I had to teach a class the morning after election day, and knowing my students and myself I knew it wouldn’t work to discuss “Consider the Lobster” and talk about the uses of research in nonfiction. So I went to church in the morning to pray over what to do and I was reminded of George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” (PDF), and I thought, let’s talk about that.
I read it aloud and we talked about it. We talked about the election. We talked about the role of the writer in society. We talked about the role of the writer in the self. I asked students to write essays titled “Why I Write” and said that the only way to do this wrong is to be false about it. If you write to get revenge, write about that. If you write to explore erotic fantasies about your junior-high classmates, write about that.
I said, “And think right now. Why do you write right now? It’s not a contract you need to hold yourself to.”
I invited them to share the essays with me. A couple actually did. Here’s the one I wrote:
Why I Write
I am sitting in the chair I sit in in my living room and Neal is around the edge of the wall in the kitchen area and I have an idea for dinner. We should, I think, make frozen Chinese food. Neal, though, may have his own idea for dinner and it may be better than my idea for dinner. So I think that I should ask whether he has any ideas for dinner. I say it in my head: Do you have any ideas for dinner? I wait patiently until he comes back into the living room.
?Drrvnideusdurn?? I say, my tongue a slug in my dumb mouth.
?What was that?? he asks.
?Doyouhaveanyideasfordinner?? I repeat.
Once, in an election year summer, I was on a porch with a man telling me that my generation was going to bring about the end of the American Democratic Project. He and I were born within a decade of each other. I was trying to say that I wanted to vote for the candidate who inspired me the most, but he was telling me I had only one choice and that was to vote against the candidate he feared the most. He has, I think, been made afraid by messages and images he sees on TV and the Internet. I say instead, ?You?re, like, bullying me,? and I leave the porch.
Sometimes, certain words strung in a certain order have a kind of beauty to them. Here?s one I discovered and chewed over in my head for a while just last week: Help me not to feel that people feel that way about me. There is a feeling there, and an idea about the self and how the self is seen and maybe created by others, that I hadn?t known or understood until the words came to me in a rough but interesting order and I reshaped them into that sentence. The process of doing this is what I think of when I hear the word ?writing.? Writing isn?t just the record of thinking it is the mechanism through which I think, and what I have found over the last decade of doing it is that aesthetics?say, the careful attention paid to words? sounds and effects?can lead me to new truths.
This is ancient, this idea. It is at least Keatsianly ancient: beauty is truth and truth beauty. It has the pleasingness of facts and folk wisdoms and what I?ve for a long time erroneously called ?universal truth?, but it is only partially true, and at times dangerously untrue. There are many strings of certain words in certain orders that have a beauty to them on their own, but the problem with words is that they signify, and some beautiful words create lies, or obfuscate truths.
A not nefarious example: once, I heard on the radio a eulogistic essay for a newly dead coach. The man reading it was a longtime sportswriter. It ended with the line, “People talk about someone being a gentleman and a scholar. Well, he was a gentleman and a coach.” It had, I could hear, the sound and feel of a beautiful ending, but it said, in the end, nothing. The sportswriter let his beautiful language take over and get in the way of my understanding his subject.
Some beautiful words tell truths and some beautiful words tell lies. Why I write is to know the difference, and to use that difference to be understood. I speak and no one listens. I write it down and people know it to be true. That?s Rene Ricard. Replace ?know? in his second sentence with ?feel? and I begin to get a sense of why I write.