Most years when we’re on the threshold of a new year, I don’t think about resolutions I probably can’t keep. But I do contemplate my life as a writer as I put aside prior works and enter a new ever changing writing landscape. I ask myself what I will write about and worry that I will not honor my annual resolution to return to revising my novel. I consider the fact that occasionally people are offended when I am being political in my commentaries, and I will likely continuing doing so.
This year I was inspired by George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984, to ask myself the question the renowned writer asked himself: Why do I write? Where does the compulsion I have to put words on paper originate? Do my words, thoughts, and ideas matter? I found some answers in Orwell’s notable personal essay, “Why I Write,” written at the end of his life.
Like Orwell, I knew from an early age that I loved writing, reading, and rolling words around in my mouth but I didn’t know until I was ten that I wanted to be a writer. At that tender age I went to the “Five and Dime” store to buy the biggest pad of lined writing paper I could find. When the saleswoman asked why I wanted it I said, “Please don’t laugh at me. I want to write a book.” She smiled so I told her I already had the plot in my mind. At thirteen I submitted a Christmas poem to The Saturday Evening Post magazine. It was rejected but I still think it was a good poem.
As I grew older my fantasy life involved story ideas including pot-boiler romances, poems of people and place, and serious thoughts about life as I observed and lived it. In high school I loved writing essays, and I loved words, thanks to some fine, challenging teachers. Words were music to my ear, and I took profound pleasure in picking the right ones to express myself.
I was a bit of a truth teller by then and I had a growing propensity for standing up to authority when I thought those in power were wrong. I built a case in my head, choosing my words carefully, delivering them verbally or in writing with visible effect. Then I described the events with meticulous accuracy and a dose of drama to my friends. Just as Orwell wrote in his essay, “I wanted to write detailed descriptions and arresting similes …in which words were used partly for the sake of their sound.” I also wanted my words to make a difference in how I, and others, were treated by authority figures.
Orwell believed that there were four main motives for writing: Egotism, Aesthetic enthusiasm (“the desire to share an experience one feels is valuable in words and their right arrangement”), Historical impulse (“the desire to see things as they are”), and political purpose (“the desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s ideas of the kind of society that they should strive for.”)
These four motives resonate mightily for me. I saw myself in all of them, including ego. Most writers want to be noticed, praised, and remembered posthumously. But it is Orwell’s other three motives that helped me know why I write. It’s because I believe I have something worthy to say, in my own voice, not only in commentaries and personal essays, but also via fiction, poetry, and memoir, all of which expose and grapple with human experience. The feedback readers share with me when they aren’t offended by my political perspective is a form of validation, and a gift that keeps me doing it, Also, I can’t not do it. It’s a way of being part of the human family, and it’s in my DNA. Like Orwell, my starting point is almost always “a sense of justice.” And like him, I “suffer the struggles of being a writer, driven by some demon which one can never resist.”
The writer Joan Didion also wrote about why she writes after reading Orwell’s essay. She famously said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” In short, she is saying “How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve written.” Like her, writing gives me clarity as well as enormous relief when I am struggling with daily reality or existential challenges.
Didion asked, “What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we don’t want to know?” Photographers like Diane Arbus and Dorthea Lange answered that question visually. Like other writers who view the world through lenses of human frailty, foibles and promise, I write my way through the challenges they present, not only for myself, but for others too. I’m sure I will be compelled to do it to my dying day.
# # #
Elayne Clift writes from Brattleboro, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com