Why I write…
No one writing in English could possibly take up the question, “Why I write,” without referring to George Orwell, who wrote a famous essay by the same name. I admire Orwell’s ability to see things as they are, independently of ideology or prejudice.
When George Orwell answered the question “Why I write?” he said:
“I knew I had a facility with words and a power for facing unpleasant facts.”
I can say the same, although I could leave out “unpleasant” and just say, I have a capacity to face facts, or so I like to believe. One reason I write is because I think someone has to set the record straight on some things. I believe you must decide what you really think about something and not just use words and expressions that you have heard before. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell talks about freight trains of language that arrive with ready–made sentences with words coupled together like box-cars. Our public dialogue is like a railroad terminal with trains with box-cars endlessly coming in and out, made up of ready-made phrases which have been said before. To discover anything meaningful, I think you must try to say something that you have not read anywhere before and say it in your own words. And to do that, you have got to think what you really mean and mean what you say. And that’s the purpose of writing.
But why do I write?
I can never understand something as fully as when I have written about it.
Sometimes when something difficult happens to me, I spend all evening writing about it, and I don’t necessarily show what I have written to anyone – it’s just for my own benefit. By the time I’m ready to go to bed, I may be exhausted but often I feel I’ve mastered the experience and overcome the unhappy feelings I’ve had about it. Writing works wonders for that. It takes longer than taking a pill, but in the long run, it’s better for you.
I find life endlessly interesting and I like writing about it.
I like to write about real life, the sometimes sad, often funny things that happen every day that many people might not notice. Telling a true story gives a writer the chance to take a memory which is a mixture of pain and joy and seawater, and make it into something fresh. It is like the oyster in Kazantzakis when he says we should take the long road, and imitate the great oriental oysters as they turn their grains of sand into pearls.
Writing is like having a second life
You have the experience once, and then you have it again when you write about it, and the two experiences are different, so you actually live through something a second time.
I also like to laugh and to make others laugh, and I do that sometimes by writing about funny and quirky things that happen to me.
Writing gives me a chance to be merciless.
I think I’m generally a forgiving person, but there are some things I don’t have much time for. These are pretentiousness, small mindedness, and knee-jerk conventional wisdom, the kind that is more conventional than wise. Writing gives me a chance to be merciless in attacking these things. The power to express myself freely makes me able to take a swipe at those things that stand in the way of discovery and authenticity. I think that’s an appropriate use of power.
I enjoy hooking an unexpected word inside a sentence.
I don’t knit, but if I did, I think I would enjoy knitting the way I enjoy hooking an unexpected word inside a sentence. Then, much farther on, I may find a chance to repeat something I have already said. I do that intentionally so that the repetition comes out like a repeated visual motif in a sweater.
It takes courage to write and even more to rewrite.
Sometimes everything fits into place, but sometimes you have to undo row after row and unravel everything you’ve done and start over again. That takes real courage—it is easier to keep on trying to make it work, hoping against all hope that it will, when you know in your heart that it won’t. When you undo everything, you get a feeling of resolve, then relief and renewal. But to rewrite you’ve got to have enough faith in yourself to let go and look away for a while, maybe for days. Then when you go back you can see it afresh and get a new start. But to do that, you’ve got to give up the illusion that it was good the first time, and you have to have the courage to believe that even if you wrote something that was not good, you are not bad in yourself.
It makes all the seemingly futile things I have to do worthwhile.
Going to the motor vehicle bureau in New York or the tax-office in Syros are both boring tasks. But each of these places is a scene, potentially as interesting as the Customs House in Salem, Mass, which Nathanael Hawthorne wrote a whole chapter about. Even if I never describe the motor vehicle bureau or the Syros tax office in anything I write at least I’ve seen them. And I wouldn’t really have seen them or paid attention to them, if I wasn’t a writer.
I like finding the missing word and fitting it in.
Sometimes, not very often, I can spend hours thinking of the word I want, using a dictionary, a thesaurus, and now Google-translate. It’s a bit like doing the crossword, though I think actual writing gives you something more to show for your efforts than the crossword. But something about them is the same – putting a word into a line so that it fits.
Writing is a way to make use of some of my experience before I die, like giving money to charity.
If I were not a writer, I wouldn’t know what to do on a winter’s evening in my house when I’ve had dinner. I would surely not have spent most of the evening writing an essay about why I write and enjoyed myself doing it.