Why I write. I stole the title of this piece from Joan Didion who stole it from George Orwell. “I write,” she confessed in her superb 1976 essay, “to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Much like Didion, I believe the purpose of writing is introspection- the page a place where we probe the unfathomable depths of who we are. Like a determined cartographer in a faraway land, when we write, we encounter and attempt to map our own topography: what do we yearn for? secretly lust after? what passions and predilections should we nurture? On the other hand, what are our aversions? what do we despise? abhor? In this way, writing is a means of getting back in touch with ourselves. An offhand remark about being bored at work might suggest we look for another job; a few casual confessions (“I really miss reading fiction…maybe I should pick up a few books at the library…” “God, I’m lonely…maybe I’ll call the girls for a spontaneous night out…”) almost always reveal the next right action we must take on behalf of ourselves.
The page is an intimate friend, a blank-faced confidante whom we can divulge our most private yearnings and doubts. But unlike confessing to a real-life friend, there’s no fear of ridicule. In fact, writing often puts us in touch with a more compassionate, wiser part of ourselves: “You and your boyfriend constantly bickering?” she might ask non-judgmentally, “What about? It sounds like some boundaries need to be drawn…” Or, “If you’re feeling cooped up and uninspired, maybe it’s time to leave the predictability of your hometown and go on that trip to Italy you’ve been saving up for…”
“I went to the page as others went to God,” New Yorker journalist Ariel Levy confessed in The Rules Don’t Apply, her gorgeously gut-wrenching memoir. I think all writers can relate to this sentiment. For us, the page is a supreme being, all-powerful and omniscient. Compared to the limited consciousness of us fallible mortals, the page possesses infinitely more wisdom. We write-particularly confessional, introspective works like letters and diaries- to access this boundless knowledge. We may not realize our marriage is broken but, slowly, steadily over the course of many years, our pages will reveal this truth to us. Anything we’ve been running from, anything we’ve been hiding from in real life will eventually be laid bare. Why? Because writing demands the truth. It’s impossible to come to the page day after day and not a) gain more clarity about who you are and b) confront some unsettling truths about yourself.
For me, the practice of writing has brought about countless revelations: that I love the poetic, aesthetic aspects of writing, for example, and am happiest when composing strings of beautiful sentences; that I have a self-destructive tendency to compare myself to others and secretly long to be envied and considered successful. On a more pragmatic level, writing has gently nudged me to rekindle old passions (reading fiction, savoring poetry, watching old 1950s films noir) and discover new hungers (to cook, to travel). Writing has helped to distill my life’s most vital lessons (don’t prioritize work over friends & family, remember idleness is just as important as productivity) and sort out difficult issues (periods of turbulence with my boyfriend, petty drama with roommates, feelings of insecurity and self-doubt in my relationships with people).
So why do I write? Why does anyone? We write to decipher the perennial puzzle of self.