Why I Write III

My title “Why I Write III” was simply an attempt to poke fun at the fact that not only did George Orwell write an essay with the same title, but Joan Didion claims she “stole the title for this talk from George Orwell.” She claims that one reason she likes the title is simply the way it sounds, and I would have to agree with her.

She goes on to say that writing “is an act of saying I, imposing yourself on other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act.” This resonates with me, as an assertive and often domineering voice, in that writing is constantly a form of communication but often persuasion. Another specific piece of the essay that resonated with me was “grammar is a piano I play by ear….all I know about grammar is its infinite power…The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind.”

I found this lecture so inspiring that I decided to investigate Joan a bit more, and found a quote that truly defines why I write:

“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” – Joan Didion

This truly encapsulates why writing is essential to my life – I have a horrible memory, and I want to be able to treasure my experiences and feelings and thoughts. I want to remember who I was and who I am in each and every moment, and the thoughts and feelings that form that being. And by thoughts I mean that writing is not only a form of recording events, dialogue, and moments, but a medium of expressing one’s most inner thoughts and feelings. I think often incredible, profound and unique thoughts are lost in the jumble and chaos of daily life, and writing down those thoughts can save them before they fall into the deep abyss of lost ideas.

Writing is really the only intimate time we have with ourselves and our own inner thoughts. Whenever we speak, we are usually directing it toward a certain individual, but writing can be indirect or direct, and directed toward someone or no one at all. I think often this ability to be in touch with oneself is why certain people disdain writing – you hear of students dreading their academic essay, or even 4th graders complaining about writing a story. It’s because as individuals we are afraid to be alone in our thoughts, and even worse, physically manifest our thoughts in a form of writing that could potentially reveal our true selves before we are ready to realize that truth.

But this truth, this net catching our ideas, thoughts, loves, and who we are before they reach the empty abyss of forgotten memories – is why I write. I write to remember, to love, to understand, to feel. I write to never forget who I am.

A Precursor to an Answer

In preparation for answering a broad question– Why Do I Write?– we have turned to a variety of others that have answered the question before us, which I would like to partially respond to. In doing so, it might look like I am entering the conversation (which wouldn’t be entirely wrong), but really, for now, it’s closer to me dipping a toe into an ocean and calling it swimming.

Out of the three texts we looked at in class to help us answer this question– “Why I Write” by George Orwell and another of the same title by Joan Didion, and “Why I Blog” by Andrew Sullivan– I definitely connected to Didion’s response the most but I pulled the most concrete and relevant explanations from Orwell’s.

Didion seemed to pull some concepts from my own head. Namely, the idea that she doesn’t think up a plot and run with it so much as seeing an image and being unable to leave it alone, prodding it with questions and demanding an explanation for its circumstances and appearance. Of one such instance she points out that,

“Had I known the answers to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”

I LOVE this idea and its phrasing. It was the image and the questions that she made up about it that compelled her to write. I completely connect with that. I have had similar experiences of seeing something– not even something strange or out of the ordinary– that my mind wouldn’t leave alone; it needed to create a new reality for it to exist in that would explain why it was and how it came to be and where it was going and the way others would interact with it. Some people get songs stuck in there head, but I get images and lines of monologue lodged in mine.

Didion also claims at one point that,

“I knew I couldn’t think.”

Obviously, this isn’t true in the way that one would immediately assume, but it made perfect sense to me and in the context that she used it in. She thinks differently. She sees the world in unique ways. She lets the world speak to her first and then she responds to what she observes with further questions and stories of her own rather than attacking her landscape and imaginings for answers.

Orwell, on the other hand, lists 4 main reasons that he writes:

“Sheer egoism… aesthetic enthusiasm… historical impulse… [and] political purpose.”

Save for the third point (which did not resonate with me nearly as much as the others), I definitely agreed with the sentiment behind each of these explanations. I won’t lie; I write for ego. Recognition. Gloating rights. To be taken seriously. I imagine myself on talk shows and NPR, an inspiration on social media, discussing how I possibly managed to come up with such brilliance.

And I won’t apologize for that ego. I’m not the first to dream of fame and I have no shame in admitting I want it to. What I would do with that, though, is more important and brings me to his last reason about politics.

