Across the world are writers sat, pen clutched in hand, confronted with the big question: why am I doing this? Whether a teenager drafting a journal or a grandmother chronicling her memories, the question 'why' will never surrender an answer. By exploring famous responses to the big question, Sarah Wingfield presents various ideas that can aid the individual writer ascend that disheartening creative wall blockading the path to inspiration.
It is a debate that takes us back through a wealth of literary figures who, surrounded by a world of words and possibilities – stacks of their own books and papers – have asked and have wondered how it is that they sat down one day and decided to write. George Orwell suggests that we write in an effort to “seem clever”. That we egotistically write, essentially, out of a fundamental need to be accepted and to be heard. It is a vanity in which we may revel, rise up and live life to its ends. The books produced, are books that sing the songs of a lonely childhood and a desire for an aestheticism that touches something deeper. An aestheticism that removes one from the tedium, destroys and reassembles: irrevocably changing the world as we’d known it. But to Orwell writing is also the expression of a need to perceive beauty as more than viscerality divorced from experience. Writing is about connecting the ephemerality of perceptions with something tangible and perhaps temporally indestructible.
Indeed, there is something empowering is there not, to write - in raw black letters - the truth of something. To express it in Times New Roman, to hold it close: a talisman, a promise and a whisper of reassurance to be relied upon when the rain falls and obliterates the landscape.
Indeed, the writer who externalizes the internal is one who basks in an overwhelming sense of self understanding by embracing the need to relinquish those fixed ideas of self. The self becomes fluid. It surges and withdraws from the minds and bodies it creates, and without warning takes on new identities, names and vocations. Emily is Cathy, but she is also Heathcliff, Linton and no one at all. She is powerful in the world she creates, even if, in the real, she is a seamstress, a sister, no more than a simple housekeeper.
But of the writer, Orwell wrote something further, something – perhaps – less clinical. In the conclusion of his 1946 polemic ‘Why I Write’, he confessed that: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. And one would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand”. His demon is hard to pin down. Undoubtedly it was a sense of political and ideological injustice just as much as Emily, Charlottes and Anne’s demons were those of disenfranchised women.
Yet Orwell’s demon – the monkey on the back of all those who write – cannot be exacted into such simplistic historical and social assumptions. The Modernists – Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Woolf – were haunted by the ghosts of war and the living ghosts of wars to come. But they were also haunted by a demon who asked them to write the world over: to make it a knot to be unpicked, a puzzle to be reordered and made new.
Remember the voice of Plath’s Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, the voice of a young woman; a writer who wanted “to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life”, the writer who realised, desperately, that she was “horribly limited”. Think of Michael Cunningham’s Richard Brown in The Hours. Richard who “wanted to write about everything, the life we're having and the lives we might have had”. Richard who “wanted to write about all the ways we might have died”.
The demon who haunts the writer then, is one who suggests things could be different, is one who flies in the face of the failures that have come before it. It is one who allows us, momentarily, to forget – as we sit at our desks – the books that “did not change the world”. For the writer hopes “more than anything” for more: to be more, to achieve more and to write something fundamentally more profound than his predecessors. As writers we long to reach out and touch that which cannot be touched, and however many times we fail, we dust ourselves off, pick up our pens, “live our lives, do whatever we do…sleep”. “Heaven only knows why we love it so”, but we do.
In her own words:
Sarah is an English major at Haverford College, Pennsylvania. She is 21 and originally from Cambridge, UK. One day she hopes to become a professor of literature, and if she is very lucky, a full time poet.