Why Bother to Write? Part III

Don’t be afraid to spend all you have.

Why bother to write? After reading my last piece in this series, my friend Drew Bratcher pointed me to some of the greats who have addressed the question. Their responses are telling and worth considering at length.

Let’s begin with an excerpt from an essay by George Orwell, appropriately titled “Why I Write”:

“My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

The end of Orwell’s essay, however, finds him verging on cynicism:

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”

Three decades later, Joan Didion began her essay of the same name by admitting she stole Orwell’s title because she liked the sound of the words. She then acknowledges the arrogance that seems to be innately embedded in the act of writing:

“In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

Orwell’s and Didion’s essays fascinate me because they are so opposed to each other. Orwell begins with a moral imperative: a sense that there are injustices and lies that must be exposed. For him the art of writing, the power of a well-crafted narrative, is the necessary vehicle to communicate this. (Incidentally, history has proven Orwell was right. His critiques of the political maladies of his day endure unlike few other works because of their literary value.) And yet he can’t shake the feeling that a demon of vanity and selfishness is really what keeps driving him and the rest of his writerly ilk to the page.

Didion, in contrast, goes on to say that she writes chiefly as an exercise of self-understanding: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

She writes precisely because she isn’t an ideas person, because she doesn’t know the answer to so many of the questions that pop into her head. Reflecting on the creation of her novel A Book of Common Prayer, Didion writes, “Who was Victor? Who was this narrator? Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”

I can relate to both Orwell and Didion. The open page is a great way to make a forceful case for your beliefs, to expose the truth. It can also help the writer process almost any unresolved human experience: curiosity, a sense of injustice, grief, joy, fear, hope, doubt . . . the list goes on.

But perhaps it goes on too long. Terry Tempest Williams has a wonderfully long list in this vein (again, titled “Why I Write”) of more than 70 reasons why she keeps putting pen to page. Every one of them is profound, but toward the end of her list she starts falling into a panicky despair:

“I keep writing and suddenly, I am overcome by the sheer indulgence, (the madness,) the meaninglessness, the ridiculousness of this list. I trust nothing especially myself and slide head first into the familiar abyss of doubt and humiliation and threaten to push the delete button on my way down, or madly erase each line, pick up the paper and rip it into shreds.”

Probe too deep into your own motives and you find Didion’s bullying tactics, Orwell’s demons or, in my case, deep insecurities. It’s back to square one — the abyss of doubt, meaninglessness, and humiliation. Is there any way out? Any way to escape paralysis?

Williams finds the will to keep writing in the risky business of love and the hope of intimacy.

I write because it is dangerous,” she says, “a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient.

Here I find the beginnings of another good reason to fill the open page: write out of love.

Like Didion, I’m haunted by the fear that writing is aggressive, invasive, and hostile to the reader. But what if we inverted the question? Even more haunting than egoism is the possibility that a refusal to write is itself an act of selfishness. Could it be that the greater sin is not the hubris that accompanies what is written, but the timidity and the miserliness that causes words to go unwritten, the audacity to bury your talent in the ground?

Annie Dillard suggests as much in The Writing Life:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this,” she says, “spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now . . . Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Dillard is calling the writer to live with a creative selflessness, to write out of an affection that seeks the good of others. It’s a noble charge: give freely and abundantly, spend it all, empty your cache. For whatever you do not give, whatever you do not attempt, will be lost to the world and in the end even to yourself. Approach the work with fear and trembling, yes, but do not shrink back from what could be.

Let us not become the subject of W. H. Auden’s poem “Postscript:”

You hope, yes,
your books will excuse you,
save you from hell;
without looking sad,
without in any way
seeming to blame
(He doesn’t need to,
knowing well
what a lover of art
like yourself pays heed to),
God may reduce you
on Judgment Day
to tears of shame,
reciting by heart
the poems you would
have written,
had your life been good.

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