One of my goals in writing is to be as supportive to those that are disadvantaged in society. I want to be an ally and part of a solution that calls for increased positive representations of those that the elite ignore. I want to write human stories about those outside of the Norm– black girls in wheelchairs and south Asian bisexual men and poor kids in rural Colorado that don’t feel they fit into any gender role and they don’t know what to do about it. I have political motivations but I’d like to think that it’s because I want to be fighting the good fight and not because I want to be different or edgy. I wish these topics and depictions weren’t even considered in this way.

Aesthetic enthusiasm just makes me smile though.

I like words. I like those words about words. I like sounds and phrases that I can chew on and roll around and say slowly. I dream of writing lines that make someone put down what they’re reading and walk away for a minute because they can’t believe someone said something about that in such a perfect way and they have to go digest it some and tweet it and plan a new tattoo around the words. I want to put things in a way that readers wish they’d put the same thought into the same words in exactly the same way because it was just that good. Oh look, we’ve circled back to ego. How fitting.

When it comes to Sullivan, I feel I have a lot less to say. I don’t blog in the colloquial sense; I am on tumblr which has a basis in blogging but, for the most part, has become quite a bit like twitter with sharing clever insights in a concise and informal way. I also don’t have too much interest in journalism on a personal level; I don’t plan to make a career in it, at least. At the same time, as a citizen of the modern digital age, I understand the need to convey thoughts with a sense of expediency. Weigh in quickly, jump into the conversation before it’s forgotten. I do this more on Facebook than anywhere else, but not often even there. I don’t like to create arguments online where it can be difficult to gauge the tone of those you’re speaking with. It’s an interesting sounding board for ideas, but it’s often also frustrating and, just, not ideal.

I… did not mean to write this much. Gosh. Kudos to anyone that stuck with me though this stream of consciousness ramble for this long. Have a gif of Anderson Cooper and some french fries as a thank you.

anderson fries


On Following Strangers and Shimmering Pictures

Upon reading Didion, Orwell and Sullivan’s explanations of why and how they each write, I was especially moved by Joan Didion’s “Why I Write.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to have in common with Didion’s viewpoint.  I was a bit put off by Didion’s claim that writing is an “aggressive, even hostile, act.”  I have trouble qualifying writing in general as aggressive or hostile.  Yet when Didion explained that writers often attempt to subdue the hostile act with frequent use of qualifiers or evasions, I thought of my own work.   How often have I rearranged sentences, tried out a dozen different words or deleted a particularly brazen statement to tone down a piece of writing I think may seem too abrasive or harsh for a particular medium?  As Didion explained, writing is an intrusion into a reader’s world.  By putting our disagreement with a popular opinion or a memory we found particularly moving into black and white print, we’re asserting that our ideas and words are worth recording and reading.  To thrust those ideas into the world of complete strangers, whether through a blog or newspaper, certainly takes gumption and a big of aggression, even if not always hostility.

As I continued to read Didion’s thoughts, I was particularly touched by one idea.  In fact, this concept has been engrained in my mind since reading her essay.

As Didion explains, her stories are inspired by shimmering pictures that infiltrate her mind, flourishing in her imagination and growing into characters and plot lines.  Each picture carries a unique story and potential and the job of a writer is to be a steward of those pictures.  According to Didion, “The picture dictates the arrangement.  It tells you.  You don’t tell it.”  So although writing requires a level of confidence and aggression, it also requires a level of humility.  The writer must not get in the way of the stories these shimmering pictures have to tell.

Didion’s method made me think of stories inspired by actual paintings, like Girl With a Pearl Earring, a novel by Tracy Chevalier based on the painting by Johannes Vermeer. Something about that painting shimmered for Chevalier and brought an entire novel to life.  As Didion explained, sometimes the images can be something the writer witnesses, something I recently discovered for myself.

Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, the inspiration behind Chevalier’s book.   The painting is now on display in New York’s Frick Collection.   Image from: npr.org
Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, the inspiration behind Chevalier’s book.
The painting is now on display in New York’s Frick Collection. Image from: npr.org

In an acting class I’m in this semester, we were recently given an unconventional assignment that I soon realized was, as Didion would say, finding shimmering images and thinking about them for a while.  Our professor asked each of us to follow a stranger whom we found interesting.  We were to observe every detail about this person, from where he held tension in his body as he walked to where his eye focus was.  Then, we had to create the details his life from his occupation to where he was headed.

