Last week I crossed an important literary threshold – I went to the Hay Festival for the first time (twice)! If you love books and ideas then there probably isn’t a better place on the planet to spend time.
While there I went to Radio 3’s recording of “The Essay” – three writers talking about “Why I Write” (the title of George Orwell’s 1946 essay). I confess I mostly went along because it was free, filled a useful gap in my talk schedule and I was interested to hear Frank Cottrell Boyce (a screenwriter and children’s author). BUT it turned out to be one of my favourite events and I was equally enraptured by all three, very different, speakers.
I’d recommend listening to the talks while they’re available – each is less than 15 minutes and all are spellbinding in their own way. The take-home message I got from each was – Horatio Clare writes to give “truthful testimony”; Gillian Clarke “to remember”; and Frank Cottrell Boyce wasn't sure it was possible to pin down why a writer writes (although I’m sure he’d agree with the reasons in this post!). Every writer’s reason for writing will be personal, but there’s also plenty of overlap.
In his essay, George Orwell suggested four reasons why writers write (sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose), but I think he also nails a more fundamental reason:
“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.”
One reason I write is because there’s something I want to say – usually an idea or a subject that isn’t being talked about or isn’t being expressed in the way I’d like to express it. I want to communicate – to understand and be understood. There’s a story in my head that I want to – that I have to – tell and give the characters their voice.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou
If I didn’t write then the stories and voices would still be playing out in my head (non-writers will think that hearing voices in your head sounds crazy, writers will understand!). They’d drive me mad. For my sanity I have to write them out, knowing that in all likelihood more will step up to fill the quiet space they leave.
Predominantly though, I think I write because I can’t not write:
“I tried to abandon this idea [of being a writer], but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.” George Orwell
I’ve not only been considering the question of Why I Write because of “The Essay”, but also because I’ve hit a real low point with my writing and it’s important to remind yourself at times like that why you do something and why you should keep doing it. There’s no major reason for this literary depression and it’s a very common occurrence with writers. It’s possible that the last two weeks have burnt me out as they’ve been particularly full-on with a huge amount of rewriting, editing and meeting of submission deadlines for editorial surgeries, agent 121s and critique groups. I’m supposed to be having this week off from writing to recuperate.
Yet I just can’t stop myself! I write this blog post. I note a detail in a film and realise I have to improve a description in my WIP. I hear a song that echoes the feelings of my two protagonists and I have to add it to my Spotify playlist. I walk in the woods and imagine more details of the middle-grade story that’s percolating in the back of my mind.
I am a writer. It’s my true nature. I cannot get away from it. I think in conversations and stories constantly. I imagine multiple dramatic scenarios leading off from one trigger point, much to the amazement and amusement of my family.
That doesn’t mean I’m a good writer though. Indeed, I’m the least qualified person to assess that. Everything I write may come to nothing. I have to accept that and continue to write just because I love it. Frank Cottrell Boyce also mentioned the huge uncertainty and risk of writing, which doesn’t tend to happen in other professions:
“You don’t undertake building a bridge thinking “maybe no one will want to use this bridge”.”
When a writer writes, they put their heart and soul and months/years of their life into something that may never be read, or read widely, for many reasons.
In his essay, composed after the publication of “Animal Farm”, George Orwell said:
“I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.”
He did go on to write another novel. It was called “1984”.
Writers never know what’s coming. It could be dazzling success or unmitigated failure. At the end of the day, I write because it’s a compulsion and addiction. I can fight it, but I can’t ever win the battle. And so I write…