As titles go, Why I Write is near perfect. In three short words, it tells you everything to expect from the article and is so portable it has been “borrowed” by writers of all skills and genres across the years.
Like Dickens’ famous thief, the Artful Dodger, I stole the title from the novelist Joan Didion, who stole it from George Orwell.
Didion opens her 1976 incarnation of the Why I Write essay with her admission of literary larceny and love of the ‘I’ sound alliteration in the title. To close her study, Didion explains how she pictures her characters and the questions they are striving to solve, but doesn’t know how their story ends. Until she has written it. She says, “… had I known the answer to any of these questions, I would never have needed to write a novel.”
While Didion writes to discover what happens to her characters on the last page, I write to learn how we reach that coveted folio. In my mind, I can see the question that cracks the story open and the answer that closes it with a satisfying click, but how they connect is a mystery to me. Writing is how I traverse that unknown space between opening and predetermined resolution.
That’s not to say my conclusion is rigid and unchangeable. Rather than a stone tablet covered in permanent carvings, my conclusion is a living entity that transforms and moves like the majestic marble statues of Bernini or Michelangelo.
Trafalgar Square and an Ascension From the Underworld
Take the following as an example.
I plan to record and publish the journey from my home in America to Trafalgar Square in London, England. The article will end with me standing, arms raised in triumph, in the middle of Trafalgar Square – the National Portrait Gallery at my back and Nelson’s Column in front.
How I get there — plane, car, boat, train, or some combination of — is the unknown. How do my travel choices, anonymous until I make them, affect the last words in my telling of this Transatlantic tale?
Say I arrived at my final destination by train. I would alight at Charing Cross tube station and enter the square via its north corner. The National Portrait Gallery is to my right and the statue of King George IV to my left. But if I took a London Black Cab as my final mode of transport, I could find myself on The Strand, amid London’s congested traffic, and reach the square from the south. Nelson’s Column would be to my right, Whitehall and The Mall to my left.
Both options get me to the edge of Trafalgar Square, but neither place me in the exact spot I had envisioned at the start. Standing in the middle of the square.
What of the lost hours in cramped planes and stuffy London underground tube carriages? What of the underground’s ancient, wooden escalators that clank and shudder as they propel jaded travellers from the underworld to a bright and noisy topside? Were these travel experiences wasted?
Absolutely not! It simply shows my original conclusion isn’t the natural end to this story. A logical close could be my thoughts on the modes of transport we take as tourists and how they impact our enjoyment of the places we visit. The view from the specific co-ordinates is now for the reader to imagine. A much better conclusion.
This is why I write. To discover the delightful details in-between and learn how they lead from one idea to the next. The dystopian view of crammed tube trains and noisy escalators was born as I typed.
Purpose and the Mysterious Space Beneath the Bed
If I know all the details at the start, the magic is gone and there’s no reason to write. There is nothing new to discover.
Knowing all the details sounds like good planning – ask any project manager or civil servant – and I can see sense in that. Firing astronauts into space is one example that comes to mind. There exist authors who must analyze every scenario, every interaction, every worker bee before they commit their words to the page. I am not among them.
My mother would agree that my anti-authoritarian side prefers the back-of-an-envelope, open-to-interpretation style of plan, rather than a restrictive set of instructions.
“Did you clean your room?”
“What will I find when I look under your bed?”
I did clean my room, the visible space at least. The enchanted, hidden dimension, Underneath the Bed, was a loophole I often tried to exploit. I never succeeded. All I could do was complain in silence and write short stories of the injustices a seven-year-old must suffer.
Several of those pages have survived and lie amongst my other ancient writings, in an old shoe box. Historians would have fun, and a raised eyebrow or two, as they wade through the layers of rejection slips, hand-drawn Tolkein inspired maps, and notebooks full of random stories.
The jewel of the collection is an A4 book my father brought home from work with “Her Majesty’s Stationery Office” stamped on its dirty orange cover, alphabetized tabs along its leading edge, which holds a complete story plan and character biographies for an epic fantasy trilogy.
It is clear I had something to say. That my head was full of concepts that begged for articulation without which I would explode from frustration. I wrote because it was my purpose, because I had to.
The inspiration for my characters and the freedom their adventures offered is obvious: Michael Moorcock, Mervyn Peake, James Herbert, John Fowles, CJ Cherryh, David Eddings. The questions I drove myself to explore are familiar to many readers of these authors, and there is nothing original about how I posed them. What of Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, Law and Chaos, Fate and Chance? My answers, though, are mine alone. Committing my words and phrases and outcomes to paper was how I found peace.
