“Why do you write?” In “Why I Write,” a tribute to George Orwell’s iconic 1946 essay of the same name, legendary journalist Joan Didion confessed with characteristic candor, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” When writer, journalist, and book critic Meredith Maran posed this perennial question to twenty of our era’s most acclaimed authors, including Jodi Picoult, Susan Orlean, Ann Patchett, Michael Lewis, and James Frey, she was astonished at the assortment of answers. Kathryn Harrison, whose incestuous memoir The Kiss shocked audiences around the world, said she loved writing because on the page she “could be most completely” herself and yet “totally relieved” of herself, a sentiment reminiscent of the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow and the Taoist idea of “wu wei.” Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan replied she wrote because writing was a magical mode of teleportation in which she could live countless other lives: “When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now…and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.”
Sometimes when I’m in a melancholy mood, this question becomes more existential: “What’s the point? Why write at all?” I wonder defeated as yet another year goes by without my publishing the Great American Novel. Which begs the question: why write if you never see your name in print? if you never win a Man Booker or climb the New York Times best-seller list?
Most writers dream of being praised by critics and enshrined in the literary canon, their books taught in English classrooms everywhere. Though we didn’t get into writing for fame and fortune exactly, most of us want to be heard. Writing without a reader seems as pointless as a magnificent orchestra playing for an empty room.
It is during these demoralizing moments that we must remember the real reasons we write. In her stirring 1938 classic If You Want to Write, journalist, editor, writing teacher, and generous spirit Brenda Ueland reminds us writing is a higher calling: we write to express love, to offer solace, to cherish transitory moments, to heighten our senses, to gain a richer, deeper understanding of ourselves and our lives— not for worldly glory or impressive bylines. With her trademark exuberance, she writes:
“And why should you do all these things? Why should we all use our creative power and write or paint or play music, or whatever it tells us to do?
Because there’s nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money. Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it. And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it; i.e. share it with others?”
So as we ring in 2022 with ceremonial champagne and confetti, resolve to express your creativity, regardless of whether doing so brings you renown or celebrity.
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