When I began searching for my subject, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I found myself drawn to an African American man of about 58 years who walked with an unhurried pace, quiet swagger and tired kindness.  As I followed him from a discreet distance, observing the way he warmly waved at several people, kept his right hand in his pocket and let his left arm swing easily while looking side to side, I let his image shimmer and began to imagine who he might be.  I imagined that he had one daughter who lived far away in Boston with two children, his greatest source of joy.  I decided the quiet sadness etched into his face was from the death of his wife a few years ago and the fact that he couldn’t bring himself to move out of their home, even though it had more space than he needed.  I pictured him reading the newspaper and drinking decaf coffee and decided he had been teaching for 23 years at University of Michigan.  Yet, I couldn’t decide what subject he taught.  Nothing from Economics to Philosophy seemed quite right.  It wasn’t until I continued to write about him and flesh out the details of his character that I could finally decide he taught Psychology.  As Didion so astutely says, sometimes we write because we need to discover answers to our questions.

Putting this on paper, I find myself eating my words.  After all, what is more aggressive and, yes, hostile than following a complete stranger, inventing his life and putting it on paper?  Not a whole lot.  Yet, that’s exciting.  As Didion says, “You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer.”  After all, these pictures are what breathe life and inspiration into honest and brave writing.  That’s the kind of writing I want to create.  Thanks to Didion, I have a sudden yearning to seek out and treasure these shimmering images and follow them with words wherever they may go.

“Why I Write”

I identify very closely with the Didion article. At the start, I was mostly just intrigued by her identification of the purpose of writing and how it’s a way for an author to shove their own views and observations into a reader’s face. I particularly identify with the passage where she discusses how she focuses on the periphery. Similarly to Didion, I couldn’t tell you most of the information I’ve learned in most of the classes I’ve taken throughout the course of my academic career. I remember the large concepts, but when it comes down to small details I’m a blank slate. However, when it comes to experiences and sensory, “peripheral” details, my mind soaks them up like a dry sponge. Although I won’t ever be able to explain to someone how stoichiometry works (even though we slaved over learning it in sophomore year chemistry), I’ll forever remember the smell of mildew coming off of soggy towels my brother and I decided to store in garbage bags for the duration of summer camp when I was 11. Although I need to be reminded of the plot line of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I’ll never forget the path I had to take to avoid the squeaky patches in the floor of my childhood home.

Reading Didion’s article gave me somewhat of a comfort. It was very reassuring to learn that the way she discovered her passion and talent for writing was through identifying her weakness of learning but not remembering. Knowing that I share something in common with a scholar as revered as Joan Didion makes me feel just a bit better about not caring that all basic algebra facts have escaped me. The fact that I can use my talent for observation as a strength rather than a fault is quite comforting indeed.

Response to Why I Write

I related to both George Orwell and Joan Didion’s articles, but strongly rejected many ideas included in them as well. Finding myself comparing my childhood and experience with writing with George Orwell’s, I questioned if his motives to write were common in other writers because, personally, I don’t feel compelled to write politically. However, I found profound truth in his blatant statement of the egoism of writers as well as the pure enjoyment of prose style. It’s difficult to argue with the idea that writers are “driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand” when I find myself writing notes in my phone walking down the street, about things I truly don’t understand how they got in my head.

In this manner, I understood Joan Didion’s description of her writing process. Sometimes writing is outside of your logic. And since I began writing for more than academic reasons, I’ve always said that I write to know what I think, similar to Didion’s apt description, “I write entirely to find out what I am thinking, what I’m looking at, what I’m thinking, what it means. What I want and what I fear.” However, rather than experiencing “shimmering” images, I simply think my thoughts are too jumbled to understand.

What I Learned

I learned from George Orwell that the events I encounter (and will encounter) in my life dramatically influence the ways in which I express my thoughts and ideas. I found that the experiences that each of these authors had, have heavily factored into the work they produce. However, what I found most interesting were the four “great” motives for writing that Orwell says, exist in different degrees in every writer.

The four great motives are: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose.

As I read each of the three readings, George Orwell’s, “Why I Write,” Joan Didion’s, “Why I Write,” and Andrew Sullivan’s, “Why I Blog,” I compared myself to each author, and found similarities between their writing habits, and my own.