Evolution and Early Endings
Yet there is one answer missing. The corresponding question, the most compelling of them all, is why did I stop writing? On this topic, the box is silent.
What happened to me during these dark ages without a written record? Was there a more daring adventure to be taken? Did I end up on the corporate hamster wheel, unable to hop off? Why did I follow the path so well-trodden it is visible from space when I was beginning to travel the path less taken?
The answer is a practical demonstration of adaptable endings.
In my teenage years, writing was all I wanted to do. Come early adulthood with its short hair, responsibilities, and a mortgage, I felt I had achieved everything I needed with my writing. Dog-eared notebooks, two unpublished novels, a sizable stack of rejection slips, was proof that I had tried to be a writer and given it a damn good go.
When the inevitable thumbs down came from the last literary agent, it felt like the right time to evolve from unpublished author to sensible, corporate cubicle dweller. It wasn’t the conclusion I had dreamt of during my teenage rebellion, but it was a natural one.
Now fast forward almost two decades. The most interesting event to take place in my missing years is about to happen in a second-hand bookstore in Pleasanton, California.
Bookshops and Dimensional Transcendentalism
In November 2018, during a business trip I didn’t want to take, I came across a store selling pre-owned books while looking for somewhere to eat. I have a recollection it was around nine in the evening when I discovered the shop, the only one still open at the end of a dark and rather boding strip mall. I clearly remember a mixture of thrill and surprise at finding this life-saving beacon I could escape in to.
I stepped inside…
The moment I crossed the threshold, my brain and hormones flipped from stressed and anxious, on the verge of burnout, to excited, optimistic, and energized. Emotions I hadn’t felt for a long time. It was as if I had returned to my spiritual home after losing my way in the wilderness.
I felt alive.
It was the most intense feeling, this bright fire in my veins that chased away the poison of depression. It was so transformational it verged on the supernatural. Imagine having only a few dollars to your name, creditors at your door, no food on the table. Tomorrow will be as bad as today. Which was as awful as yesterday. You watch the lottery draw on TV and realize… YOUR TICKET MATCHES ALL SIX NUMBERS ON THE SCREEN! Maybe this is how people feel on psychedelic drugs.
There was something for everyone in the little shop whose internal dimensions were far larger than its exterior. Dimensional transcendentalism is a common phenomenon among second-hand bookshops and Doctor Who’s Tardis. This shifting of physics helped explain how the store could contain such an abundance of authors on every shelf and table. Every question that life could ask had an answer waiting for a reader.
I was not alone in this magical place either, although I was the only patron grinning like an idiot, for among the sections and seating areas were people reading. These perusers and future purchasers were enjoying the works of authors, poets, journalists, and artists who had shared their knowledge and emotions with the world.
Seeing people holding these books, leafing through the pages, taking in the printed words, led to an epiphany. Writing was a legitimate use of my talents and energy. I was more than a tired body running to stand still on the corporate hamster wheel. I could be successful like these authors. The proof was unequivocal.
I gave myself permission to write.
I remember buying several books, found a fast-food joint, and rushed back to my hotel with coffee and a late dinner, desperate to write. Which I did until about three in the morning. I was so engrossed with transferring words from my feverish brain to my laptop I barely ate. The remains of the cold burgers became breakfast.
I wrote because my fingers could express the emotions my lips and larynx refused to.
Expansion and Adaptation
In the time since my awakening on a Californian winter’s eve, my reason for writing has changed. No longer dammed by the cubicle farm, the impetus has calmed from a cascade of ideas and emotions like the Niagara Falls to a more persistent flow like the Mississippi River.
My time as a graphic designer, programmer, and project manager all provide me with a deep pool of experiences to pull from. Much like the depth and width of the Mississippi.
I now write to help others by sharing my experiences.
This is where I differ from Joan Didion’s perspective that writing is all she can do, “… I have only the one ‘subject’, this one ‘area’: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am ‘interested’, for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would come out to hear me talk about it. ”
Where Didion lacked other fronts to report from, I am proud of my successes and lessons learned from my time in corporate-land.
Where I concur with Didion is in “the act of writing”. For me, it is the one area I am most comfortable in. Writing is my purpose. Which brings me back to how I felt in my late teenage years. Writing was my purpose then, too. Which shows you can stop writing, but you never stop being a writer.
What of George Orwell, Why Did He Write?
In the original Why I Write essay, Orwell says, “What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. 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.”
Orwell concludes, “I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and… humbug generally.”
Here, he reveals a foundational truth.
Regardless of the discipline, or the medium we use, we craft and curate and agonize over words because our purpose is to share an important message. No matter what that message may be.
Those of us who write do so because it allows us to be us.