In 1946, J.B. Pick and Charles Neil, editors of Gangrel magazine, published an essay by George Orwell called “Why I Write.” Orwell’s essay became famous, and when I first read it, it was a revelation, from his early life that shaped his mind, to his military service and early jobs that focused his point of view. His thoughts and opinions are, shall we say, bracing. So, whenever I want to think about why I spend so much time by myself in a small room, I look to see what other people who do what I do think about it.
The Aerogram Writers Studio published snippets on this topic from several well-known authors. One of my favorite quotes is from Octavia E. Butler, (June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006) an African-American science fiction author, who won both Hugo and Nebula awards multiple times and in 1995 became the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Butler said, “I just knew there were stories I wanted to tell.”
Gloria Steinem, a nonfiction writer, said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” I can relate to that!
Lots of writers seem to write to gain self-understanding. Flannery O’Connor has said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say,” and Joan Didion seems to echo this idea when she said, “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.”
Gao Xingjian, a novelist, playwright, and painter, was born in China in 1940, immigrated to France in the late 1980s (and became a citizen in 1998), and then won the Nobel Prize in 2000. He said, “Writing eases my suffering . . . writing is my way of reaffirming my own existence.”
And why does George Orwell write? He says the reasons, to one degree or another, are the same for all writers:
- 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….
- Aesthetic enthusiasm. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
- Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
- Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. [N]o book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
I know what writing means to me: I first began writing fiction a couple of years after what we’ve come to call 9/11, when I couldn’t shake the cloud that this event had cast over our lives. I thought, maybe if I wrote happy endings, that would help. And it did. Now I write because telling a story—and even writing a good sentence—gives me joy. I still want to create a happy ending, but now the process makes me happy, too.
Do you write? If so, why? As a reader, can you see the attitudes of these writers in their work?