Selfish or Selfless

I never thought about why I write; it never really occurred to me. Come to think about it, I write because in school I have to. I’ve always looked at my writing that way. I never write just for me. And that’s strange considering I do a lot of things just for me.

Thinking about this idea, I was reminded of a short essay called On the Bus, by Jonathan Franzen. In this essay, Franzen tells the story of a bus trip that he took to the Bush Inauguration. But it wasn’t just any old bus trip. The International Socialist Organization sponsored it. At the beginning Franzen felt confused and out of place. But he went, and he makes it clear that he went because he, “[was] lacking any better invitation elsewhere,” early that Saturday morning.

From there, Franzen describes the scene when he arrived at the inauguration. “If you’d been there, you might have been roused by the ceaseless chanting of ‘Racist, sexist, anti-gay, GEORGE BUSH, go away!’ And ‘Hey Dubya, what do you say? How many votes did you steal today?’ Even if you didn’t actually believe that George Bus was a bigot or that he’d stolen any votes that day. Maybe, long ago, you felt similarly divided at high-school pep rallies… You might have been glad you came down here.”  Franzen finds himself lost in the moment. He went out there on a Saturday because he had nothing better to do, and now he finds that he is enjoying and participating in the Socialist protest.

Franzen concludes the story with the bus ride from the Inauguration back to his home. He finds that he is similar to the men in the International Socialist Party, “Few pleasures compare with that of riding on a bus after dark, hours behind schedule, with people you violently agree with. But finally, inevitably, you get dumped back in the city. You may still be one version of yourself… then [you’re home] naked and alone.”

You’re probably wondering how some bored man’s bus trip has anything to do with why I write, but I have found that the story is very much similar to ideas presented by Orwell, Didion, and Sullivan. A common thread in Orwell and Didion’s, Why I Write, is: They write for themselves. Plain and simple. In Orwell’s piece he talks about “sheer egoism” being one of the “great motives” for any writer. And in Didion’s piece she talks about how her self-exploration led her to become a writer. As I mentioned above, I found this idea almost foreign. I felt an almost selfish vibe, and didn’t understand the importance of what Didion and Orwell had to say.

After reading the Sullivan piece, I was presented with the idea that writing for yourself can be positive to others. Sullivan is obsessed with his own writing and being able to constantly blog in the public sphere. Unlike Didion and Orwell, he points out that his passion is what provides readers with a wealth of information and enjoyment. And this is when I began thinking of the Franzen piece. Franzen rides that bus for himself. He wanted something to do with his weekend, he wanted to fit in at the protest, and he wanted to socialize on the bus ride back. By asserting himself in this way, he also was able to provide the International Socialist Party with what they wanted: Being one more person strong.

Going back to the Orwell and Didion essays, I can now see where they are coming from. Without their “sheer egoism” the world never would have seen Animal Farm or The Year of Magical Thinking. Doing things just for me, as Sullivan points out, may not be so selfish after all, especially in the context of writing.


3 thoughts to “Selfish or Selfless”

  1. I’m definitely going to have to take a closer the Franzen piece after reading your post about his essay. The counter-intuitiveness of “selfish” writing producing selfless acts remains an interesting concept. If we focus on ourselves while we write, it may appear to be quite egotistical. However, your example of Franzen writing about his bus-riding experience clearly resonated with you and most likely other readers.

    I have a feeling this idea can be found in other disciplines. I’m studying political science, so I’m most comfortable with those types of examples. In one of my classes we’re studying public opinion. For most politicians, public opinion shapes how government officials vote–something that could be described as fairly selfless. Political theorists believe that many of the most effective politicians disregard public opinion polls and stick to their beliefs and convictions. This tactic could be viewed as selfish. Yet if the end result is to form an agenda that ultimately assists the general public. This may seem to be a strange comparison, but I still think it shows the similarities: sometimes selfishness and focusing on oneself may lead to better results.

  2. I really liked your opening paragraph where you wrote, “I never thought about why I write; it never really occurred to me. Come to think about it, I write because in school I have to. I’ve always looked at my writing that way. I never write just for me. And that’s strange considering I do a lot of things just for me.” I would have to agree with this point. I don’t really enjoy the writing process all that much, but lately I have been trying to journal and write accounts of things that have happened to me, and write for my own enjoyment. Unlike the three authors, I do not feel that I express myself best through writing, rather, its something that is forced upon me that I have developed quite a few skills in.

    Furthermore, I thought your argument about doing the “selfish thing that may lead to better results, was quite an interesting one. I’m studying economics, and in the models that we study, we assume that people are selfish and will act rationally and in their best interests. Your example reminded me of this ubiquitous assumption throughout my discipline.

    Good Work!

  3. I write because I like to have a conversation with people that I otherwise wouldn’t reach in normal conversation, either due to range geographic distance or polarization in political ideology. Expounding on a single idea or emotion, for a reason I haven’t quite figured out, is able to capture the attention and interest of people for a longer period of time than when said in verbal form, particularly if what is said is provocative or socially uncouth. Hence, writing not only can grasp attention, but it can also create influence.

    The influence that can be made in writing is very powerful in that it can give importance to the insignificant and can deem relevancy to the invisible. In short, writing can create history.

    It is because writing has the character and the agency of social change, the keeper and the illustrator of social culture in its true honest form, that I enjoy the impact and responsibility that comes with being a writer.

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