Why I Write
In the online creative writing course that I took last year, we were invited to read two articles on why I write, one written by George Orwell and the other by Joan Didion. Both articles set me thinking: why do I write? My response to these articles, borrowed from my course notes and suitably doctored for my blog, follows.
George Orwell … where do I begin?
Homage to Catalonia is, in my opinion, one of the great personal memoirs written about the Spanish Civil War. Orwell fought on the side of the Republic, the legally-elected government, but fell foul of the Russian-backed Communists as they tried to unify the left under a banner of total Communism. The other side in the Spanish Civil War was, of course, the solidified right of the Spanish Falange and the Fascist Party. Orwell was targeted by the Communists and, wounded at the front, escaped across the French border with falsified papers. As he himself says in Why I Write, the political realization of the nature of totalitarianism led him to his stance as a writer. Animal Farm borrowed heavily from his Spanish experience, as did 1984.
Orwell sets out four reasons for writing. (1) Sheer egoism; (2) aesthetic enthusiasm; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose. I personally identify most strongly with #2. Above all, in my case, I write my poetry in praise of nature and in sorrow for how I see us failing the natural world around us. However, I must admit that I also write out of sheer egoism (#1) and yes, I enjoy thumbing my nose at all those who have in one way or another slighted me and upon whom I want literary revenge, even if it be posthumous. Several of my older friends also write this way, though many of the younger ones seem to be more interested in writing for money than in art for art’s sake. I guess retirement and a small but relatively reliable pension added to the gradual onset of a blighting old age make me realize that there is not much time left in which to amass a fortune. This in turn also makes my professed credo of art for art and not for money more acceptable.
Having come to the conclusion that I never have, and never will, make any money through my writing, although publish or perish has walked side by side with me throughout my academic career, I now embrace the fact that I do not write for money. In fact, I usually give my independently published books away to my friends. Nor do I want the sort of fame that causes the paparazzi, with their microphones and videos, and cameras, to flock to my doorstep, like starving sparrows or winter’s chickadees, in search of the breadcrumbs that fail to sufficiently nourish. To be appreciated, in my own small corner, like a well-loved local cheese or a craft beer, welcomed on a warm summer night for its fragrance and body … that is enough for me, although I must admit, that for one of my metaphors or images to be sniffed at, as if it were a glass of rare liqueur or a suitably aged port or a welcome Castillo de Monserans, also has its attractions.
This doesn’t mean that I am satisfied with who I am and how I write … I am not. I hope I never will be. I do want to be the very best that I can be. That’s why I keep writing and why I keep taking courses and workshops on writing. It’s also why I read and re-read, and why I keep reaching out to you and my other friends, and why I am so over-joyed when you, in your turn, reach out to me with the occasional word of praise for one of my stories or one of my poems.
However, warm as is the friendship of the beginning, failed and faltering writers’ support groups to which I belong, most, if not all, writing is done in isolation: me and my memories, me and my invention, me and my keyboard, me and my blank page, me and my pen, me and a-penny-for-my thoughts as I refill that pen with Royal Blue ink in the hopes that something regal will actually fall from the nib and grace one of my pages, even though I am really wondering yet again whether, like the budding author in Camus’s La Peste, I should start that first paragraph all over, yet again, just once more.
Alas, me and the cat and the keyboard do not share a healthy working relationship, especially when she walks across the keys, sticks her kitty-littered rear end in my face, scratches her itchy chin against the computer’s sharp edge, and purrs wildly for kibble while adding oft-repeated letters and deleting so many of the wonderful words that I have so carefully accumulated. Last month, incidentally, she also unfriended a dozen of my Facebook friends. Unfortunately, I do not know which ones and none of them have got back to me. Oh dear.
One of the students in my current course asked me when I started to write. The answer is that I do not know. I have always written. I guess I have written from a deep inner urge to understand myself and the world in which I live. Going to a series of boarding schools was also a key part in the relationship between me and my writing. I was six or seven when I first went to boarding school and every Sunday I was plonked down on a wooden bench and ordered to write a Sunday letter home to my parents. Oh the wails and the take-me-aways that issued from my pen only to be deleted by the school censors. As a result, from early on, I shaped letters for the censoring audience. I also wrote other letters and they became a part of my writing style and my need for self-expression.
Mikhail Bakhtin, in his theory of Chronotopos, speaks of ‘man’s dialog with his time and place’ and that is exactly what I do. I hold a dialog with the things happening around me in the particular place I find myself. Why do I write? To better understand my time, my place, and my own interactions with the world around me. Writing then is a means to an end and that end, for me, is self-understanding, self-betterment, and the better understanding of the world in which we all live.