Why I Write

WHEN ORWELL ADDRESSED this question in a 1946 essay, his answer actually mattered. My meditation on it is merely a private amusement.  The puzzle of the writer’s project, though, remains the same, whether considered publicly or privately: the world spins around, virtually everyone gets by without forming a written record of it, and, in the end, isn’t writing just holding up a mirror to things everyone already sees and copes with? Really, why bother?

I have my own reasons for writing, which I will come to in a moment, but first it is worth recalling Orwell’s motives. He wrote, he says, for four main reasons: (1) for sheer selfish pleasure, from the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death . . . “; (2) for  the aesthetic pleasures of seeing the world clearly and representing it in a good, interesting style; (3) to record history; and (4) for a political purpose, “to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.“

portrait-of-erasmus-of-rotterdam-writing-1523.jpg!LargeI think anyone who blogs must be cheered by Orwell’s first reason. No matter how private and retiring a person may seem, he wants and seeks human affirmation. This observation on the human condition, by the way, is one of Hegel’s deepest: even with basic needs fulfilled, Hegel wrote in the Phenomenology of Spirit, people will still struggle to the death over one thing—others‘ recognition of their dignity. The construction of whole political systems and  the production of all culture is rooted in this germ, the desire “to be talked about“ in a certain way. Agamemnon sailed for Troy, not to take back Helen, but to be known as the man who did it.

Of course I have no keen hope for an audience at the moment. For now, I am happy idling in the private theater of my mind, scibbling down my thoughts and relating them to things I’ve read in books. I must admit, though, that I wish for a day when half a dozen readers will fulfill my desire to “seem clever,” as Orwell modestly put it. I would feel silly denying this.

When I was a child I put together plastic models of tanks and jeeps. I did my best to finish them realistically, some days spending six straight hours at it, cutting, sanding, gluing, painting details the size of pinheads. Later I took up woodcarving, mostly of figureens. That pursuit was similarly obsessive. I could chip and chisel away for hours at a time, several days in a row. These days I find that writing satisifies the same impulse, the desire to sit at a desk and labor over accurate if ultimately inconsequential representations of things. I take pleasure in the effort despite its apparent futility.

Obviously I would not write if I thought it were entirely meaningless. The gardener gardens even if all his pretty plants will die in the winter. I suppose my pleasure is a similar one. Gore Vidal was once asked how he most happily spent his time, and he replied that life was at its best when he was “forming sentences.” This from a man who soldiered in a famous, just war, romped in the halls of national power as a child, learned to fly planes, socialized constantly with A-list celebrities, owned a home on the Amalfi Coast, and ate and drank like a king his whole life. Writing a good sentence, though, was what he liked best. There’s a lesson in that.

It brings to mind an observation by the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk on his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. “I write,“ he said, “because I love sitting in a room all day writing. . . . I write to be alone. . . . I write because it is exciting to turn all life’s beauties and riches into words.“ The solipsism of the writing experience appears to give no offence, as far as Pamuk is concerned, and in fact seems to be an essential part of its pleasure. The temptation of this happy loneliness, I am learning, seduces even a minimally talented writer. I find myself wanting to spend as many hours doing it as I did putting together models or carving wooden figures as a kid.

I also write because I am nearly incapable of small talk. Writing gives vent to the big stuff, which would come out in some other venue anyway. When Saul Bellow describes Leon Trotsky in The Adventures of Augie March, he has Trotsky exude a consciousness “of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms.” I find I am perpetually drawn to the same plane. Amusing myself in this grand manner, I realize, courts humiliation. I‘m more likley to come off as  a Wilkins Micawber than any of my heroes. But for better or worse, this is where I am naturally and comfortably engaged—searching for “the most important human words.”

I also feel that by writing I am helping build a society worth striving after, perhaps like the one Orwell wanted. I don’t mean that I am influencing minds, as he did. I mean that I am doing something intrinsically honorable and therefore good for the groups to which I belong. This sounds as immodest as it does purple, but I feel I can cash it out in humbler terms. Writing about literature somehow connects me to my best self, but it also reminds me I have duties to others that take precendence over my desire sit alone in a room and scratch out sentences.

In a beautiful, vaulting essay called “Political Ideals,” Bertrand Russell surveys the relationship between the cultivated self and the good society in these terms:

Political and social institutions are to be judged by the good or harm that they do individuals. Do they encourage creativeness rather than possessiveness? Do they embody a spirit of reverence between human beings? Do they preserve self-respect?

Despite the narrow egoism of the writing experience, I have never emerged from it with my sympathies hardened, my view of humanity narrowed, my creativity dulled, or my values cheapened. Indeed the hours I spend writing incline me sensibly toward the ideals Russell praises. One of the happiest discoveries of my middle age has been that the writing addiction, unlike its predecessors, seems to be good for me and possibly those around me.

Because the self is an essentially social thing—it learns from others, mirrors their traits, adapts to their wishes, stores images of their faces, and so forth– it is always changing according to the company one keeps. (It is also changing for other reasons, but this social aspect is the one that fascinates me.) We have no firm idea what the outcome of all the flux will be. I used to find this prospect a melancholy one, that individuals might lack a stable, enduring identity. Who are we, after all if not a determinate something? But over the years I have learned from literature to revere the indeterminacy wrought by the passage of time and others’ imprints on us. The Polish novelist Wittold Gombrowicz captures this consciousness wonderfully, and with appropriate irony:

I don’t know, truly, whether such things should pass my lips this day, but the stipulation—that an individual be well defined, immutable in his ideas, absolute in his pronouncmetns, unwavering in his ideology, firm in his tastes, responsible for his words and deeds, fixed once and for all in his ways—is flawed. . . . Our element is unending immaturity.

The most esoteric reason I write is to record the shifting locus of self as it takes  Gombrowicz‘s journey.

Finally, Like Orwell I also hope my writing will help preserve my legacy after my death. Though I lack a reading public, my children might read some of these words and find them interesting. Of course I hope for more than that. I hope they will read the books I read, and that their designs for a better world might take shape from the same ideas that held me in thrall. In Pamuk’s list of reasons for writing, he strikes this sacred note: “I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else.” My religion is the same one. Though I am not writing literature, but only the humblest, most laughable footnotes to it, I still write for exactly the same reason, because I believe in the novel and its power to illuminate life. How many children can say for sure that they know what their parents really believed in? Mine will.



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