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.

“Why I Write” (Orwell; Gangrel, 1946)

Ugh. Well, here we are, back to grandiose, existential questions that make me question everything about who I am and how I perceive reality… What happened to the days of class assignments asking us to ? Or better yet, those 5th grade English tests where they’d give you a sentence and ask you to proofread it? Nowadays, it’s all “What is writing?” and “What makes it good?” But alas, here we are, giving me a chance to reflect a little bit on why I am a writer.

This is a question I never really felt the need to answer (“Why” is my least favorite word in the English language… Can’t some things just be taken as given?), so unlike Orwell or Didion, I have never had a moment of intense self-reflection as to where my love of writing originated. But like them, it has been something so intrenched in my life that, no matter how much I’ve fought against it, it’s always found a way to surface and worm its way into my mind.

And, like them, this piece is about “Why I Write”, and so as with Didion, I will plagiarize the title, although unlike her, I have decided to provide proper citation.

To be fair to this prompt, it has got me thinking about an “epiphany” (I use that term loosely here) that I had around the beginning of this course, when I decided to write lyrics for my repurposing project. As I said, it’s something I’ve dabbled in before, certainly more than any other aspect of music (e.g. musical theory, composition, that sort of thing). I never realized until then that there’s probably a reason for that. I imagine it’s because I see music through a writer’s perspective, just as I see everything else. Nothing else about the medium of music comes easily to me, but when its arranging words on a piece of paper (shouts out George Orwell), then I think I’ll always be able to do it, no matter what the context.

It’s always been this way. In second grade, I told my parents I wanted to be a writer, and however my occupation goals have changed as time went on, that has stayed the same, even when I haven’t wanted it to. Sure, my current “dream job” (again, used very loosely) in politics would require a lot of writing, and I’ve gone through the usual cycle of craving other writing-related jobs – fiction author, speechwriter, non-fiction author, journalist, self-help author, you name it. But even when I’ve tried to dabble in other mediums, it’s always come back to writing for me, be it getting caught up in scriptwriting while attempting to get into acting or marveling at Mark Bittman’s culinary wordplay during my ill-conceived and short-lived celebrity chef phase. Wherever I go, whatever I do, writing has always followed me.

So, I guess that’s why I write. I write because I do. To steal a turn of phrase from George Mallory (and subsequently take it out of context and rob it of its meaning), I write “because it’s there.” I write because I can, and because I always have, and always will, and it’s just an internal quality of mine that’s never going to change. Why are some people left-brain and some people right-brain? Why are some people gay and some people straight? Why do some people love music while some can’t differentiate The Beatles from One Direction? If there even are answers to these questions, there really don’t need to be.

“Writing in the margins…a passion to communicate”

So I just listened to the podcast of Sweetland’s Writer to Writer session, and I have to say, I’m so bummed I didn’t get to go to live event! It seemed like there was so much energy in the room, so kudos to anyone who contributed to it. Maria Cotera seems like a really amazing person and professor—her voice came off as calm, yet powerful in a way. I could almost feel her passion and commitment to her work through the recording (as weird as that sounds).

Before I started to listen to the podcast, I didn’t really know what Maria was going to speak about. I knew the purpose of the session, but I didn’t know any specifics. So when she started talking, I was so shocked that her story was so relatable. She starts the conversation by speaking about her mother, and thus her exposure to writing through he mom’s social action and plea for justice. As she was speaking about her mom, I started to think about who my writing guru was—the person that inspired me to start writing. Maria’s story sounded so familiar to me, because that’s really how I got into writing (and I didn’t even realize it until after she mentioned her story). It hit me; Maria’s relationship with her mom reminds me a lot of my relationship with my dad. I guess more specifically, Maria’s mom reminds me a lot of my dad.

I should give a little background first: I am the youngest of five redheads who grew up in a house that strived on organized chaos. We were all the products of two passionate, energetic, silly, and loving parents who strived (and still strive) to make the world a better place. I didn’t grow up like the other kids in my neighborhood. Instead of family meals (which rarely occurred because everyone had such crazy schedules), family time consisted of stuffing envelopes for various philanthropic causes (which include, but are not limited to, foster care reform, LGBQT issues, or donating money to help refugees in Israel) every Sunday evening around the dining room table. The envelopes consisted of eloquent and powerful writing that was supposed to motivate recipients into action. Essentially, my dad would spam his contact list and use as a human assembly line. But somehow, I didn’t see to mind this tradition. My dad’s passion was contagious, and as I grew up, I started to realize that he was using his writing to make the world a better place. I was inspired and motivated to do the same.

In high school, I joined our nationally ranked newspaper, The Lightning Strike, and quickly worked my way up to Editorial Editor. As the head of the Editorial section, I was in charge of layout and design of the pages, oversaw all of the content being written, and wrote the unsigned editorial, on behalf of our the staff. My pieces were unconventional, as I geared toward topics like human rights, the importance of voting, community action, and social justice. I hoped to use my writing to motivate readers into action, and thus developed a passion for writing about social change. Like Maria, I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless.

However, Maria and I differ in the definition of “the voiceless.” During the podcast, Maria spoke about “writing as a communicative art; avenues for telling stories that haven’t been told. [She has] an impulse to tell stories about the people have been ignored because time has passed.” However, Maria argues that she only gives a voice to people who are dead, because it’s impossible for them to speak up. But she won’t speak for those who are alive because “everyone has the power to speak for him or herself.” Frankly, I don’t agree with that. To me, speaking out seems to be a privilege—one that not everyone has access to. My father and I do a lot of work with children in Foster Care for this reason alone. People who do not have support systems, who are emotionally, physically, or sexually abused, who don’t have the proper outlet, who are silenced by authority or the system at large. All of these people are very much alive and don’t have the power to say anything, for the consequence is way too risky. These people are living examples of “the voiceless” and their stories desire to be heard and spread, so the world can do something about it.

Therefore, I use my power of words for those who are not granted that privilege. In essence, that’s why I write.

And that’s also why I wish I were at the live recording of this event—so I could bring this up and ask Maria her opinion. In the meantime, I’m curious to hear everyone else’s thoughts, so feel free to comment below! If you (like me) missed the show, here’s a link to the recording. Enjoy!