Why Do I Write??

After reading the two pieces and only partially identifying with either one on their reasons for writing, the question “Why do I write?” was forefront in my mind. I was turned off by a fact mentioned in both pieces, that writing was at the very core, a  selfish act.  Immediately after reading that, I put up a wall. Of course that didn’t apply to me; I want to do science writing, bring research to a lay audience. Not long after, it dawned on me that despite noble intentions, I wanted to do this because I think of myself as a decent writer, or that I can say it better than the next guy… not so noble. As I tried to appease my science-oriented mind by pinpointing specific characteristics I think make me a decent writer, I caught myself doing something also mentioned in both articles: introspection.

I have never considered myself particularly introspective. In fact, I harbor a sort of disdain for others that I see have that Freudian aspect. Both Orwell and Didion mentioned a “diary that existed only in the mind” and “writing entirely to find out what’s in my own mind,” respectively. Again, something I found myself unable to relate to and back at the core question of why do I write? Along that same vein, Orwell’s mind diary reference did strike a chord with me.

Many times a day I will catch myself doing exactly as both Orwell and Didion described, narrating scenes with intense detail. Sometimes I do it out of sheer boredom, other times I just like the sound of the words and the narrative in my head. Still other times, I place myself in the narration as a character in the hopes that my mind narration will lead to a meet-cute and my life will transform into a romantic comedy. So far, only the comedy has come to fruition.

On a final note, I guess what I took away the most from these pieces (Orwell’s in particular) is that you need to write for a purpose. Orwell is famous for his later work, the politically oriented writing. He wrote that he switched to this kind of writing after a significant life event when he knew where he stood ideologically. This made me think again what my motivations are for writing. I have had no significant life events that would sway me in any one direction for any profession. As Didion mentioned her deep fascination with other people: who they were, how they ended up where they were that day, why they were doing what they were doing; the same questions stampede through my mind a thousand times a day. It’s like an oncologist chooses that profession because his mom died of cancer. I don’t have any deep, personal motivation for writing and I don’ t know that I necessarily need a profound experience to make myself legitimate, but I do feel as though it would be easier to justify to myself.

 

“Writing is the act of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” – Joan Didion

Ever since I took English 225 (Academic Argumentation), I constantly feel a need to write aggressively.   From the beginning of a paper, I aggressively attempt to convince my audience why I have authority and why I deserve to be listened to.  Simultaneously, I gear my paper towards an intended audience, which often is the well rounded and open-minded college student or instructor.  This concept of envisioning an “intended” audience is a major difference between the writing I do in college and the writing I did as a young girl.  Like George Orwell and Joan Didion, I loved creating my own stories.  Often these stories involved magical people and talking animals inspired by the everyday characters and experiences of my own life.  I remember writing and illustrating these stories when I was little, never once thinking about the audience who would read them.  The stories were purely personal and childishly innocent.  My motives for writing then were simply to express myself.  I wrote because I loved it and I wrote for myself, not for anyone else.

Now when I write, I write to convince my audience and change their minds.  I write persuasively and aggressively to prove my credibility and validate my opinions.  Just like when I was a young girl, I write passionately, but with a completely different passion.  As a college student, I write enthusiastically about topics that matter to me because of my life experiences and knowledge I have gained through taking a wide range of classes on various subjects.  I agree with Orwell that it is impossible to “assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development.”  All writers are shaped and biased by their experiences, communities, and the world at large.  All writers and people in general transition from a childhood of unintentionally disregarding the perspectives of others to the realization that there is indeed an audience.   In that sense, writing is like human development and reflects one’s transitions through life.

Everyone knows that one guy…

Or that writer, as the case may be. Reading George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write,” I found his list of “motives” for writing to be strikingly true to everything I know about people who write.

“Sheer egoism” as bluntly as Orwell puts it, is one of the foremost reasons many people enjoy writing; the delicious possibility that others will read what you have written, declare you brilliant and put you down in the history books. None of us like to admit this one, of course. It isn’t delicate.

“Aesthetic enthusiasm” is as common as egoism, and nearly everyone who writes seems to love to make things pretty. I have writer friends who will stop dead on the side walk to contemplate the beauty of some old tree, perfectly aware of the cliche of it all. I identify the most with the second part of Orwell’s paragraph, the part about the pamphleteer who “may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc.” I want my sentences to look good, to sound lovely rolling off the tongue and reverberating in the brain, and picky little things like commas and margins accomplish all sorts of special effects if deployed correctly.

“Historical Impulse” is something I have encountered mostly in the company of my fellow political science majors. Something about the social sciences really brings out the chronicler in everyone. Truth is sometimes such a nebulous thing, and to have it all written down accurately for future generations of poli sci majors feels like securing certainty for someone at least.

“Political Purpose,” for me, is less a motive for just writing than way of life. I am part of an activist group on campus, and have spent numerous evenings posting fliers in hopes that they will, in some small way, “push the world in a certain direction.” As Orwell asserts, every piece of writing has some political agenda, something to sell. The other three motives for writing all come back to this desire for influence of this kind. Promoting oneself is futile unless you can effect change by your prominence, aesthetics are absolutely necessary for persuasion, and history is simply the objective canvas for politics’ normative doodling. In the end, as with most worthwhile pursuits, the motives for writing come down to persuasion.

Perhaps Orwell’s motives for writing rang so true for me because they are my own motives. However, I would argue that they are, if not universal, relatively common among writers who simply want to be remembered, to create beautiful works, to record the truth, and most importantly, to affect change.

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.

Response to Orwell’s “Why I Write”

After reading George Orwell’s “Why I Write” I find that I am able to relate to many of his ideas; at the same time, however, I am not able to relate to many of the motives that Orwell lists for him becoming a writer.  The first idea that I was able to relate to was writing pieces that are “made-to-order.”  As a college student, I find that the majority of my writing is done based on a given prompt or assignment—there is very little flexibility in the level of my own creativity if I want a satisfactory grade.  It is this lack of flexibility that makes my writing feel “made-to-order,” as Orwell describes.

Along with understanding Orwell’s discussion of producing colloquial and subsequently uncreative writing, Orwell’s love of words also resonates with me.  One of my favorite parts of writing is using new words.  I often structure sentences around single words or a string of words that, to me, has a certain flow or sound.  While I do not change the spelling of words or make words up as Orwell often does, I can relate to the “joy of mere words” which Orwell expresses in his essay.

While I am no way a writer in the same category as Orwell and I have never written a novel, it is hard for me to imagine that all writers are “driven on by some demon.”  While there are definitely those who may be prompted to write due to an inner demon, it seems to me that Orwell is making a generalization when he makes this claim.  Why can’t people write because it is fun?  After reading this essay and realizing that the majority of my own writing is “made-to-order,” I am left hoping that, unlike Orwell, I will continue to write not because I feel I have to, but because I want to.