Why I Write
I once took a workshop with Marge Piercy, a prolific poet and novelist who told the participants to become writers only if they could not do anything else. The double meaning was not lost on me. All of you writers out there, raise your hands if you are lousy office workers and/or got sick of being undervalued as adjuncts. And let’s hear from those who found yourselves drawn to your journals, your laptops, your typewriters, hell, to scrawling on scraps of paper, the backs of envelopes and unpaid bills, just so you wouldn’t lose it: that thought, that image, your mind.
I took the title of this essay from Joan Didion who took it from George Orwell and if this is rather lofty company, it is good company indeed. Most writers are enchanted with reading early on and perhaps we want to be the ones who create – or recreate as the case may be – the worlds in which we and others live. Toni Morrison said she wrote the books she wanted to read. I am writing the one I can’t escape.
Didion presented the writer as an egotist and a bully who thinks one’s words are important enough to share. Orwell wrote that all writers are “vain, selfish and lazy.” And yet Didion wrote to learn what she thought, and to satisfy her wide-ranging curiosity.
Oddly, for a while, I could not read when I was in the middle of writing because I got the writer’s voice mixed up with my own. That is no longer a problem. My voice is strong enough to resist the lure of even the best writers and if it is not, well there are ways we writers learn to use that and still maintain our own integrity and identities.
Orwell wrote initially out of loneliness but continued out of love of language, political awareness and a sense of duty: “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 hear-ing.” Their attributes belie the portraits they paint of the writer as artist. These are not just egotists and layabouts – no one worked harder or more seriously to get at the truth than these dedicated people. Agree with them or not, like their work or not, these were disciplined, engaged and engaging people.
Interestingly, Didion almost didn’t graduate college because she had not taken a class in Milton, whereas Orwell at sixteen delighted in Milton, even down to the way he spelled the word “he” with an extra e. I had a professor who fascinated me by spending an entire class on the first sentence of Paradise Lost and who got me to read just about everything Milton wrote, even if I barely understood it. The professor liked me because I argued that Samuel Johnson had said that Milton was the kind of writer whose books sat on your table, you needn’t bother to open them. I said that not because I believed it but because that was the kind of wiseass I was.
Like Didion, I am curious and like Orwell, I am lonely. Like both of them, I feel the world isn’t quite right if I haven’t written about it. In this society, very few people, including apparently writers themselves, will encourage you to pursue writing, certainly not as an occupation, and barely as a preoccupation. Still, I do it. I can do nothing else.