up what I hope will be my first complete novel, I often become discouraged when I have gaping holes in the plot, or when I have only a series of scenes in my mind, with nothing tying them together.”

    –> Fun fact, the marvel that is Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club actually evolved from one really screwy essay. You can fact check me on this one, but I believe that essay is now the bulk of chapter seven (or one of the mid chapters, anyways–it’s been a while since I read that interview with Palahniuk). Point being, you don’t necessarily have to know where you’re going. I almost never do, and even a great like Palahniuk didn’t either. But if there’s something messy and tangled and linguistically delicious rolling around in your head, write it. Maybe you won’t come back to it for months, but eventually you’ll realize what it’s perfectly suited for.

  3. Steve,
    We have known each other essentially our entire lives. How is it possible that this is maybe the first time I have ever read your writing?! I am glad we have been paired as partners for at least the first few weeks of the semester because I am excited to get to know your writing style and read what you’re thinking. This piece was a terrific start!

    So, I am a JK Rowling fan myself (CALL ME HERMIONE) and I share your frustration at what you heard she said. I can’t imagine an entire plot, especially one seven books long, striking a person like lightning. Heck, I can’t even imagine a seven line poem striking me like lightning. I can’t imagine that happens to many people, and to my knowledge most writers out there struggle like you and I do. I constantly find myself writing and cutting and rewriting my work. Personally, though, I think it turns out best that way when it comes in pieces.

    Just like you were surprised and intrigued with how Didions writing came to her, I bet I could feel the same way about how writing comes to you. We all have pretty unique processes, don’t we? Anyway, I look forward to reading more of your pieces and blogs this semester.


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