Ever since leaving Walnut Creek Patch, I’ve been at this weird crossroads in terms of writing. I don’t know what to write about. I don’t know what I want to write about. That’s been the source of my confusion about what to do with this blog.
As I ponder the question, “Why do I write?” I’ve come across what two other writers have said, George Orwell and Joan Didion. These writers, who both wrote essays titled “Why I Write,” are far more famous and accomplished than me, and, of course, had the talent to beautifully articulate their own reasons for being writers. Many of their reasons don’t sound all that noble. But these reasons certainly ring true for me.
In her 1976 essay for New York Magazine—whose title she admits she borrowed from Orwell—Didion calls writing an act of “aggression” and “hostility”:
“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. Its an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and 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 writers sensibility on the readers most private space.”
But Didion also asserts—in a not very aggressive, hostile way—that her need to write is driven by curiosity, as well as a need to impose order on the chaos of life and of her thoughts. For her writing is a journey of discovery, both about the world and about herself:
"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."
Meanwhile, Orwell--one of the 20th century great thinkers, IMHO--says his desire to write stems from his lonely child’s habit of making up stories and of feeling “isolated” and “undervalued":
“I knew I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.”
Then Orwell comes up four great motives for writing, which exist to varying degrees in every writer. They are:
(i) Sheer egoism. "Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.
Orwell adds that most human beings are not acutely selfish. At some point, they grow up, become adults, and accept that they live l for other people. He argues that writers are vain and self-centered and “determined to live their own lives to the end.”
Later in the essay, he says that "All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy."
I can’t deny that’s the case with me.
Orwell continues with his three other great motives for writing:
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose: In this Orwell is using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. He talks about writing as a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”