These four motives made me question my intentions, and why I truly want to become a journalist. Day-in and day-out journalists are faced with the daunting task of eradicating personal biases and remaining as impartial as possible. This is one task I struggle with on a daily basis.

One statement that stuck out to me in particular stated the effect that an individual’s life stage and experience has on his or her work. To me, Orwell believes every individual’s experiences have shaped his or her views in one way or another, which subconsciously causes him or her to impart innate personal biases.

Thus, in order to fully understand a writer’s perspective, a reader must be sure to question how and why the author derived the content he or she created. I, like Orwell, believe you cannot fully grasp a writer’s work without knowing his or her background or reasoning.

Orwell says, “I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development;” this is something I firmly agree with. In addition, I believe a writer, regardless of the platform he or she chooses to use, must ensure that the content disseminated is presented in a way that will allow a reader to fully understand the context and tone at which he or she is trying to establish.

Writing: “It’s Serious Business”

When I think of writing, an image of a lonely figure, sitting under a dim light, scribbling his or her thoughts deep into the night comes to mind. A writer is a literary artist. A writer perfects his or her art through constant practice and honing of their skill. A writer writes because they are good at it.

After reading Orwell’s and Didion’s essays “Why I Write”, I began to have different ideas of how a writer is portrayed to myself as well as to others. Didion began her essay with introducing the fact that writing is an “aggressive, even hostile act.” She points out that no matter how a writer may sugar-coat their words, writing is the act of putting opinions to paper, with the hopes of changing the opinions of others. “The pen is mightier than the sword” has never rang more true to me. When people think of writing, they think of it as a passive thing, almost as normal as breathing or eating. It’s simply something you do to record your ideas or thoughts. Yet, the implications that come with displaying your writing to others can create strong responses, whether they’re positive or negative. Writing is a conscious decision to act, and the writer is the medium through which it’s expressed.

The example of writing that I will bring to class is the book “The Giver”. It is a children’s novel, easily read by any fifth grader. Yet, the implications that come with the story are immense, questioning the line between socialism/totalitarianism and the right of the government to protect its citizens. Lois Lowry dedicated the book “To all the children, to whom we entrust the future”. She wrote with a specific message in mind and forcefully introduced her point of view. Although the book has elicited good and bad responses, the novel has received many literary awards for it’s style and daring topic.

Orwell mentioned that “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’.” In his essay, he mentions how all of his essays, articles and books were failures. And all future literary pieces will be as well. Yet, Orwell knew that he’s a writer, whether good or bad. He didn’t question the reasons he wrote, he wrote because he knew there was a reason. What resonated most with me was that  the motives for writing are different for each individual, but they all write because they are driven by a force: They want to be heard.

The image of a writer changed slightly for me after reading these articles. A writer is a writer, not matter how or why they write. A writer is only as good or bad as they think they are.

Anyone can write.

Why Do They Write? Why Do I Write?

George Orwell

George Orwell’s in-depth recollection of his childhood was interesting to me. It made me wonder if my childhood is to praise for the writer I am today. I suppose it’s true to some extent; I’ve always had a desire to express myself whether it be in a locked away diary, private blog post, or article for the world to see. Here’s how Orwell’s motives for writing apply to me…

  • Sheer egoism: Yes, I do enjoy seeing my name in print. It makes me feel accomplished. But then again, who doesn’t like to feel this way–writer or not?
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm: I love it when I produce a perfectly crafted sentence. Reading my wisely written prose is almost as fun as seeing a brand new fall runway show, and trust me, fashion is another form of beauty in the external world.
  • Historical impulse: Straight-forward and to the point.
  • Political purpose: Politics are not my cup of tea. I write what I like; I don’t try pushing any secret agenda on readers. Orwell did say the first three motives outweigh this one. But then he goes on to say how everything he writes that lacks a political purpose is lifeless. When it comes to my own writing, I disagree.

Joan Didion

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking…What I want and what I fear.”  So do I. I live for the moment when I can open up a blank word document and type everything and anything that comes to my mind. Some of it makes sense and some of it doesn’t.  A bundle of ideas and reflections that feel much better on paper than in my head. Didion knows what she’s talking about. The idea of turning pictures into prose is something that I can relate to. All writers view the world differently and it’s in our power to write how and why we please.