Wednesday Workshop: Why I Write II


Wednesday Workshop
Why I Write II
28 March 2018

Joan Didion’s autobiographical note did not appeal to me in the same way that George Orwell’s did, but then, I was born on the same side of the Atlantic as Orwell, and yes, that does make a difference. So much in Orwell is familiar, so much in Didion is alien.

For Didion, Why I Write (borrowed from George Orwell) is composed of three short words, each of them emphasizing the first person singular I + I + I. She sees writing as an ‘aggressive, even a hostile act’ in which she, as writer, imposes herself on other people (her readers) saying ‘listen to me, see it my way, change your mind’. From this idea of imposition springs the second idea of the ‘aggressive, hostile act’. This, in some ways, can be seen as a sort of combination of Orwell’s first, third, and fourth points (1) sheer egoism; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose with possibly the first dominating.

That said, I like the idea Didion presents of ‘pictures in the mind’. She carries these pictures with her and then writes from them. She writes from the physical, the tangible, the ‘taste of rancid butter’, the ‘tinted windows on the bus’, the concrete nature of these things and her desire to describe them as accurately as possible, led her to discover herself as a writer.

When I apply her descriptions to my own writing, I gaze at my own memories of my childhood. They are like photographs, still, black-and-white photographs, like those we used to see when I was a child at the entrance to movie theaters. The skill for me in writing is to allow these pictures to spring back into life. Much of my writing, especially my stories about Spain, Mexico, or Wales, is autobiographical in its beginnings. However, as the pictures move and speak they tell me things and I write them down. What starts out as a story is very rarely the story that ends up on the page. A metamorphosis takes place. Words slip and shift and change their shapes and meanings according to the whims of characters and the situations in which they find themselves. In the beginning was the picture: that, I guess, is what Didion and I hold in common. But my writing is not her writing, and her pictures are not my photos, how could they be?

Interesting in my own original photos is the lack of sound, the lack of movement, the lack of taste and touch. First the figures are stiff and stolid. When I study them, they shift and move, and next they begin to speak. Alas, what they tell me when they speak to me in the shiftless shadows of my dreams at night is not necessarily what they lazily lisp in the full sun of my waking mind. A long time ago, I struggled to recall the exactness of that dream world and I tried to pummel the words and thoughts on my mind’s anvil and to hammer them into shape aided by the heat of my seemingly inexhaustible creative energy. Now I am more relaxed: I just listen to the daylight voices and allow them to shape themselves and their situations in their own way.

When I do this, background sounds and the tell-tale smells of time and place slip slowly in. Boarding school: the unforgettable stench of burned porridge. My auntie’s house: the whir of the cuckoo clock as it coiled itself up in preparation for the little bird to whip out and enchant the hours. My grandfather’s grandfather clock: the metallic lightness of the clock hands as I adjusted the minutes and the hours when the clock ran down and I sensed the tautness in the piano wires as I turned the key and wound the heavy brass pendulums back into their starting positions. My grandmother’s house: the bubble of water boiling on the hob, the warmth of constantly brewed tea, strong as a farrier’s horse and quite undrinkable without the second, third, or fourth watering and, of course, always the smell of boiled white fish cooling for the cats’ supper.

My best writing comes from deep inside myself. I find it  in the midnight coal mine of my mind where ghost-like figures drift and roam as they seek that special person, the one who will drag them to the surface and bring them back to life. Poor, pale, thin imitations of a reality that never was, I do my best to revive them. Often, my best is just not good enough and I must cast them away and drop them back into the depths to ghost away and prepare themselves for another day when perhaps, they and I will each be ready to deceive each other.

12 thoughts on “Wednesday Workshop: Why I Write II

  1. This was a very thought provoking piece. And the comments as well. It makes me question my own motives for writing. Will anyone remember me when I’m gone without these words and stories to pass on? Even then…. without children or even nieces and nephews, I feel like I might vanish without a trace.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Roger,

    I feel the writing in this workshop comes from a place of deep sadness carefully concealed. You have done a great job of identifying the “place,” and have probably written in metaphor about the hidden ghosts. But they remain carefully hidden.

    Didion and Orwell cannot tell you why YOU write, only you can do that.

    Why we write is a best guess unless we are so brutally honest that we are prepared to tear out and eat our own hearts. We write to discover who we are, Roger. And often, when we come up against our own hurt we change course – clean the garage, do the dishes, watch a movie or just stop. Sometimes we stop – which is in itself an integral part of writing – and give way to the “ghost-like figures” that inhabit our hidden places, recognizing them but keeping them hidden. Unfortunately, or not, the ghost like figures are as equally real as our walking, talking selves, even in dreams. We are the sum of the accumulation of our molecules.



    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for these comments, Victor. They are sensitive, heartfelt and also come from ‘a dark place deep within’. I have a third installment of Why I Write, due out tomorrow, on my Thursday Thoughts. I am working on it right now. Meanwhile, life goes on and the line of writing grows larger and longer as those tiny black ants wend their way across the page. I guess they are all failed pilgrims, travelling to St. James of Compostela by way of my keyboard, because they never made the real pilgrimage when they were alive. And that’s another story … for another day … over that promised bottle of champagne …


  3. Just as I was prepared to dislike this author you made me like her. The pictures in the mind are the things that keep me going, my memories of the days of my growing up on Highway 81. I tell the stories sometimes, but mainly they remain inside my mind now. The ones I wrote them to have let me know they don’t care so now I don’t either. We have all lost out there. The ones who treasure them are the ones who are the treasured friends mentioned on Hwy. 81, and we walk down memory lane together for a while. dusting off the memories, then put them back until the next visit and continue on our separate ways, those of us who are still alive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yours is such a sad and powerful statement. I have put my memories down in writing for my children and grandchildren and those who follow. The Welsh family heritage will be preserved in my words … for how long? Who knows? But yes, I do care, as you care. And care turns into shaping, and carving, and remembering … as for people telling you that they don’t care … that is such a pity. Take the time to write those memories down and keep them in a safe place. Someone, sooner or later, will realize their worth … we leave only tiny footprints on the sand, and they are soon washed away by the incoming tide, but we must leave those footprints … even knowing that they will not endure … so write them down, walk awhile on your favorite beach, along your favorite road, and bequeath your written memories to the local archives where they will be cherished and cared for …

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Roger. I’ll write them again and stick them in my fire proof lock box — if I can find the key again. My kids just don’t have the same regards for the memories I want to share with them. My Highway 81 is magic only to me. To them it’s just a narrow, winding country road with people they were never interested in getting to know. But I’ll write the stories for my niece who will read them with some cousins. Maybe they are the ones who are meant to have them.


      • Deep down, and from a very long distance away, up here in snowbound Canada, I sense you must do this. It only takes one family member or friend from a later generation to recognize who and what you are (and were) and to love and treasure your memories. Do not let them slip away. Keep in touch and let me know how you are doing as you write and rewrite them. Take heart!

        Liked by 2 people

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