Sunday, 18 September 2011

Why I Write - Writers (and Me) on Writing

This blog has been a long time coming. Why? Because it's important.  And here it is: Why do I write? Why do you write? Why do writers write exactly?

Is it to make a living - albeit a very random and penniless one? To provide a public podium for our frolicking imaginations? Because we're wordy and want somewhere to indulge our verbal acrobatics? To dictate to the masses? On a notion, a whim, a wish? To make ourselves heard? To have the last word?

Writing is not just a pastime, a hobby, or indeed a career. It's a passion. A pursuit against all odds of ordinary. Not the shallow stereotype of  scribbling and doodling and making up stories to entertain, it's more about engaging with the world, responding to it and creating. It's not trivial, it's powerful. 
It's hard to explain - exactly. There's a lot to it. I've tried to explain it to people and I can never seem to get across how important, essential it is. Most writers, serious writers, would say that they feel they have to write, that it's an inner essential need, as necessary as breathing. 

Granted, there are 'writers' who engage in the art of the pen for entertainment sake only. Those who engage in writing from time-to-time, a hobby. And on an echoing note, there seems to be a stereotypical consensus out there that writing is something you take up  only when older, as retirement recreation, like knitting. (I say this as it seems every writing group I've ever attended has been populated mainly with older members.) But why? Some of the greatest writers have been and are young writers. Those who have been passionate about the craft since they first put pen to paper in single digits. Today young writers are clearing the score-board - Zadie Smith for example and this year's mid-twenties Orange prize winner, Tea Obreht (and Cecelia Ahern, dare I say it, one of the wealthiest and youngest writers around, regardless of her chick-lit status). Wilfred Owen was only in  his early twenties when he wrote what is today considered some of the greatest war poetry ever.  Keats left a legacy behind him after his death at twenty-five. Seamus Heaney was peddling verses at school, as were the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen when she was just a young woman on the threshold of adulthood... Need I go on?

Anyway, back to topic - Why do I write? Not as a hobby. I have enough other hobbies. Reading is a hobby. But writing is not. Writing is more important than a hobby, more demanding, more purposeful. Writing is the career I'm chasing, but more than that too, it's also a fulfillment of a kind, of every kind. A fire that I've lit and tended to and if I let go out, I'll turn to ashes and embers in its wake. It's a need, a devotion, above all else.

And why do writers write? Margaret Atwood, one of my favourite writers is someone who has managed to express this 'need' for writing. She has been writing since her youth, as most great writers have been. In her book on writing  'Negotiating With the Dead', she examines the whole business of writing, the whys and whats and hows on a psychological level, and one memorable passage where she pieces together all the reasons for writing she has ever heard from writers of all shapes and sizes goes as follows:
'To record the world as it is. To set  down the past before it is all forgotten. To excavate the past because it has been forgotten. To satisfy my desire for revenge. Because I knew I had to keep writing or else I would die. Because to write is to take risks, and it is only by taking risks that we know we are alive. To produce order out of chaos. To delight and instruct (not often found after the twentieth century, or not in that form.) To please myself. To express myself. To express myself beautifully. To create a perfect work of art. To reward the virtuous and punish the guilty; or - the Marquis de Sade defense, used by ironists - vice versa. To hold a mirror up to Nature. To hold a mirror up to the reader. To paint a portrait of society and its ills. To express the unexpressed life of the masses. To name the hitherto unnamed. To defend the human spirit, and human integrity and honor. To thumb my nose at Death. To make money so my children could have shoes. To make money so I could sneer at those who formerly sneered at me. To show the bastards. Because to create is human. Because to create is Godlike. Because I hated the idea of having a job. To say a new word. To make a new thing. To create a national consciousness, or a national conscience. To justify my failures in school. To justify my own view of myself and my life, because I couldn't be a 'writer' unless I actually did some writing. To make myself appear more interesting than I actually was. To attract the love of a beautiful woman. To attract the love of any woman at all. To attract the love of a beautiful man. To rectify the imperfections of my miserable childhood. To thwart my parents. To spin a fascinating tale. To amuse and please the reader. To amuse and please myself. To pass the time, even though it would have passed anyway. Graphomania. Compulsive logorrhea. Because I was driven to it by some force outside of my control.  Because I was possessed. Because an angel dictated to me. Because I fell into the embrace of the muse. Because I got pregnant by the Muse and needed to give birth to a book (an interesting piece of cross-dressing, indulged in by male writers of the seventeenth century). To serve Art. To serve the Collective Unconscious. To serve History. To justify the ways of God towards man. To act out antisocial behaviour for which I would have been punished in real life. To master a craft so I could generate texts (a recent entry). To subvert the Establishment. To demonstrate that whatever is, is right. To experiment with new forms of perception. To create a recreational boudoir so the reader could go into it and have fun (translated from a Czech newspaper). Because the story took hold of me and wouldn't let me go (the Ancient Mariner defense). To search for understanding of the reader and myself. To cope with my depression. For my children. To make a name that would survive death. To defend a minority group or oppressed class. To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. To epose appalling wrongs or atrocities. To record the times through which I have lived. To bear witness to horrifying events I have survived. To speak for the dead. To celebrate life in all its complexity. To praise the universe. To allow for the possibility of hope and redemption. To give back something of what has been given to me. '

Phew! That's a mighty long list, but no doubt an accurate one, of both lowly and lofty reasons. Margaret Atwood herself, leans to the idea of writing as a way of lighting up the 'darkness.' She also notes the example of Samuel Beckett, who famously said that writing was all he was good for. And Flaubert, who said that you will always write the greatest for yourself, and not any audience.

Hmmm. So many different reasons, seemingly correlating to the literature status sought,  those with lowly ideals and those with lofty ones. Me? I write on an impulse, and electrifying urge.  Like Lord Byron, to clear all the clutter out of my head and onto the page where it becomes legible (lest I go mad in its cerebral  crowding and in-squabbling).  To define things: the world, states of emotion, truths, myself. 'To give to airy nothing a local habitation.'  Because I'm head-over-heels in love with language. Because I'd like to spend every spare moment  I have tinkering at the treasure of words and nothing else. Because it's a fire that needs to be fed. Because writing makes things matter.

Why do we write? As Rilke put so beautifully, in every serious wannabe-writer's handbook - 'Letters to a Young Poet - 'This above all - ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple 'I must', then build your life according to this necessity...'

And the answer is a resounding YES - for those of us who are serious about writing.  The lofty ones, the committed ones, the do-or-die ones. The ones who may have it tougher, struggle to make a writerly living, whose futures consist of garrets and solitary scribbling, who go to writer-groups for literary criticism not tea and chit-chat, who  painstakingly ponder on the meaning and magic of manuscripts, rather then churning out lite, bright, by the bundle bestsellers.  Oh well, we have the deep soul solace of words, where they merely skim the surface.

(Maybe I've left out some quotable writers on this million-dollar question, have I? Anyone out there able to quote some more?) Or better yet, add some new reasons to this treatise I've set out??  And you fellow lofty writers out there - share your aspirations! Now that I've laid down my gramophone, I'm all ears as always...

wondering and pondering and writing on,

~ Siobhán.


1 comment:

  1. To Whom it May Concern,
    I have now edited this post, removing any comments that may have been misconstrued or taken the wrong way, as has come to my attention.(But you know what they say, controversy sells!)
    Siobhán 20/9/11


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