Oh, the irony, the irony, of being asked to write a piece on Why I Write, when I’m not actually writing at all, and haven’t done for months.
I say ‘not writing,’ but I don’t actually mean Not Writing. Because I have been writing. I couldn’t not be writing. Only what I’ve been writing is not the kind of writing I should be doing, not what I want or need to write. That sounds like a mess of contradictions. It is.
Being a writer is like, mostly, not writing. Avoiding writing like the plague (delete clichéd simile). Doing anything and everything besides. Feeling a queer churned-up feeling, as continual as it’s inexplicable. Except you know it’s something to do with writing. Or not writing. Which amounts to the same thing. Mostly.
Why I write? George Orwell had it boiled down to four neat points (of course he did); none of them have anything to do with me, except perhaps his mention – in passing – of warring impulses. That comes quite close. OK. I can use that. I write because of warring impulses.
Motivations of women writers?
Here’s Sylvia Plath: ‘I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life. I can’t be satisfied with the colossal job of merely living. Oh, no, I must order life in sonnets and sestinas and provide a verbal reflector for my 60-watt lighted head.’
Zadie Smith? ‘Writing is my way of expressing – and thereby eliminating – all the various ways we can be wrong-headed.’
Flannery O’Connor: ‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.’
None of those apply to me. Harper Lee is possibly closer … ‘Any writer worth his (sic) salt writes to please himself … It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent.’
Discontent, yes. Mine probably not ‘divine.’
Ralph Ellison talked about ‘torturing himself’ to get the words down. He talked about being plagued by ideas that wouldn’t forget him, that wouldn’t let him alone.
That’s close too.
Little snippets of sentences that tug at your soul and pester you until you write them down and then when you’ve done that you’ve given them the life-blood they were craving and you’re wishing you hadn’t caved in to them because they’re wanting more and more of you and you know it’ll be a long time until they’re done …
Writing is a physical act, it’s corporeal, visceral; it’s a compulsion like any other bodily function and is resisted at some cost to the general equilibrium of the human organism. Yet, resisted it must be. Even when resistance causes anguish. Because resistance causes anguish. Both Writing and her ugly twin, Resistance, arise in and, in their turn, cause Anguish.
I was watching a video of the artist Louise Bourgeois the other day. She’s my favourite, and I’m really interested in her writings (short sharp observations, half-formed ideas open up whole new spaces, ‘the return of the repressed’ in mixed up French and English) as well as her sculptures and her drawings. Anyway, on this video she was holding court with a group of much younger artists in her apartment in New York. One of the students said something about being an artist as a torture. Louise Bourgois snapped back, emphatically, repeating herself, repeating: To be an artist is not a torment. It is a privilege.
For me, writing is torture and privilege. In the words of the late Leonard Cohen, It looks like freedom but it feels like death; it’s somewhere in between I guess.
The urge, the need, the compulsion, the practice, the inspiration, they go up and down, out of synch, apparently at random. A L Kennedy says fear’s the only thing you have to be afraid of, and yes, fear’s a motivator, and a brake on everything.
Writing a story: an image, an opening line or fragment, one or the other. Appears. Hangs around. Doesn’t go away. Hangs around insistently. Won’t let you forget it, even though you try to, even though you’d rather stick hot needles in your eyes than pick up a pen or open up the laptop. One day you’ll give in, and write it down. Which is fatal. There follows a slow staccato, something that makes you nauseous and anxious is stuttering and stumbling forward, you’re repeatedly falling over and landing on bruised knees. Then a point of no turning back. The character’s alive, their mission’s imperative. You’re turning yourself inside out, something’s being wrenched from out of your guts.
Like Kerouac, I don’t enjoy writing. I wish I did, but I don’t. I write because it’s some kind of compulsion that I don’t understand. A kind of instinct. Sort of a necessity. As is fighting the compulsion. That is also a necessity. The whole lot’s all mixed up and a mystery, essentially.
What I like is having written. Then I can say, yes, I write because it’s the only thing that makes me feel good about myself. And that is almost true.