At an event I once hosted, I asked the assembled writers this question. Besides the “practical ordering of my reality” type of answer, there were also some surprises. One woman had been a classical singer, but failed, and needed to embark on something else having to do with language. One man said, “I write to talk about what I read”—equally unassuming. I began to think that it would be much more stimulating to know why certain writers wrote than to engage with anything they had written, especially fiction or poetry—two ultimate forms needing years of practice. It’s debatable who said “everyone has a book in them,” yet the second clause of that sentence, as uttered by Christopher Hitchens, is concretely dismissive of the first: “but in most cases, that’s where it should stay.” Who would have thought there were so many writers, that oodles would have the calling—many thanks to the internet? Now there is no barrier to that fusty adage, but it might be better to say this: everyone has some opinions in them.
So many of the famous statements of intent have to do with a sense of outrage at the world. George Orwell put it like this: “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.” Here’s William H. Gass: “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” But anger doesn’t always carry the muse. Flannery O’Connor: “I don’t know what I think till it is written, which is as good as the answer, the writing itself.” Certainly John McPhee doesn’t write out of a sense of outrage, but rather a hope for new discoveries and by not being bored by anything in the world. But if you poll writers not as accomplished as these—those struggling, or even struggling to wring royalty checks out of their small press publishers—many reasons fog up the glass containing them, but the underlying reason they write is a desire for attention. People want to be heard. One writes to be counted, even to be counted higher than others. Outside of gabbing, writing is the most respected and inflammatory pastime, though certainly less well compensated—it generates a conversation between ourselves and others without the need for another person to be there. And if we are writing to be counted, it is inevitable that there is a lot of discounting going on. Society is uneven, a few have too much, and too many have too little. How do we square this? Everyone knows life is unfair, but bringing a little beauty into the world is a small progressive step.
Why write today? Plasticity is at issue. The fakery of life. All the phonies out there—Holden Caufield’s famous refrain that so many people identify with. This is perhaps our first biting teenage thought as we start to see significant holes in the people who rule our lives. Phonies still exist, especially with the creation of online personae, which are sometimes completely the opposites of the people who make them. Have we lost our bullshit detectors with the drive toward ego or are we just more deluded than at any other moment in history? Is it now all right to give people a free pass on all hypocrisies as long as they sidle in step with political correctness and celebrity worship, two of contemporary letters’ most redoubtable genuflections? Why would people want to write, daring to add to the myriad pap and smear of floppy dramatics and weak sentences? Even some of the world’s better-known writers, who are celebrated by reviewers, the bulk of whom function as publicists, have aged to eschew the mark. Of those sources I quoted, only Gass lived long enough to see so much more that he amended his “hate” answer, 35 years later—though it is never quoted, probably because it wasn’t published in the Paris Review, but merely spoken on a podcast called Word Patriots: “I certainly don’t write for money, or for glory. … All sorts of writers receive that, but they have written worthless books. I and any other writer who is serious shall die not knowing whether you’ve wasted that much of your life in a fruitless pursuit or whether you’ve achieved fame and actual immortality, but you’re dead for that.” Immortality and death make attention-seekers uncomfortable because each is too immense a concept, dwarfing all the transitory tweets, gibes, gabs, and self-love that wash away with every new wave of the same. Similarly, John Berryman’s advice to W.S. Merwin, which the latter transformed into the art of a poem:
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
I think many people write because it is therapeutic and it is used to therapeutic ends, i.e. writing a letter to a dead parent with whom there are unresolved issues. Writing encompasses language, which encompasses our minds, defining everything from our psychology to our morals, answering the question What do we want? with our only means: our words. If clothes make the man, words do also, but not always truly, depending on the person interested in them. Many abusers are seducers. Many misspelled and misused sets of words can pop out courtesy of some famous celebrity, athlete, or politician, yet people will always admire him or her for their “game.” If photography, and even “selfies,” but really “selfishes,” are becoming the new parameter of being human, it still is the case that, deep down, photos of us and photos of beautiful sunsets with us in them say very little about who we are. They are a dime a trillion dozen. Only words are a direct bloodline to our soul, and this is probably the reason for the equivocations of “everyone has a book in them.” Everyone has words in them. Many sentences, too. I love you. Many of us often say it or write it in different languages. Diaries and forms of diaries are still important, especially the brief entries typed into social media. People kill and commit suicide over words, owing to their content.
Where does all this leave us? There can be no conclusion except that writing, aside from speaking, is the most human activity. It expresses like no other substance can. We need to be heard, and many people, even more now with the plethora of social anxiety disorders (most named in conjunction with the creation of the PC), can’t speak to others for fear, embarrassment, or simple isolation. When we answer why we write, we reveal more about ourselves than we know. It is the intimacy available to so many who have no-one, or who have chosen written words to have their say. We write because we hate and love. It is a sacred act connecting us to distant civilizations and all the minds in history. Maybe I should write, “Y rite?” It is a magical act, no matter the misspellings.
Excerpted from Greg Gerke’s See What I See, available today from Splice.